Maria Kelley Knows
Maria Kelley knows what it’s like to not know where you are going to be living or who will take care of you.
The 18 year old Florida native knows what it’s like to not know if you can stay in the same high school where it feels safe and familiar.
She knows what it’s like to not know if you are going to have a secure future with permanent relationships.
That’s because Maria Kelley knows what it’s like to be in foster care.
But now Maria also knows what it’s like to feel hope, to excel in a four-year college, and to help others in the same position she found herself in just a few years ago.
Maria is one of the 158 Connecticut youth in foster care to have participated in the Rising Scholars program (see main story) since it began in 2013. And she credits the staff with giving her the encouragement and support to succeed as a freshman at UCONN.
“They opened so many doors of opportunity for me,” said Maria of the Rising Scholars program. “It gave me hope and inspired me to keep working hard.”
She said the program inspired many others as well and that about 15 of the foster youth she attended the summer program with in 2018 are now at a college.
College was the furthest thing from her mind just a few years ago. That’s because Maria last entered foster care when she was 13 and was placed into a group or “congregate” setting. At 15, she was placed into a foster family. Fortunately for Maria, she had a fantastic social worker – Gina Cluff -- who specializes in serving adolescents out of the Department’s Willimantic office.
“Gina is amazing,” Maria said. “She is so huge in my life. She’s never given up on me and had my back since day one.”
Ms. Cluff clearly recognized Maria’s potential.
Although Maria was once a special education student, school was a sanctuary for Maria that she embraced despite all the uncertainty in her life.
“She was thriving in school and getting good grades,” said Ms. Cluff. “So she was a natural for the program.”
Maria participated in the Rising Star program during her junior year and the summer before she returned to Wethersfield High School as a senior. During that summer, Maria took classes at the UCONN Storrs campus in math and English composition as well as another in general college preparation, she said.
She earned college credits – but the benefits went well beyond that.
The experience gave Maria the confidence that she belonged in college and that she could thrive in the environment of a top-flight university like UCONN.
“It gave me the hope that I can do this,” she said. “It’s a pre-college experience. You walk to class, you go to the dining hall. I use the habits I gained then, including study habits. And I saw other kids in my situation on campus. It made me realize that I can do this.”
She certainly can.
Maria just completed the first semester of her freshman year at the Storrs UCONN campus. She received an A in every class except for one -- in which she earned a B.
Her social worker, Ms. Cluff, is proud of Maria – not just for her performance academically, but also for her generous spirit that has her giving back to others.
“Maria is a leader,” said Ms. Cluff. “So Rising Scholars asked her to come back.”
Maria now is working for the program under Susana Ulloa, the director of High School Initiatives at the Center for Academic Programs, and program coordinator Alex Katz.
“She’s working with us as an office assistant and acting as a mentor to the foster youth who are now in college,” said Ms. Ulloa.
Maria said that helping other children and youth in foster care is her aspiration – perhaps as an attorney or advocate.
Clearly she has the skills, the compassion and the experience to be a powerful voice for children in foster care.
“Foster care is emotionally hard,” Maria said. “Education inequality is so present for foster kids in particular. Education was a safe haven for me. Other foster children might be able to grab onto that too.
“There is always hope – always light at the end of the tunnel,” Maria summed up.