Through Thick and Thin: Emmylee Crocker’s Opportunity Passport™ Story
When other supports stepped out, Opportunity Passport™ (OP™) stepped in. That’s how Emmylee Crocker will remember her experience with the program. When she first learned of OP™ while attending Central High School in Corinth, Maine, she knew it was something she wanted to be a part of. “I wanted to go to college and I knew I needed to save some money. I knew DHHS helped, but I didn’t know how much. I didn’t know how much I needed for books. I didn’t know anything about FASFA. Opportunity Passport™ taught me how to start saving.”
Like so many others, Emmylee had a tough time in middle school. She changed foster homes at about that time. “Not only was I the new kid in school, but I was the new kid in my neighborhood, the new kid in my home.” She remained at that home throughout high school, and was able to make lasting friendships. Enjoying the atmosphere of a small high school, Emmylee got to know her teachers and they got to know her. She was given support that she had never been given before, making school the most enjoyable it had been.
After high school, Emmylee moved to Augusta. It was then that she bought her first car with the help of the Opportunity Passport™ program. She was working at Subway at the time, using cab rides as her primary source of transportation. The car purchased with matched Opportunity Passport™ funds made a big difference for Emmylee not only because she now had more money for living expenses, but also because she didn’t need to worry about a cab running late or the cab company shutting down in a snowstorm. The car provided peace of mind and the ability to be the employee she wanted to be. “Opportunity Passport™ works. They tell you the help will be there, and it is there. And it’s easy to use.”
Emmylee appreciates that the Opportunity Passport™ program sticks with young adults until the age of 26. “Finances get really tough around 22, 23. OP™ helps you stay caught up, and can even help you get ahead”, applying lessons learned on saving money, budgeting, and making smart purchases. Emmylee is now expecting her first child and knows that continued access to matching OP™ funds and ongoing support from program staff can make an important difference in her life and the lives of other youth in care.
No Car, No College: Mariah Trimble-Smith’s Opportunity Passport™ Story
Resilient and perseverance aren’t words many 23 year olds would use to describe themselves. But according to Opportunity Passport™ participant, Mariah Trimble-Smith, these are necessities for any young person who has been in the foster care system. In a world where adults consistently let you down, finding strength in yourself will get you through.
Mariah was taken into the foster care system one week before her 14th birthday, a day she will always remember. What was supposed to be a 3-month stay in a group home, turned into a longer stay while a foster care placement was found. She met Jen Baillargeon, a DHHS youth transition worker, when she was 15 years old. She credits Jen with introducing her to the Opportunity Passport™ program. Even though Mariah admits to putting Jen through the “ringer” – testing if she was going to stick around, testing if she had Mariah’s best interests at heart – Mariah reports that Jen proved to be not only be a trustworthy adult a 15-year-old girl needed, but later a friend. “I am thankful to have adults in my life that I can count on.”
Mariah also stays in contact with Debbie Bechard, Jobs for Maine’s Graduates’ Special Projects Manager, who first trained Mariah in the Opportunity Passport™ (OP™) program. “I have known both Jen and Debbie since I was 15 years old. They have seen me through a lot.” With the help of OP™, Mariah has been able to purchase a car and pay for car insurance. “For me, no car meant no college. Maine is a rural state and if I didn’t have my own car to get to work, to get to and from college, I never would have been able to go.” Going to college isn’t always easy. Like so many other young people who balance work and going to school, Mariah continues to plug away at her goals. She wants other youth in foster care to know that if you want to reach your goals, you have to work hard. “You might have to work harder than you ever expected, but it’s worth it.”
For Mariah, Opportunity Passport™ has meant the car that helped open up more employment opportunities because she could seek out positions in surrounding towns. It’s meant extra money for books when her financial aid package didn’t cover them. And it’s been a connection to a financial coach who has given Mariah further assistance in repairing her credit. With the help of Jane Thomas, her financial coach, Mariah learned about the credit card debt that had been incurred through misuse of her identify. Without her coach, Mariah feels she wouldn’t have found out about the debt until she was ready to apply for a car loan or a mortgage. Now she can be proactive and is working to repair and improve her credit.
