Together We Rise: Fighting For Those In Foster Care Even After They’ve Aged Out

With Together We Rise, getting through college gets just a bit easier for foster care individuals.

By Kelly Guidry

In 2008, Danny Mendoza found out that his younger cousin, who was in the foster care system, was sleeping in a car every night instead of a bed. At this realization, he decided to make a change for those like his cousin. Thus, Together We Rise was established.

With help and encouragement from his friends and family, this non-profit organization has now grown to a network of passionate individuals who want to help those going through foster care.

Through collaboration with volunteers, companies and community partners, Together We Rise brings resources to foster youth, whether it is a new bicycle, college supplies or their trademark “sweet cases,” so that children do not have to move from home to home with their belongings in a trash bag.

When people think of foster care, they may not think of what happens to those who have grown up in the system and are now out in the real world, with little to no support behind them. Unlike other organizations that strictly focus on foster care children, Together We Rise took the opportunity to provide a backbone for those that have “aged” out of the system and are looking to pursue higher education.

With the Family Fellowship Program, they offer individuals the chance to not only have financial support, but a family when going through college. Together We Rise, in conjunction with the Fund II Foundation, aleves the financial burden these students face when going through college the best they can, by offering students a $90,000 scholarship over the course of five years.

With funds for this scholarship coming from donors and volunteers who hold fundraisers to raise the money, support for this program comes from all different types of sources. Since its start, millions of former foster care individuals apply each year for their chance to receive the prestigious scholarship.

In order to be considered, they must fill out an application in the spring and go through a series of interviews with the scholarship coordinator and executive director of Together We Rise before being accepted. With only 10 fellows accepted per year, the competition is intense, but the reward is certainly worth it in the end.

“This program is still fairly new, but we’re already seeing its impact through our amazing fellows and everything they are succeeding in,” said Executive Assistant at Together We Rise, Taylor Shaw. Only 3 percent of youth who age out of the foster care system graduate college, and even fewer go on to pursue higher educational degrees. But, our fellows are succeeding in school and we even have one fellow who just finished her master’s degree.”

From helping them budget their money to dispersing stipends that help with their monthly expenses, the coordinators of the Family Fellowship Program make sure that fellows are financially prepared to navigate through college. They also help them with other obstacles the students might face while in higher education, such as setting them up with a tutoring service if needed or assisting them with their housing.

“Together We Rise saw that a lot of foster children want to pursue higher education, but don’t have an adequate amount of resources to do so,” said Together We  Rise Scholarship Coordinator La’Shall Wells. “[We] decided that [we should] step in and help to financially support [them]. We are [also] offering them a network of mentorship and letting them know they constantly have a support system with us. We are giving them a sense of family.”

From the first cohort of students accepted three years ago, to the most recent cohort brought in earlier this year, Together We Rise is ultimately providing a form of consistency for these young individuals, which they didn’t get when growing up in the foster care system. “Oftentimes, being in the foster care system, [students believe] their feelings aren’t validated or that no one cares for them,” Wells said. “But with Together We Rise, we are letting them know we are here for them and we’re not going anywhere.”

Since Together We Rise has been providing students with a sense of relief as they pursue higher education, it is inevitable that those who are a part of the organization carry with them the memories of many happy moments.Wells’, in particular, happened earlier this spring.

She said, “[My] favorite moment would have to be from this year when we accepted our cohort of 10 fellows. Once the students are accepted we fly them out [to our headquarters in Brea, California] and host a big bruncheon with the main donors for the program. When we surprised them that they had been accepted – up until that point they still thought they were in the competition, so when we surprised them – we not only let them know that they were in, but we gave them all brand new laptops and took them on a VIP tour of Disneyland. Seeing them cry was just a good moment to know we were responsible for those tears of joy.”

As Together We Rise continues to support those who are in the foster care system, Shaw, Wells and the many others in the organization encourage everyone to get involved if they are passionate about a certain cause or issue. Wells said, “Have a true passion to [get involved] and understand that change doesn’t come fast, it’s a progression. A lot of people get in these positions and say ‘I want to change the world right away,’ but it’s hard work. If you have a true passion to want to see change, be patient and be passionate.”