Volunteers support former foster-care students, people with mental disabilities and others.
After Rebecka Greenhagen aged out of the foster-care system at age 17, her case worker dropped her off at a Nebraska university and wished her luck. After that, she was on her own.
Without money to buy necessities and without a place to stay during breaks between semesters, Greenhagen dropped out of college.
"I felt all alone," she said.
She joined the Navy before returning to college in 2010 -- this time at the University of North Texas. She heard about a new student organization called PUSH -- or Persevere UNTil Success Happens -- that aims to support former foster-care students at UNT. Members of PUSH also reach out to the community, making presentations at conferences around the state and giving campus tours to children in foster care. For Greenhagen, PUSH made a difference -- helping her succeed in college and allowing her to realize a dream of sharing her story to motivate others.
PUSH is one of several student organizations at UNT focused on helping community members -- whether inside or outside of UNT. A chapter of the nonprofit organization Best Buddies focuses on creating one-on-one friendships between people with mental disabilities and college student volunteers. And the UNT chapter of the national organization Active Minds works to take the stigma out of mental illness, opening a healthy conversation about mental health issues on college campuses.
"Active Minds is about raising awareness and getting more resources out there," says Julie Parish, president of the UNT chapter of Active Minds. "We partner with other organizations on campus, such as the UNT Counseling Center."
One of Parish's fellow students started the chapter as part of an advocacy class in the College of Public Affairs and Community Service, and Parish has been involved since the beginning. The group received a five-star rating -- the highest rating a chapter can earn -- from the organization's regional chapter managers in the 2011-2012 school year for its administration, communication, leadership, planning and outreach.
Parish is a second-year rehabilitation counseling master's student who earned a bachelor's degree in development and family studies in UNT's College of Education. After graduating, she hopes to work as a rehabilitation counselor with veterans. In the meantime, she hopes the work with Active Minds helps others speak up about mental health issues and seek help when they need it.
Power of friendship
Sarah Burt, an undergraduate with a major in rehabilitation studies in the College of Public Affairs and Community Service, started a UNT chapter of Best Buddies this fall so that community members with intellectual or developmental disabilities could create one-on-one friendships with UNT students. The students contact their buddies twice a week and visit with their buddies about once a month -- dancing at a winter formal, participating in a 5K Friendship Walk and more.
"The power of friendship has affected our buddies so much," Burt said. "It's really important that they feel like they can be included and accepted in social situations; it is vital to their development. The power of friendship is indescribable."
Burt describes her own buddy as "a lot more open" since joining the group. "She has gotten a lot more friends and seems overall happier and more comfortable with herself -- more confident."
Burt says she wants Best Buddies to grow and include people who never before had experiences with others with disabilities. And for her, it's been a learning experience to expand the organization.
"I have learned so much about leadership that I really didn't know before," Burt says. "And it's been a journey but I would not trade it for anything. It's a lot of hard work, and it is all well worth it.
Supporting one another
PUSH -- the group that helps students who were in the foster care system or part of the child welfare system -- was started in 2012 with the help of Brenda Sweeten, who coordinates the child welfare training program in the Social Work Program, which is part of the Department of Community and Professional Programs. When many college students need money for textbooks or a place to stay during winter break, they turn to Mom and Dad. Students who have aged out of the foster care system may have no parents to turn to for help, Sweeten says.
"The goal of this organization is to make sure we're supporting each other," says Sweeten, who enlisted the help of former foster-care students in founding the group.
People who have aged out of the foster care system have dealt with a lot of loss -- and the change of college life can sometimes feel like a loss to them, says foster care alumnus Jackie Davis, a former president of PUSH and now vice president of PUSH.
"When you come to college, you are being pulled out of your environment," Davis says. "Nothing around you is familiar, and that can take a toll on you. We have dealt with a lot of loss, going through life and moving around so much, and sometimes coming to college feels like a loss if you don't have any friends, you don't know where to go to get tutoring, you're struggling to get a meal on the weekends, or you don't know where to stay on holidays. Others get to go home on Thanksgiving or Christmas, but where do we go? These are challenges that people often don't think about that we have to go through."
Reaching out to others
Recently, PUSH members invited foster-care children for campus tours.
"A lot of these kids had never thought about college," says Krystal Saldivar, a social work major at UNT. "My mission is to encourage students at UNT and in foster care and even at other schools to stay in school -- not to give up. We can be a support system for them."
Saldivar grew up in foster care most of her life. She completed her first semester at another university in 2007 but left after encountering financial aid issues, she says. She came to UNT in August 2011. Now president of PUSH, she plans to graduate with a bachelor's degree in social work from UNT in December 2013.
PUSH helped student Xavier Hicks, who is studying social work, open up about his own story of foster care and adoption.
"I didn't know anyone else on campus that had been in foster care or was adopted," says Hicks, who was adopted at age 8. "I had close friends I never told I was adopted. PUSH has helped me become a lot more open about things that I have held in for years. Through my story, I actually help others."
For Greenhagen, PUSH offers the support of a family -- a family with shared experiences.
"You don't have to feel different," she said. "We are just like you."