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Program teaches financial lessons to foster care youth

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Foster care can be difficult for many reasons: stress on the family, forced assimilation into a new environment for the child and a lack of resources can create problems for those in the system. But what you don’t always hear about is what happens to the kids who age out of the system at 18.

These teenagers are often thrown into an adult world with adult problems, including how to make ends meet. But, one St. Louis foundation is helping teach the former foster children the financial lessons to succeed after foster care.

Eddye Vanderkwaak  is your typical college student. She is constantly busy juggling her social life with her schoolwork at the Des Moines Area Community College. But while many college students complain about a lack of disposable income for bar tabs or clothes, Vanderkwaak is worried about weighty issues like not having a safety valve in her car for when it breaks down.

Vanderkwaak used to be in foster care. Back then, she says she didn’t know the first thing about money, and had to find clever ways to store her paychecks.

“So I was working a part-time job and you know, making a little bit of money, but I didn’t have an account I was putting it in to," she says. "I actually gave it to my foster mother and she kept it in a shoe box in her drawer and she gave me an allowance each week.”

Before she aged out of foster care, her foster mother put her into contact with the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Foundation. The foundation had a program called Passport Opportunities which was directly aimed at helping foster youth learn financial skills. Clark Peters, social work professor at the University of Missouri, studied the program for 11 months.

“When young people put money into that account and purchase some kind of asset, like an automobile, the foundation matches it dollar-for-dollar," he says. "So you put in a hundred bucks and you two hundred bucks out to make that purchase and that’s a huge incentive.”

Not only does the program match dollar-for-dollar, but it also puts individuals through a financial literacy course that teaches the foster youth about bank accounts, savings and the difference between good and bad credit. Vanderkwaak credits the course for teaching her how to properly handle her money.

“Some of the biggest things that I’ve learned and I have been able to do effectively is...how to budget and how to stay kind of on track with my budget,” she says.

Peters says that the financial literacy course is a great tool for teaching a mostly uneducated audience. He says that learning about money is not always at the top of the agenda for the young person or the guardian.

“When you sort of bounce around between group homes and foster homes, imparting financial literacy skills may not be the top priority in those places,” he says.

Though the foundation is based in St. Louis, the passport opportunities program is currently not operating in Missouri, but it has started to gain traction in Iowa and Michigan and there are plans to kick-start it in Missouri in the future.

This story originally aired as part of Business Beat, a weekly program about business and economics in mid-Missouri.