Eddye Vanderkwaak's life story is really two tales.
There's the girl who grew up in a dysfunctional home in Iowa until she was 14, living primarily with her father. It was a week-to-week existence, with her father borrowing from friends and family members to cover the bills.
Then there's the girl who rebounded in the foster care system and now at age 21 is about to earn an associate degree in liberal arts from a Des Moines community college. That success has inspired her to apply to law school with the hope of becoming a judge overseeing child welfare cases.
It's been a dramatic transformation -- one that Vanderkwaak admits might not have happened if not for Opportunity Passport, a financial education program developed by the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative.
"I'd like to think I would have made it on my own," she said in an interview. "But it would have been very difficult."
Last week, Vanderkwaak attended a conference in Washington for the release of a report, "Enduring Assets: Findings From a Study on the Financial Lives of Young People Transitioning From Foster Care." The study was prepared by researchers that included several from the University of Missouri in Columbia. Their research focused on how personal financial education can play a key role in helping youngsters move from the foster care system into college and independent living.
That's part of the mission of the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative, named in memory of the founder of United Parcel Service.
Founded 11 years ago, the St. Louis-based initiative provides financial support through Operation Passport's matched savings program of up to $1,000 a year to young people in foster care who are coming into adulthood.
The donor-supported program is currently organized in 15 states for young people ages 14 to 23 who were in foster care after their 14th birthday.
More than 6,000 teens and young adults have collectively saved $5 million to be used for education, an apartment, a car or other assets, according to the youth organization.
Vanderkwaak is one of them.
At age 18, with four years in foster care and a high school diploma, Vanderkwaak joined Opportunity Passport.
But before receiving any financial help, she had to participate in an education training program to learn about budgeting, banking and other money matters. Gaining this knowledge opened her eyes to the possibility of attending college.
Handling money and even maintaining a checking account with a debit card can be a financial mind bender for many youths in foster care. Part of the problem is that foster kids frequently change addresses and hometowns, don't receive an allowance and don't make much money from part-time jobs.
Compared with a typical teenager, Vanderkwaak said, foster kids have "a bigger sense of urgency to find ourselves and get things right."
Given the difficulties many teens and young adults face in getting a grip on money issues, Vanderkwaak urges them to:
-- Keep a budget and track spending. It's important to know how much money you make, when and how often you get paid, and what fixed expenses you have each month.
-- Plan ahead -- especially for the unexpected. "A rule of thumb that I live by is to set aside all the money I know I need each month to pay my bills, and then set aside an extra percentage of my income to cover things that may not happen but that I'll need if the situation arises," Vanderkwaak said.
-- If you need to borrow, always repay your debts on time.
-- Do your research, and never be afraid to ask questions.
As Vanderkwaak learned, it's OK if you don't know all the answers. It's also OK to reach out for help.
Vanderkwaak found her lifeline in Opportunity Passport. Despite her rough start in life, she's ready to tackle new challenges and fulfill her hopes and dreams.
"I want to be self-sufficient in all aspects of my life," she said.
In the foster care system, that's called having a sense of permanency.
(Questions, comments, column ideas? Send an e-mail to srosen(AT)kcstar.com or write to him at The Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, MO 64108.)
Foster kids can overcome extra financial obstacles
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