He’s like any other student on the U of G campus as he heads to class and hands in essays, but Kyle Garland is beating the odds just by being enrolled as a university student. When he graduates this spring, he’ll be one of a tiny number of people with his background to achieve that goal.
That’s because Garland is a Crown ward. Less than seven per cent of Crown wards in Ontario ever attend post-secondary education, and a much smaller percentage complete their degrees.
Crown wards are children or youth who have been placed in the care of a Children’s Aid Society by the courts, generally because their parents and family are not able to care for them. Some are adopted, but most will grow up in foster care or on their own.
Garland’s story starts off like many others. His father left before he was born, and his mother relied on Garland’s aunt and uncle for financial support. “We lived with them for many years,” he says. Later, they moved frequently; Garland can’t remember how many different schools he attended, but he rarely stayed at one for more than a couple of months. For two years, they lived in British Columbia, but Garland’s mother had difficulty finding work and they returned to Ontario. She eventually checked herself into rehab, leaving Garland with his aunt.
By then Garland was a challenging child, who had failed a grade in school and often skipped classes. His aunt finally called Family and Children’s Services to have him placed in foster care. “When the agency came to take me from my aunt, I locked myself in my aunt’s bathroom. A cop had to break open the door and escort me to the car. I was driven to my first foster home in a police car. Talk about style,” he jokes.
He lived in that first foster home for three years. “I constantly waited for my mother to come and save me, but it never happened,” he says. “Foster care was not easy. I had to deal with a family who did not care for me, I had to deal with the constant lies from my birth mother and I had to deal with being alone. I was struggling at school. ”
When given the news that he was to be made a Crown ward, he felt that he couldn’t handle it. He told his closest friends of his plans to commit suicide. “My friend did what any good friend would do,” says Garland. “He told his mom.”
Her name is Deborah Corniel, and she called Garland and ended up talking on the phone with him for hours. “She listened to every word and showed that she really cared,” he says.
Corniel went even further; she took the training and preparation to become a foster parent, and welcomed Garland into her home. “I felt that I was finally part of a family again,” Garland says. “I won’t say it didn’t have its struggles. I was emotional, sensitive and not used to family life, but with their support, I was finally able to relax and learn.”
He definitely learned. Garland graduated from high school with an average of 85 per cent, and his foster mother took him to see several universities. “When we arrived at the University of Guelph, it wasn’t even a tour day and we couldn’t go inside the buildings,” he says. “It didn’t matter. I fell in love with the architecture and the campus.” He is majoring in history with a minor in English.
In second year, Garland was invited to be part of the University’s peer helper program and, through it, found a way to reach out to other Crown wards.
His efforts are part of a larger provincial program designed to help Crown wards. Jessica Westlake, executive assistant at U of G’s Office of Student Affairs, is the incoming chair of the Crown Ward Education Champions Team for this area and is current chair of the subcommittee on post-secondary education. These committees – there were just four in 2007, but there are now 21 across the province – help Crown wards develop and reach their educational goals.
Westlake explains: “Family and Children’s Services in both Wellington and Waterloo regions had peer-based services for youth in care, but they weren’t thinking about post-secondary education as a goal. However, they heard from the youth that they really wanted to go on to post-secondary education but were worried about money and support.”
Since Guelph already had a solid peer helper program, the University and the regional post-secondary committee saw that adding a component for Crown wards could be done quickly. Garland was one of the first to become involved.
He says, “My idea was to increase awareness among social workers, as well as youth.” Many youth are in group homes or foster homes where they may not hear about the importance of post-secondary education, he says. Westlake adds that funding and grants are available to assist Crown wards in paying for their education, but many need help figuring out how to apply or how to navigate through the post-secondary system.
Garland also helped to organize campus tours for Crown wards considering the University of Guelph. “I can tell the youth, ‘Look, I’m here, I’m doing well, and you can do it, too. This is important for your future.’”
Last year he gave a speech at a conference for youth in care, speaking to an audience of more than 500. “The odds are against us,” he told the crowd, “people have no faith in us, but the best response is to prove them wrong by doing it.”
In preparation for his graduation, Garland has created a Crown ward handbook that other peer helpers can use after he leaves. This past semester, he focused on a program that links U of G students with high-school-age children in foster care.
Westlake explains that the mentors and the younger kids meet once a week to work on a sports-related goal. “We have some of the youth teaching sports to U of G students now: one student is currently learning to unicycle.” Getting a chance to use their strengths is a powerful boost for the youths’ confidence and self-esteem.
Garland says he needed all the confidence he could muster this past fall when he signed up for a semester abroad. “I’d never been on a plane before and I’d never been out of Canada except to go to Buffalo,” he says. But he flew to London, England, and during his four months of study, he also flew to France, Belgium, Germany and Ireland. “It was incredible, and I’ve totally overcome my fear of flying,” he says.
With that added confidence, he’s ready to beat the odds again. Garland is taking a year off to work but plans to either complete a master’s degree or earn a teaching certificate – or both. Knowing what odds he’s already overcome, that seems an entirely possible goal.
Crown wards interested in learning more about U of G’s peer helper program or finding support can contact Jessica Westlake at firstname.lastname@example.org. Students interested in mentoring children in foster care can also contact her.