Menomonie, Wis. — Ever since she arrived at University of Wisconsin-Stout, Tonisha Hora has supported other students who have lived in foster homes. This summer she will get the chance to make a nationwide impact on issues affecting children in foster care.
Hora, a senior, has been selected by the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute as one of 12 interns nationwide to work with a federal legislator this summer in Washington, D.C. From May 30 to July 28, she will learn about policy issues affecting foster children across the country. Based on her research, she will write a policy report on a self-chosen child welfare issue that will be presented at a congressional hearing and distributed to child welfare advocates nationwide.
The human development and family studies major was stunned by the news of being chosen, realizing the internship’s magnitude.
“It’s a really good way to get my foot in the door to learn about and analyze policies so I can make changes in policies to benefit foster youth, abused kids and child welfare in general,” she said.
Having lived in numerous homes while growing up, Hora wants to focus her research on policies to help prevent child abuse and reduce how often children are moved among foster homes so their lives are more stable.
CCAI is a nonprofit, bipartisan organization that works to raise awareness about the needs of children without families and to remove policy barriers that hinder them from knowing the love and support a family provides, according its website, http://ccainstitute.org/. Its programs, like the Foster Youth Internship Program in which Hora will participate, brings together policymakers and individuals with foster care or adoption experience. Interns are young adults who have spent time in the U.S. foster care system.
The internship program shows federal policymakers the experiences of youth in foster care so they can use their new knowledge to promote legislative change. Interns gain skills that will bolster their careers and develop the foundation to be lifelong advocates for improving the foster care system.
Confident that Hora would make an outstanding intern, Greta Munns, UW-Stout’s Fostering Success program liaison, urged her to apply and wrote a glowing letter of recommendation rattling off her traits and assets.
“Tonisha embodies everything we could hope for in a University of Wisconsin-Stout student and future child welfare professional,” Munns wrote. “She is focused on academics, applies her real-world experience to the topics she is learning in the classroom, embodies professionalism and embraces opportunities to serve.”
Munns first met Hora when she came to Fostering Success to ask how she could help other foster students. Fostering Success was established at UW-Stout through a grant from the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families in 2014. The program provides guidance and support for university students who have foster care in their backgrounds and reaches out to middle and high school foster youth, their social workers and other supportive adults with information about making a successful transition to higher education.
Though Hora was eligible herself for help from the program, her concern was for others.
“This is the core of who Tonisha is: She is thoughtful, puts others first and genuinely cares about all those she interacts with,” Munns wrote.
“She is definitely a role model to foster students,” she said, noting that she has driven other students to Fostering Success events, been a counselor during the program’s overnight summer camp for youth and eloquently spoken about foster issues on a panel for students in the master’s in mental health counseling and school counseling programs.
“Having peers who’ve been in your shoes is powerful,” Munns said.
To accept the CCAI internship, Hora’s originally planned summer 2017 internship with Dunn County Human Services has been postponed until spring 2018. Also a McNair Scholar, she is conducting research for the county on foster parent retention. The McNair Scholars Program, funded by the U.S. Department of Education, provides resources and support to undergraduates who want to pursue a master’s or doctorate after graduation.
McNair staff members also encouraged her to apply for the internship. A Skype interview with CCAI officials was the next step before she was selected, along with a UW-Milwaukee student, to become an intern.
CCAI pays interns a stipend plus provides housing. Such financial support is important, as most former foster students don’t have financial resources to cover those expenses, Munns said.
Road to a social work career
After earning a master’s in social work, Hora wants to work in children and family services or child protective services.
“Every decision I’ve made in the last five to six years has led me back to social work, and I’ve realized that this is what I need to do,” she said.
She and her twin sister lived with numerous relatives and three foster families in Kenosha and Ogema, Wis., since they were born. When she was 14, she was placed with a foster family whom she most considers a real family and with whom she remains in touch.
“It was heaven when I was placed with them because I finally had the chance at being a normal child and having people take care of me who truly showed me love,” she said. “They kept me in line and set limits, like a curfew. I didn’t appreciate it at the time, but the last few years I’ve realized how thankful I am for that.
“They’ve always been so supportive of me,” she said, her eyes lighting up as she talked about them. “They’re there for me for everything.”
Hora began her college education at UW-Stevens Point. After completing her freshman year, she took a year off from college to complete her Army National Guard training. After she married a UW-Stout student, she transferred to UW-Stout, where she found that the human development and family studies major was the perfect route for pursuing an education in a helping profession, leading to the social work/child protective service career area.
Her Washington, D.C., internship will encourage other students from foster care to pursue similar opportunities, Munns said. “She’s forging this path and showing them what it looks like to do something like this.”
About 30 students are in UW-Stout’s Fostering Success program. The program assists with negotiating campus life, housing needs, emergency funding for academic supplies and unplanned events such as car repairs and providing reference letters for scholarships and grants. It also provides mentoring, welcome baskets and care packages, bedding and hygiene items.
For more information about the program refer to www.uwstout.edu/admissions/foster-youth.cfm, contact Munns, Fostering Success liaison, email@example.com, or Karlie Hoekstra, Fostering Success graduate assistant, firstname.lastname@example.org.
To donate to the Fostering Success program, visit https://foundation.uwstout.edu/pages/givings/fostering-success.