On April 27th, Mississippi became the 36th state to pass a tuition waiver for foster youth pursuing postsecondary education when Gov. Tate Reeves officially signed House Bill 1313, also known as the Kinkade FAITH Scholarship Program, mandating that former Mississippi foster youth aged 18-21 be eligible to apply annually for $1 million in state scholarships for public and private school fees.
Top: First Place CEO Thomas Lee, MSYV Andranella Lawyer, First Place First Place Mississippi Site Director Samantha Kalahar; Bottom: MSYV Bertie Bryant, Gov. Tate Reeves, MSYV Elena Bolanos, First Place Chief Policy Officer Jane Schroeder
First Place for Youth CEO Thomas Lee, Mississippi Site Director Samantha Kalahar, Chief Policy Officer Jane Schroeder, and First Place’s Mississippi Youth Voice program members all attended the ceremonial signing celebration at the Governor’s Mansion.
Local foster care agencies and leaders rallied around this effort but Andrea Sanders, Commissioner of the Mississippi Department of Child Protective Services, noted that the “real heroes” are the foster youth who advocated to make this historic moment possible.
“This inspires a new path for our foster youth,” Commissioner Sanders said, noting that the legislation addresses barriers Mississippi youth have faced in funding, attending and completing college.
Mississippi Youth Voice youth leaders helped to draft the language for the tuition waiver bill, participated in the House Education Committee hearings, and hosted an informational webinar on the need for the program. They also collaborated with leadership from the Mississippi Department of Child Protective Services, the Jim Casey Foundation, the state Community College Board, the Institute for Higher Learning (Mississippi’s governing board for higher education), and the Mississippi Association of Child Caring Agencies to build out the policy and gain support critical to the implementation of the scholarship program.
“Mississippi youth leaders moved systems and resources to work on behalf of all foster youth in Mississippi,” said First Place CEO Thomas Lee.
“I have been out of custody for over a year and have not been able to get my own place because of my age,” said Janialia, a member of Mississippi Youth Voice who worked on the bill. “I am ready to get my own place and not rely on everyone else for a place to stay. I want to finish school and forget about foster care and just live my life.”
First Place CEO Thomas Lee (right) pictured with Gov. Tate Reeves (left).
With the passage of the Kinkade FAITH Scholarship Program, former Mississippi foster youth aged 18-21 will be eligible to apply annually for $1 million in state scholarships for public and private school fees. The scholarship fund will cover tuition, fees, room and board expenses at any Mississippi state or private nonprofit university or community college, and on-campus housing costs during school breaks and holidays. Under this bill, youth aged 18 will be able to legally sign their own rental agreements, leases and residential utility contracts to secure safe places to live.
Growing up in the foster care system, with inconsistent family support and a lack of guidance to acquire the living skills needed to lead a successful independent adult life, Mississippi youth who exit the foster care system at the age of 18 lack legal guardians to consent or co-sign for housing leases or utility hookups. The inability to independently secure housing leaves these young adults vulnerable to human trafficking, criminal activities, homelessness, and untenable situations of domestic violence. Youth living in campus dormitories are also at risk of becoming homeless over school breaks and holidays. Youth worked to ensure that access to safe housing was a key component of the legislation.
We are incredibly proud of the advocacy efforts that First Place staff and Mississippi Youth Voice members put into championing this bill and helping to pass this historic legislation that will impact the lives of foster youth for many years to come—it is truly a legacy to be proud of!