Earning A College Degree is an Elusive Dream for Most Former Foster Youth: Renald’s Story

Story by Mollie Neal
Photography by Heather Walsh

Renald is a quiet, soft-spoken 22-year-old living in his first apartment and attending college. Adjusting to independence and adult responsibilities can be challenging for any young person, especially if there is no immediate family or mentor to turn to for guidance and support.

Renald had a traditional family and the comforts of home— until he was 13 years old. Suddenly, one day he and his younger brothers were placed into the foster care system on Long Island without any warning for reasons he is unable to explain. He would never return home.

The foster parents bought the boys clothes and got them involved in sports. It was apparent, though, that this was not going to be a real warm loving family life. “They were kind of nice people,” says Renald, but the relationship was formal “We called them mister and misses.”

After just a couple of months, their lives were turned upside down again. The boys were told to come right home from school for an appointment with the social worker. “There was no warning,” says Renald. “They said the placement isn’t working. It was scary being in one place one day and another the next.”

The boys settled into another house in Baldwin but were uprooted again after a fire. The only good fortune they had was staying together since siblings in the foster care system are often split up. The move to Hempstead was the third relocation in just four years. The woman was welcoming and Renald stayed from the age of 16 to 22 along with his brothers. He aged out of the foster care system at 21 and stayed there for a short time, paid rent and started college.

As a young adult, Renald is beating the odds. While many foster kids never complete high school and end up jobless and homeless, he is attending The College at Old Westbury State University of New York. He plans to graduate Spring 2012 and aspires to become a lawyer.

After eight years of living in the foster care system, Renald was ready to head out on his own. With the financial help of HPRP, a pilot program operated by the Nassau County Office of Housing and Homeless Services, he is living alone in a modest third-story walk-up apartment in Hempstead, New York. Renald had to leave his younger brothers behind in the care of his former foster parent. He does see his siblings but says keeping in touch is a challenge while juggling studies and a job at Lowe’s.

Renald is enjoying his new freedom. “I can come and go and don’t have to report to anybody,” he says. However, living alone isn’t easy, “because you just have to do everything for yourself.” He barely remembers the addresses of all of the places he has lived, let alone the names of most of his former foster parents. He can’t call home for advice, support or guidance. He has had to learn how to cook, manage his money and pay his bills all on his own. Unlike many young adults, he doesn’t have the luxury of returning home if he fails.

Filling his apartment with furnishings and other material possessions isn’t important to Renald. He has a few valued items, including his clothes, a TV that sits on a cardboard box, a laptop and a collection of sneakers stored in their original boxes and neatly arranged in a stack. For Renald, this is home.