Fostering success

Blavin Scholar Program and awardees
Blavin Scholar Program and awardees
Founders of the Blavin Scholar Program met Thursday with three of four students chosen to begin the program at NAU.
From left are: Amy Blavin, Sharon Downer, Kyle Beloin, Jose Lopez and Paul Blavin.
Photo by Charlie McCallie

Scottsdale couple increases
the odds for students

Paul Blavin describes himself and his wife, Amy, as having come from “intact families.”  He was never a foster child, nor was Amy. Yet the Blavins have made it their personal goal to guide the newly independent lives of aged-out foster youth onto a path toward success.

Paul’s interest in helping foster youth evolved from reading David Pelzer’s book, A Child Called “It,” and an article in the Arizona Republic about a child in foster care who was locked in a closet and abused.

“These children didn’t choose to be in foster care,” Paul said. “They should have a choice about their future. As wards of the state, they are all our children and our responsibility.”

He joined the Arizona Friends of Foster Children Foundation in 2001 and began establishing scholarship programs for youth around the country. The Blavins’ outreach program begins at Northern Arizona University this fall.

An entrepreneur with a bachelor’s degree from University of Michigan and a master’s degree from Harvard, Paul Blavin sees education as essential in starting young people on the right track. In his view, foster youth are the most underserved population and stand to gain the greatest from assistance.

He has confidence that the students chosen for the scholar program will excel.

“Most notable is that the young adults aging out of the foster care system are often the most functional members of their families,” Blavin said.

But the odds are stacked against them since only 54 percent of these young adults nationwide will graduate with a high school diploma. Less than 2 percent will earn a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Paul Blavin is very familiar with the disturbing statistics of what happens to former foster youth. Many face homelessness, incarceration or become young parents.

“The statistics are staggering,” he said. “Nearly half of the young women who transition out of foster care to adulthood are pregnant before they hit age 20.”

Residents of Scottsdale, the Blavins were compelled to roll out their newest scholarship at NAU because of its sense of community. They were seeking a place where the level of support would significantly contribute to the success of former foster youth, and Paul viewed NAU as the perfect environment.

“The campus community is embracing it right away,” he said. “It’s exciting to see. I want the students to have a positive experience.”

In the last eight years, the Blavins have established several scholarship programs around the country and estimate that they have helped more than 30 students graduate with bachelor’s degrees.

Through their generosity and commitment, the Blavins hope the scholar program will serve as a call-to-action for others. With intentions to continue duplicating the program throughout the country, Paul anticipates that one day the need for help will no longer exist.

“This is a great opportunity for me and Amy,” he said. “But I would rather we have no foster youth needing this.”

‘Aged-out’ young adults dealt a better hand

Three Northern Arizona University students were eating pizza on Thursday afternoon, involved in rapt conversation about life at NAU.

Sophomore Kyle Beloin and freshmen Sharon Downer and Jose Lopez discussed move-in day, class schedules and the time it takes to walk from south to north campus. Just like the nearly 4,000 other newcomers to the Flagstaff campus that day, the three blend in, as they should.

What sets Beloin, Downer and Lopez apart from other students are the odds that have been stacked against them. They are among 20,000 Americans who “age-out” of foster care each year when they turn 18 and find themselves on their own.

Less than 2 percent of these foster youth make it through a four-year college—the odds are greater that they will end up homeless, unemployed and without medical insurance.

Lacking a meaningful, lifelong relationship with a caring adult, they will face a life of adversity difficult to surmount.

But the outlook for these NAU students is much, much brighter. Their success will be due, in part, to a support network created through a new scholar program started by two generous Scottsdale residents who feel compelled to help.

The Blavin/Arizona Friends of Foster Children Foundation Scholars Program will offer these students assistance with tution and fees, year-round housing, new laptop computers, on-campus summer employment, faculty mentors, counseling and academic guidance, in addition to other financial assistance. The students were chosen based on specific criteria and through recommendations from the foundation.

Program founders Paul and Amy Blavin said they started the program because they believe those who age out of foster care are the most underserved population in the country. They chose NAU to continue their effort to help youth because of the support of the community.

“There are very few comprehensive programs like this in the country,” Paul said. “Half a million youth in the United States have aged out of foster care. This is a growth area of the population, unfortunately.”

On Thursday, the Blavins came to NAU to meet Beloin, Downer and Lopez for the first time. A fourth student supported by the program, Jessica Hudson, is studying abroad this year and was unable to attend.

Introductions were informal, as Amy and Paul are all-too familiar with the students’ circumstances and stories. Amy sat down and asked if they had moved in to their residence halls. Paul shared his expectations and a bit of advice.

“Success falls on your shoulders,” Paul said. “We will provide support. All we ask of you is that you graduate, and enjoy it in the process.”

Paul Blavin sees the university community as the key to the success of the program with the commitment of numerous faculty and staff members. The program gives these students a shot at improving their circumstances by reducing financial barriers, providing guidance and smoothing their path to independence.

Paul assured the students they will have needs, and the university is prepared to step forward. While a new support system exists for them, the students’ accomplishments will be based on their own hard work.

“We have the highest degree of confidence that you will succeed and be great ambassadors for our fledgling program,” Paul said. “This is a fun and exciting time thanks to our pioneer students.”

Four student recipients

Sophomore Kyle Beloin is double-majoring in philosophy and political science. Over the summer, he spent more than 400 hours improving nearly 100 miles of hiking trails while working with the American Conservation Experience.

Freshman Sharon Downer is majoring in forestry. She enjoys outdoor activities and is looking forward to ski and snowboard season in Flagstaff.

Junior Jessica Hudson is double-majoring in history and political science. She loves to travel and is studying abroad in England this year.

Freshman Jose Lopez is majoring in psychology. After completing his bachelor’s degree, he intends to continue to pursue a master’s in psychology.