Her mother died of cancer when she was 10. Her father was physically abusive and she was removed from the home. In foster care, she lived in an emergency shelter, an all-girls group home and a co-ed group home.
Lisa Dickson was inspired by these experiences to become an advocate for change. At 16, she was accepted into college -- her lifeline into the future.
"I remain forever grateful to Randy Mills, former admissions counselor at the University of Kentucky, for literally walking me down the hall to financial aid and telling them, 'This girl has no family to help her -- this girl needs grants,' " said Dickson, now a Westerville resident.
"It sounds great to say that I started college at age 16 -- but by age 17, I was homeless due to trying to rescue my former roommate from a group home. This urge to rescue others is so strong that we Ohio foster-care (alumni) currently lead a workshop called 'When Helping You Is Hurting Me,' " Dickson said.
During her time in foster care, Dickson said she often had no voice. Today, she listens to the voices of current and former foster youth. They stand side by side to improve outcomes for people in and from foster care.
Dickson considers it an honor to volunteer as communications chairwoman of Alumni of Care Together Improving Outcomes Now Ohio, and as co-facilitator of the Overcoming Hurdles in Ohio Youth Advisory Board. She helped create both groups in 2006. Their initiatives include annual trips to Washington, D.C., to share their hard-won experiences and advocate for policy change, such as ending the "pipeline" from foster care to homelessness.
"What I don't get is this: I aged out of foster care in 1989 and ended up homeless," Dickson said. "Why are today's youths still aging out into homelessness? We could and should and must do better."
U.S. Rep. Michael Turner (R-Dayton) created the Fostering Stable Housing Opportunities Act as a direct result of one of those visits to Washington.
This act, with no additional spending required, allows foster-care youth who are close to "aging out" of foster care to jump to the front of the waitlist for housing assistance when they reach 16 years old.
ACTION Ohio's Suits for Success program provides professional attire to current and former foster youths who are preparing to enter the workforce. Suits for Success needs a future storage location for donated suits. The organization welcomes suit donations on an ongoing basis. It often pairs distribution of the suits with job-interview simulations and resume practice.
"Time and time again, our young people tell us that it's not enough to know what the resources are -- they need coaching and guidance regarding how to access them effectively."
Two such places are Capital Law School's free Family and Youth Advocacy Center for current or former foster youths and Columbus State Community College's Scholar Network.
"Even after graduating college, as a foster-care survivor, it can feel lonely to be 'one of the ones who made it,' " Dickson said. "Our young people today deserve to have campus liaisons like Randy to support them."
Holidays and birthdays can be lonely for current and former foster youths, when many families gather to celebrate.
"I've been married for 17 years and have two beloved stepdaughters, but I don't expect them to understand what the foster-care experience was like for me," Dickson said.
On Thanksgiving 2007, Dickson and other former foster youths from across the nation traveled to Washington to encourage the federal government to extend foster-care support to age 21. They shared Thanksgiving dinner on the steps of the U.S. Capitol.
From 2008 onward, Ohio has held statewide and regional early Thanksgiving dinners for foster-care teens and alumni. Dickson serves as lead planner.
"When we come together as brothers and sisters of the foster-care system, we can encourage and support one another. We celebrate each other's success and continue to improve outcomes for the next generation."
Much needs to be done, as an average of 150 children in Franklin County alone age out of foster care every year.
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Local author Liz Thompson writes the Day by Day column for ThisWeek News. Reach her at email@example.com.