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Brian Nicholson, Deseret News
A group of young adults help Jesse Sessions cross a balance beam during the 10th Annual Utah Youth Summit at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City Wednesday, August 1, 2012. Approximately 200 youth, ages 14 and older - who are in foster care or have ged outof foster care, will gather together for two days to learn the skills needed to transition into adult living.
My mother gave birth to me but she didn't raise me. The foster care system did. —Nikki Strieby

SALT LAKE CITY  — There are no blood relatives among Courtney Bown's closest acquaintances at the 2012 Utah Youth Summit for children 14 and older who are in foster care.

But she says it feels like family to her because of the youths' common life experiences. "It feels comfortable to me. I'm surrounded by kids who have been through the same things I have. They're trying to do some of the same things as me. I belong here with these kids," said Bown, 18.

The primary goal of the summit, conducted recently on the University of Utah campus, is to encourage Utah children in foster care to graduate from high school and explore college or job training programs. The group of nearly 200 youth stayed in dorms and toured the college campus during the two-day conference.

National studies of children who age out of foster care show that less than half graduate from high school, compared to 85 percent of all 18-to-24-year-olds. Fewer than one in eight graduates from college.

Reece Garcia, 18, wants to buck those odds. He graduated from high school early and already has a semester of community college under his belt. He will resume his studies at Salt Lake Community College later this month. The state provides education and training vouchers for students who go to college or seek job training.

Garcia's childhood has included multiple placements in foster homes, group homes and programs. He's negotiated a world of caseworkers, juvenile court judges, foster parents and program coordinators. But he says those experiences have helped shaped him into a young adult with strong life skills.

"You look at life and you know what you got to do," he said.

But it's also been his experience that the labels of "foster care" or a "youth in state custody" give pause to some people he has encountered. "Those phrases, titles given to us by the public, automatically subject a person to being viewed negatively," he said.

Most children are in foster care because it is unsafe for them to remain at home or with other family members because of abuse or neglect. 

"The people we were living with were not mature enough or healthy enough to take care of us," he said.

While Garcia is focused on his future, youth who age out of the foster care system face steep challenges such as trouble maintaining employment. More than one-fourth of males have spent time in jail and 40 percent become parents, according to national statistics.

Bown, who is working two jobs, plans to graduate from high school this year and then enroll in a two-year program to become a veterinary technician. She is once again living with her mother, which has been difficult at times.

"Even though that's not always been the best situation for me, she's still my mom. I'll always forgive her. If it wasn't for her, I wouldn't be here," she said.

Later, when the time's right, Bown said she'd like to start her own family.

Nikki Strieby, 19, said her journey in foster care has also taught her the importance of family — not just birth families but important role foster parents serve.

"My mother gave birth to me but she didn't raise me. The foster care system did."

Strieby has graduated from high school and is now working for a pizza chain in Tooele after leaving a Job Corps program. Once Strieby saves enough money, she plans to enroll in college to study criminal justice and graphic design.

Presently, she is homeless. But for a couple of nights at least, "home" was a dorm room on a college campus. The summit provided room, board and emotional uplift, Strieby said.

"I like inspirational things. I like this summit because I meet a lot of cool people."

She also relished the opportunity to mentor younger teens in foster care. "When I was little, I always wanted someone to look up to."

Bown said she learned a lot from the break-out sessions on topics such as goal setting, accountability and conflict resolution but she also gained support from other youths.

"Everyone's here to help each other, not just for themselves," she said.

E-mail: marjorie@desnews.com