For children moving through foster care, early traumatic experiences can have a severe negative impact on many aspects of their lives–especially in school. Because they encounter this trauma during such a formative, pivotal period in life, the cycles can often repeat themselves. As an organization focused on children’s mental health, youth education, and foster care, KVC West Virginia is on a mission to provide youth in foster care with the tools they need to break traumatic cycles and thrive. That’s why KVC partnered with First Star to create First Star Academy. This educational support program provides youth in foster care the academic, life skills, career exploration, and adult supporters. And the transformation Daren experienced as a teen in this First Star Academy success story illustrates KVC’s goal to help students grow, build confidence and successfully transition to adulthood.
“Educationally, 30% of West Virginia youth in foster care function below their grade level, and only half will earn a high school diploma by age 18.”
When KVC began working with Daren over a year and a half ago, Daren was shy and apprehensive, often hesitating about participating in group activities. However, throughout his time with First Star Academy, Daren started opening up more to others as he discovered how much he had in common with his peers. From these experiences, Daren formed treasured bonds that helped him feel safe, loved, and accepted. This is Daren’s inspiring and transformative First Star Academy success story.
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Daren’s First Star Academy Success Story
Because of an extremely challenging childhood, Daren couldn’t remember the last time he felt comfortable in his own skin. However, his time with First Star brought him opportunities to connect with peers who share many of his experiences. When he first came to KVC, Daren was receiving failing grades in school and struggled with low self-esteem. His home life clearly lacked the support he needed to thrive.
But given the right support and stability, Daren’s life began to take a turn for the better. “Daren came into one of our KVC foster homes and was lucky that his foster mom, who is now his adoptive mother, was able to help him find the support he needed to overcome some of the trauma that he encountered while living in his biological home,” explains Amy Thompson, Lead Service Coordinator for First Star.
Daren’s foster mother worked with him to develop stronger studying skills and helped him build his confidence by providing him with the love and care he had been missing. While living in his biological home, Daren had never before woken up on Christmas morning to gifts and celebrations, but that changed when he arrived at his foster home.
“He was beyond thrilled to let everyone know how excited he was to experience his first Christmas ever,” Thompson recalls. “I was so moved that I had to keep my composure because I don’t know if I could overcome what these children do.”
Daren Unlocks His Potential
With the help of KVC, his foster family, and First Star Academy, Daren is uncovering his full potential. Through hard work and dedication, he is earning A’s in school and has made up the credits he was missing. These efforts have taken him from sophomore to senior standing, and he looks forward to graduating in 2024—with honors!
“This is a young man who would barely say anything to anyone when he first arrived,” recalls Walter “Skipp” Swoope, KVC’s First Academy Director. “And the other day, he sang karaoke during one of our group activities!”
During last year’s First Star Summer Academy, Daren proclaimed, “First Star has become my second family!” He remains best friends with his First Star peers and has drastically improved his confidence levels. Through laughter, shared experiences, and support from his peers, Daren learned that appreciation and care were not limited and that it grows and magnifies when shared with others.
Upon returning from the Summer Academy, Daren’s adoptive mom had this to say about her son’s experiences: “I want to express my deepest gratitude… He’s learning what healthy adult and peer relationships are. It is partly because of the program, but it is mostly because of who you are as people, the connections you facilitate, the care you show, the love you grow. It is lasting change, and I couldn’t be more proud and happy and just so excited to see how he continues to grow.”
Daren’s future is bright and getting brighter. With graduation on the horizon, he is still determining what his plans are afterward, but with the help and support of First Star, he now has many opportunities to choose from, and the grades and confidence to pursue them!
What is First Star Academy?
As Daren discovered, youth participating in KVC’s First Star Academy often share similar backgrounds. From traumatic past experiences, multiple school transfers and other challenges that make life and academic success difficult, we work to improve students’ outlook and teach them the skills they need for success.
In partnership with First Star, a national nonprofit dedicated to empowering youth with the skills and knowledge to thrive during and after high school, KVC’s First Star Academy has been making a positive impact since 2021. This program walks with the participants through their high school experience, from the time they begin the academy until they graduate. Some youth participate in the program for many years, while others may only attend for a short while. Regardless of the length of time spent with the program, each student gains the support, encouragement and education they need.
“It is lasting change.”
How Does KVC’s First Star Academy Help Youth in Foster Care Succeed?
In West Virginia, our First Star Academy engages youth regularly in a combination of academic, remediation and life skills work—as well as fun team-building activities! Every month, we also bring everyone together for a Saturday Academy. During these Saturday sessions, students enjoy conversations with guest speakers from a variety of science, engineering, technology, arts, and math (STEAM) fields. Students also experience a transformative two-week Summer Academy.
“Educationally, 30% of West Virginia youth in foster care function below their grade level, and only half will earn a high school diploma by age 18,” said Swoope. “Roughly 10% will go on to higher education, and only 3% will graduate from college. Our goal is to change the trajectory for West Virginia’s most vulnerable young people and to allow these youth to successfully transition into adulthood.”
Currently, KVC’s First Star Academy has a 100% high school graduation rate. The national program boasts a 99% high school graduation rate.
Learn more about KVC’s First Star Academy in this video.
First Star Summer Academy
During the summer, participants spend two weeks on a college campus for an immersive college experience known as the Summer Academy. Students stay in Fairmont State University’s campus dorms, eat in the cafeteria and gain significant exposure to university resources. Students engage in STEM topics and receive carefully designed college prep activities coupled with social-emotional support.
Students also enjoy career exploration activities, life skills workshops, team bonding exercises, field trips, and experiential learning opportunities. This immersive summer experience provides a unique opportunity for teens in foster care to explore what college life is like and familiarize themselves with the many resources available to them through higher education. This experience shows them how much they are capable of and that they belong at a college just as much as anyone else.
How to Get Involved with First Star Academy
If you’re passionate about empowering young people, join us in making a lasting difference through First Star Academy. There are many ways to get involved:
- Refer a student who could benefit from one-on-one support and a community of peers with similar experiences
- Create more First Star Academy success stories by making a donation!
- Request to be a Saturday Academy speaker and share your educational and career journey
- Volunteer to teach a life skills workshop (some examples include personal finances, cooking basics, home maintenance, first aid, etc.)
- Share information about the program with your friends and colleagues
- Read other First Star Academy success stories and share on social media
- And more!
If any of these opportunities interest you, reach out to Valerie Nichols, KVC’s First Star Academy Director, at email@example.com. Thank you for helping us ensure every child is safe and connected to a strong family and healthy community!