Some 100 youths, ages 16-20, who were about to or who had recently transitioned from foster care convened on the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown campus from August 5 to 9 for the 10th annual 2019 Older Youth Retreat—an event that welcomed teens from 36 counties across Pennsylvania who have had experience in the state’s foster care system to bond with others with similar experiences in a week of motivating talks, social activities, and educational sessions.
Youths and staff participated in the retreat’s annual college fair. This included a presentation on the Upward Bound Program; financial aid information; and representatives from universities, technical schools, and the armed forces sharing information about their respective programs. Participants also received an overview of the Fostering Independence Through Education Waiver, which provides a tuition and fee waiver for undergraduate degrees at colleges and universities in Pennsylvania to help reduce the financial burdens on older youths with foster care experience. One participant stated, “I think it’s awesome that our state wants to make sure that all youths have an opportunity to grow and have a fighting chance at success like their peers.”
Participants also attended a session focused on permanency for older youths. The session included an overview of permanency services in Pennsylvania as well as a panel of youths who spoke about their experiences in the child welfare system. The goal of these sessions is to dismiss the idea that older youths can’t find permanent families and supports. Youths had the opportunity to meet with UPJ alumni who recently transitioned out of foster care for a peer mentoring session. In small groups, the alumni addressed questions about their own experiences, housing, and how they handled connections to biological family members and offered educational advice.
At the end of the week, youths and staff presented their final activity projects and the performances they had worked on throughout the week. The unveiling of the retreat banner displaying the retreat theme and a presentation by an improv group were a few of the activities that took place. One of the highlights of the week was the banquet where Pitt School of Social Work Dean Betsy Farmer welcomed the participants on behalf of the University of Pittsburgh and the School of Social Work as well as Helen Cahalane, principal investigator for the Child Welfare Educa- tion and Research Programs. Cahalane re- marked, “The University is excited by the opportunity to engage more Pennsylvania youths in higher education through the Education Waiver Act and is committed to supporting them throughout their time on campus.” The Pennsylvania Youth Advisory Board received the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania’s Affiliate of the Year Award. The banquet concluded with an inspirational message from keynote speaker Anthony Stukes, who transitioned out of Pennsylvania’s foster care system.
Additional highlights throughout the week included a dodgeball tournament; the highly anticipated youth versus staff activity; the retreat field games; and, finally, the talent show that included dancing, comedy, singing, and rapping. Youths and staff en- joyed a great week full of networking and activities and the opportunity for youths to use their voices in focus groups to help improve the child welfare system. More highlights from the week can be found at payab.pitt.edu/2019_Retreat_Video.