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Canada For foster kids, pursuing a post-secondary degree is not just about money

Yuan Stevens, who lived with a foster family in a Toronto suburb for many years, is entering her second year of law school at McGill University.

Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

John Finlay says that being adopted as a young child was the "adventure part" in his otherwise dull life, an event that eventually led to the discovery of an extended family and a close friendship with a half-brother. Yet even as a child, the retired lawyer was aware that his life had been briefly balanced on a knife's edge.

"I can remember driving up to the cottage, going up Yonge Street [in Toronto]. We would pass by the Royal True Blue home for orphans. I'd go silent for five minutes after and before. I always thought, 'There for a stroke of luck was I,'" Mr. Finlay says.

It was that memory that prompted him to establish a $100,000 scholarship through the Children's Aid Foundation, Mr. Finlay says, one of hundreds of scholarships given by the foundation to former Crown wards who want to pursue post-secondary education. Since the program began two decades ago, it has distributed $9.2-million, with the latest recipients to be announced Wednesday.

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While access to post-secondary education has increased since Mr. Finlay's childhood in the 1950s, children who have been under the care of the state must still defy the odds to get there and then defy them again to graduate.

"Kids who come into the welfare system move on average five times. Each time they move, they fall behind. If they are behind by Grade 5, they are unlikely to ever catch up," says Valerie McMurtry, the foundation's president.

As a result, only 30 per cent of the approximately 90,000 children in Canada who are state wards graduate from high school; in Ontario, that percentage rises to 44. Some universities and colleges offer tuition waivers for former wards, but Ontario has the most comprehensive program, providing a $6,000 tuition waiver for all undergraduate degrees and assistance with living costs.

Still, the financial assistance can't match the moral and practical support that students heading to university this week take for granted, from help choosing courses to setting up a dorm room. And the money is no equivalent for the lifetime of encouragement that preceded university or college admission.

Yuan Stevens, a second-year law student at McGill University and a former Crown ward, only considered going to law school after her partner raised her expectations of herself.

"My husband did not grow up in care. He comes from a family of engineers and people who really value education, and because of his family's values, he really encouraged me to consider a profession," says Ms. Stevens, who is receiving a scholarship on Wednesday. "People in foster care don't know engineers, they don't know doctors, they lack the social mobility to move classes."

For many years, Ms. Stevens lived with a foster family in a Toronto suburb. She felt disconnected from the communities that spring up among foster kids who live closer to social services downtown.

"I rarely met people who grew up in care. When I did, later, I could relate to them, in that they are rebellious in a way that is healthy, and unhealthy."

She credits a second foster family with helping her to think about going to university in the first place – and with providing a stable home that she can turn to.

That's the kind of need that financial aid can't address, Ms. McMurtry says. In fact, some of the former Crown wards who work with a youth council set up by the foundation tell stories of trying to hide out in school residences during the holidays. Others have dropped out to keep younger siblings from landing in a group home.

"The hurdles they overcome can be something that takes you right off course," she says.

For Mr. Finlay, the scholarship is a way to perhaps change another generation's future as well. The recipient of his scholarship this year has children of her own, and the entire family is heading back to school this week.

"It really makes me feel good to be able to help someone out who is in the same situation I was in," he says.

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