CINCINNATI -- Markeema McMillan is doing something people have doubted she’d be able to do her entire life.
McMillan is a foster youth and a byproduct of the Hamilton County foster care system.
Despite the best efforts of the employees and workers of the county system, foster youths often struggle through the education system.
National statistics for foster children who turn 18 and "age out" of the system are not encouraging. According to the Pew Commission on Children in Foster Care report (2004):
- 58 percent complete high school compared to 87 percent of the general population
- 3 percent earn college degrees compared to 28 percent of the general population
- 25 percent are incarcerated within the first two years of "aging out"
- 20 percent become homeless
"People didn't believe in me, they told me I wouldn't graduate from high school," said McMillan, a student at the University of Cincinnati.
Refusing to become victims and to societal expectations, McMillan and several of her peers have benefited from the resources provided by the Higher Education Mentoring Initiative, or HEMI . The organization works to “affect positive change as … students continue on the path to adulthood” by encouraging foster youth to pursue post-secondary education through mentoring.
Within weeks of Hamilton County Commissioner Greg Hartmann taking office in January 2009, he worked with Hamilton County Job and Family Services to design and implement the HEMI program.
The group works with people like McMillan who’ve aged out of the Hamilton County Foster Care system.
“By pairing foster youth with mentors, HEMI is improving the safety net available to these students after they turn 18 and emancipate from the county’s care,” said Moira Weir, director of Hamilton County Job and Family Services and a founding partner of HEMI.
HEMI mentors volunteer to serve as long-term educational consultants and are committed to providing support for youth throughout their high school education and beyond.
Mentors take on duties such as helping students with homework, guide them through making educational decisions and generally encouraging the students to work toward their educational goals.
They also help them with tasks such as finding housing.
Mentor Kelly Winters says it’s imperative to support foster youths who have unique challenges that put them at a disadvantage against many of their peers.
"They're on their own and they've got all the adult responsibilities too so it's really a challenge for them. And any support we can give them will help them,” Winters said.
McMillan said her time working with the people at HEMI has helped boost her self-esteem and made her believe earning a college degree is a possibility.
"(Being a foster youth) made me have low self-esteem, but now I look at it as motivation," McMillan said.
Each of the 45 participants have graduated from high school. That’s a 100 percent success rate since it started in 2009. Most have gone on to pursue some form of higher education, according to HEMI officials.
One of the organization's early success stories is Mariah Maxwell.
She was HEMI’s first college graduate. In fact, she earned two degrees in three years.
Now Maxwell working toward her Master’s degree in Criminal Justice at the University of Cincinnati.
In addition to her individual successes, Maxwell serves as an inspiration to many foster youths. Seeing what Maxwell has accomplished inspired McMillan and other young people in the program to believe they can do great things as well.
"I tell myself every morning that I can do it and I have a purpose," said McMillan who credits much of her positive outlook to HEMI and its staff.
While McMillan is the first to thank HEMI for all its given to her, the organization wants to give something back as a way to congratulate her for all she has accomplished.
Thursday night, McMillian will be honored with a $20,000 academic scholarship at the HEMI Holiday and Scholarship Dinner. She’s one of 11 recipients of the award.
In total, five high school seniors and six students currently enrolled in post-secondary institutions will receive the scholarships will take place at 6 p.m. at the Kingsgate Marriott Conference Center. Scholarship awards will be presented to recipients at 7:20 p.m.
“These scholarships are another tool to help further HEMI’s mission of encouraging and supporting foster youth in their pursuit of a college degree or job training,” said Hartmann.
Hartmann raised the money for the scholarships privately through the annual HEMI “Run for the Roses” Kentucky Derby fundraiser. Funds also came through a grant by AT&T.
McMillan is grateful for the scholarship and all the help she has received.
But she doesn't want to stop at gratitude. McMillan says she wants to use the opportunity HEMI is providing her to better the lives of other people.
She plans to be a social worker when she graduates.
"I know what it's like to not have help. It just makes me feel good when I help people. It's my
passion, I just feel like it comes naturally," McMillan said.