At age 12, Angela Campbell entered the foster care system after the issue of dealing with a family members’ mental illness in her home began to take a toll on her. After a series of shelters, group homes and even living with family, Campbell found some stability, got back into school, graduated from high school and went on to attend Bennett College, in North Carolina, where she, now 21, recently graduated with a bachelor’s degree in social work.

Cherie Olivis, 21, entered the foster system at an early age, when she went to live with her grandmother because of her mother’s problem with drugs. Her grandmother stopped working and devoted her life to taking care of her. With her grandmother as her inspiration and her words of “I’m tired of associates, bring me a bachelor’s (degree)” loud in her mind, Olivis graduated high school, enrolled in Slippery Rock University and only a few weeks ago, graduated with a Bachelor of Science in health services administration, making her the first in her family to earn a bachelor’s.

Twins Kayla and Kalynn Kohlman, both 23, went to live with their grandmother around age 5 when both their parents could no longer take care of them due to their battle with substance abuse. Their grandmother’s motivation and their desire for more, led them through high school and into Clarion University, where last December they both graduated with a Bachelor of Science in biology.

While their situations may be different, what these four women share is their persistence to not let their adversity hold them back. While statistics show, that not many in foster care, even graduate from high school, these four women beat the odds, and did so with high grade point averages and the help of the Allegheny County Department of Human Services’ Independent Living Initiative, which provides foster care youths ages 16-21 and who are transitioning out of foster care, with a broad range of services to help them pursue post-secondary education.



“We are just proud of (all the girls). All four young women have come from diverse backgrounds. They’re astounding in their wanting to achieve and do things,” said JoAnn Heffron-Hannah, manager of the ILI.

According to the Allegheny County DHS website, as of May 2013, 1,150 children are in foster care and 701 are in kinship care, which is when a child is placed with a relative or close family friend.

The ILI began in 2006 and is supported by the Executive Office under the operation of Marc Cherna, director of the Allegheny County DHS.

Through the initiative, DHS caseworks and education liaisons assist the youth in applying for admissions to academic, vocational or any other institution for post-secondary education; employment and vocational training; housing; and financial aid and scholarships. They even assist students with laptops, school supplies, transportation to school and more.

“If you look at the numbers, foster children fair much worse than their counterparts who have not been in the system, and very few go to college and very few graduate. We want to make sure it’s not because of inadequate services,” said Heffron-Hannah. “We try to do anything a parent would try to do for their child, if they are fortunate to live with their parent.”

Kaylnn Kohlman said she would recommend the ILI to any youth, who is in foster care and looking to further their education. “They have resources you might not even know you need. It’s a great resource while you’re in school and even after you graduate.”

Campbell said the best way to say thank you to those from the initiative that have helped her is by helping those youth who were in her situation. “I look at it as a domino effect and I have a responsibility for those who are coming up behind me.”

Partnerships and collaborations with the initiative include The Heinz Endowments, KidsVoice and YouthWorks, just to name a few.

Heffron-Hannah said, in the end, “it is all geared toward making sure that they succeed.”

(For more information on the Allegheny County Department of Human Services resources, visit www.allegheny­county.us/dhs.)


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