Do the words perseverance and resiliency sum up Mariah Trimble-Smith? Not even close. But they are a good start to describing the amazing young woman who is now working in the social work field and building connections with other young people who are experiencing difficult times in their lives. She understands that sometimes things take time, but that hard work and relying on supportive people in your life can make anything possible.
Amanda was introduced to the Opportunity Passport™ program through her caseworker while she was enrolled on the V-9 program two years ago. Once she was no longer on the V-9, she was fearful that she would lose her access to Opportunity Passport™ and was happy to find out she could keep it!
Although Amanda has a full time job, she is also enrolled in college full time. She realized she couldn’t afford the $800 for textbooks for one semester. As she said, “That’s more than my rent…it’s more than I make in a month!” So she was able to get her savings of $400 matched for her textbooks.
Amanda credits the Opportunity Passport™ with helping her stay in school and keep a roof over her head. She sees no negatives involved in being part of the OP™ program. In her view, Opportunity Passport™ allows a young adult the opportunity to slow down and stop to think about what he/she wants out of life…and then set a goal and achieve it. She says, “Even if you’re someone who doesn’t believe you need help, Opportunity Passport™ can help you!”
Casey Smith has been involved in the Opportunity Passport™ since 2010 after hearing about the program at a Bangor Youth Leadership Advisory Team (YLAT) meeting. At the time, Casey was 20 years old and working at a movie theatre. With no driver’s license or car, he bicycled to work,even in mid-winter; as a result, he was often sick and often missed work. Through learning about budgeting and saving in the financial literacy training, Casey set a goal to find a better paying job and save for a car. In August 2011, three days after getting his driver’s license, Casey purchased a used car, using the full match of $1,000.
Besides getting to work, having transportation enabled Casey to participate in public speaking events, such as the 2012 Community Conversations, as well as enroll in college where he is currently studying mental health and human services. His future educational goals include studying law.
Casey has used the Opportunity Passport™ match for an apartment, saving enough to pay his rent three months in advance. He credits the Opportunity Passport™ with helping him to develop a very high credit score, something he knows has impressed his landlord. Casey feels that the Opportunity Passport™ “helped me get ahead & show the way to use resources. “
Casey is now saving for a new car and hopes to be able to make financial investments in the future. He says that if more youth knew about the Opportunity Passport™ they would be better prepared for life as an adult when they leave foster care. He feels that the experience of participating in Opportunity Passport™ “teaches you how to be successful, it shows you the consequences and rewards of setting a goal & saving.”
Devan’s story is typical of many young people involved in the foster care system. Starting at a very young age, Devan was moved from one foster home to another, and eventually found himself
homeless as a young teenager. A few years later, when he was 17, Devan was living in a group home and signed up for the financial literacy program as part of the Opportunity Passport™.
At the time, Devan found himself trapped in a financial cycle that many foster youth find themselves in. He was working at a K-mart within walking distance of his group home, but wanted to buy a car so he could find a better job and enroll in a college course to become a paramedic and get his life on a successful path. However, he couldn’t afford a car on his part-time wages. Without a car he was limited to the low-paying jobs available near the group home.
Through the Opportunity Passport™ Devan was able to save enough money that, along with the match, allowed him to buy his first used car. With transportation, Devan found a full-time job further from the home and started taking college courses toward an associate’s degree in paramedicine.
Devan says the car he bought also enabled him to become a volunteer firefighter, which he finds rewarding and offers valuable experience as he pursues a career as a paramedic. Devan says there is no question the Opportunity Passport™ program has provided valuable help to him as he transitions from foster care to life as an independent adult.
Paula Burrows, who graduated from the University of Southern Maine, was enrolled in Opportunity Passport™ for five years, beginning in 2005. Paula purchased several assets, including certificates of deposit and educational expenses.
In addition to the financial help, Paul states that “the program has also taught me a lot about financial literacy. While participating in the program I have participated in a day-long financial literacy training. I have also had the opportunity to give back while in the program by speaking to other youth about my successes and encouraging them to save.”
Paula credits the Opportunity Passport™ program with helping her graduate from college with no debt, enabling her to save money to find an apartment with friends after college.
As Paula says, “The OP™ program is a wonderful thing, and I hope it can continue and help other youth in foster care grow into financially responsible and successful adults.”