WATERLOO — Graduation party season is in full swing and high school seniors leaving foster care will be celebrating again this year, thanks to a longtime volunteer effort.
Organized by Cedar Valley’s Promise, the volunteers are throwing a party for the 11th year focused on Black Hawk County residents aging out of the foster care system. On Tuesday from 4 to 5:30 p.m., they will hold a graduation open house for six foster care youths. The public is invited to attend the event at Hawkeye Community College’s Van G. Miller Adult Learning Center, 120 Jefferson St.
The students are graduating from Cedar Falls and West high schools or have earned their diploma by taking the high school equivalency test. But foster youths don’t always have the family support that allows for a graduation party.
“Having this event to celebrate this achievement is huge for these kids,” said Michelle Cooper, a transition planning specialist with the Iowa Department of Human Services and one of the organizers. She added that it’s an opportunity to “just recognize how important it is and what an achievement it is.”
Citing national statistics, she noted only 54 percent of foster youths graduate from high school and only 3 percent graduate from college.
The organizing committee is made up of representatives from various agencies dealing with the foster care system. It provides a number of gifts made possible through community donations to help foster youths set up an apartment or dorm room. Among those are a microwave, cookware, tableware, towels, a laundry basket and a suitcase.
Each participant will also have a table at the event where people can visit with them and drop off cards or gifts. Attendees are welcome even if they don’t bring something for the graduates.
“I think it’s so rewarding to see just members of the community come and support these youths and acknowledge their accomplishments,” said Cooper.
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Maima Boakai, a former foster care youth, graduated from Cedar Falls High School in 2018 and participated in last year’s open house.
“I really like the event. It was a lot of fun being there and hanging out with my friends,” said Boakai, now 19. She appreciated the support of people who stopped by to congratulate her.
“They gave us a lot of gifts, I think hundreds of dollars in cash,” she said. That helped with her first month of rent as well as groceries and books for college.
Boakai is a native of West Africa who came to the U.S. with her aunt and uncle. They lived in Florida before moving to Waterloo. Eventually, she ended up in foster care and had multiple placements, describing them as “difficult” for her.
“The staff and case workers, they were really awesome,” she acknowledged. “They tried their best.
“I was in the foster care system for about 6-1/2 years, and now I’m in Aftercare,” she added, referring to a state program providing support to foster children once they turn 18. It serves them until their 21st birthday.
“They help me out, because every month I get about $600 to help me out with rent and groceries,” said Boakai. The program also offers therapy services. She is currently living downtown at Pillars, a House of Hope facility for women formerly in foster care designed to help them transition into adult life.
She is now a Hawkeye Community College student and works at Jimmy Johns.
“I’m doing my gen eds and then I’m transferring to do my bachelor’s in teaching English,” said Boakai. “It’s been good so far. It’s stressful because it’s school.”