ABINGDON, Va. — As a former foster child, MaKenzie Helton knows what it’s like to have the odds stacked against her.

When MaKenzie was in third grade, her mother was incarcerated. MaKenzie was raised by her great-grandparents until they died, when she was in middle school.

On top of that, a high school teacher told MaKenzie, who was diagnosed with dyslexia, that she would likely never succeed at higher education.

MaKenzie, 19, defied the odds when she became part of the Virginia Community College’s Great Expectations program, offered at 21 community colleges throughout Virginia, including Virginia Highlands Community College in Abingdon.

Great Expectations is a nationally recognized program that helps Virginia’s foster youth earn the postsecondary credentials they need to achieve an independent and successful life.

Not only has she completed a certified nursing assistant program at Virginia Highlands Community College, MaKenzie holds a 3.7 grade point average, is active in the college choir and string band and serves as the student activities officer with the Student Government Association.

MaKenzie wants to continue her education at a four-year college, where she will pursue music and special education.

It’s stories like this that offer hope to Deborah Ledford, the Great Expectations coach at Virginia Highlands Community College.

“As a Great Expectations coach, I get to build strong personal relationships with each of my students. I know all of the barriers and additional challenges they face because they are foster youth. I try to be there supporting them every step of the way through their college career, and nothing is more rewarding than watching them succeed.”

For most foster youth, the Great Expectations program is life-changing.

“Being part of the program has helped me with scheduling my classes and getting my financial aid,” said MaKenzie, who credits Great Expectations for keeping her in school.

“If I needed help with homework, Deborah Ledford would help me find tutors. Even if I needed to talk with her about something outside of school, she was there to listen.

“It really is a great program, and it gives opportunities to people that society may look over. Because of Great Expectations, we do have a voice and can better ourselves so that we don’t follow in the same footsteps of our parents who made bad choices.”

MaKenzie is featured in the 2019 Chronicle of Higher Education’s video news story, “Foster Youth Face Extreme Barriers to College. Here’s One Program That’s Helping.”

“One of the struggles we face is keeping the students enrolled. They often drop out and come back,” said Ledford.

“Our local foster youth report that transportation and housing are the two largest barriers to completing their degrees in a timely manner. The Virginia Highlands Great Expectations program is actively working with other community agencies, attaining grants and seeking out other financial resources to help our students overcome those barriers.”

Katelyn Hatcher, 25, from Bristol, Virginia, graduated this spring, earning an associate of applied science degree in human services — a degree that took her nearly seven years to complete.

Katelyn spent eight years in foster care, removed from her home at 13 even though her siblings stayed behind.

“I was in two facilities because I was told no foster home wanted me. I was in 30 psychiatric hospitals because it’s a good temporary spot to put somebody because most foster kids face some kind of trauma. So that’s where they put me when they were waiting for a home for me.”

During her childhood, she was placed in at least five different foster homes.

She learned about the Great Expectations program while she was part of the Independent Living Program with the Department of Social Services. However, Katelyn was moved so frequently with the program that she was never able to stay at one college. “I had to drop my classes and start over at a different college,” she said.

She pursued a degree in human services because she wants to help foster kids who are going through the same things she faced as a teen.

“I want to help people who are in the same shoes I was in when I was younger,” she said.

She plans to complete her Bachelor of Arts degree in social work with hopes of one day working for Child Protective Services.

“If it weren’t for Great Expectations, I could never have come as far as I have,” said Katelyn, who received all As and Bs during her last semester at Virginia Highlands Community College, giving her a 3.75 grade point average for the term.

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Carolyn R. Wilson is a freelance writer in Glade Spring, Virginia. Contact her at features@bristolnews.com.

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