Graduation 2011: Bremerton senior finds motivation through support from foster mom

Jessica Garcia, a senior at Bremerton High School, will graduate Friday. Starting the school year behind in credits, she was motivated to succeed through the support from her foster mother.  - Kristin Okinaka/staff photo
Jessica Garcia, a senior at Bremerton High School, will graduate Friday. Starting the school year behind in credits, she was motivated to succeed through the support from her foster mother.
— image credit: Kristin Okinaka/staff photo

Jessica Garcia missed more than 50 days of class at Bremerton High School her junior year and the days she did show up, she was always late. Her family life at home wasn’t supportive and she didn’t care. Then everything changed this year as a senior — because of one person.

“My defining moment was being placed in foster care,” said Garcia, 18.

Garcia will graduate with her classmates Friday in due part because of the motivation she has received from her foster mother, Catherine Munzi.

Trailing in credits, Munzi pushed Garcia to meet with a school counselor in September to arrange a graduation plan. And not only will the graduation ceremony commemorate the student’s academic accomplishments, it signifies Garcia being ready to tackle life after high school.

Raised by her grandparents in a shaky situation where she and her younger sister did not receive a lot of attention, a fight between Garcia and her grandmother led to child protective services intervening and placing Garcia and her sister in foster care last year. Garcia doesn’t know her father and although her mother resides in Bremerton, she hasn’t been a vital part in her life.

Placed with a foster family in Gig Harbor in May 2010, Garcia was worried that she and her sister would be split up, or that they would remain in Gig Harbor and have to transfer schools. Neither of those things happened when Munzi, the high school’s flag team advisor, offered the sisters to live with her. Because Garcia was a member of the flag team, Munzi was familiar with Garcia’s home life. The girls ended up moving in with Munzi about a week or two after being with the Gig Harbor family.

“I’ve known her for so long and I really cared about her. I felt like she needed a chance,” said Munzi, 28. “I didn’t want them to get lost in the system.”

In Kitsap County, 27 students in foster care are graduating from high school or are receiving their GED this year. Five of the 27 are remaining in foster care through continuing their education in college, said Fred Gold, social worker supervisor for children’s administration of the state Department of Social and Health Services. Foster children are eligible to stay in foster care until age 21 if they are enrolled in school or are in vocational training, the best way to ensure a bright future.

“Your income level goes up, the more education you get. We really try to push that with our kids,” Gold said.

Without further education, they may end up on the streets. About 6 percent of those in foster care become homeless within the first month after exiting foster care, according to a study by the University of Chicago, said Gold. The same study found 22 percent become homeless within two-and-a-half years of leaving foster care, he added.

There are programs set up to keep those numbers low.

West Sound Youth for Christ’s Independent Living program is a federally funded program administered by the state focusing on preparing foster youth to transition out of foster care. The program begins working with eligible youth at age 15, covering a variety of topics including education opportunities, relationship skills, budgeting and housing options.

“Very few 18-year-olds are ready to be launched out even as a normal kid,” said Nancy Kuhuski, interim director and counselor of Independent Living.

Because of the guidance and support Garcia has received from Munzi, who she calls “mom” and considers her role model, Garcia not only stepped up as a student and excelled in school, but also feels ready to soon be out on her own. She plans to attend Olympic College in the fall and at that time may move out. She is interested in both fashion retail and journalism and wants to eventually attend a four-year university.

“She had a pretty rough past and now she has someone there pushing her and making her want to improve,” said Shannara Hankinson, a senior at Bremerton High School who has been friends with Garcia since middle school. “I’m very proud of her, she’s taken on a lot of responsibilities.”

Aside from being flag team captain and doing homework and studying for regular classes, Garcia completed Odyssey Ware and took five classes at Olympic College throughout the school year in order to graduate. Odyssey Ware is a component where students can complete online work to fulfill failed classes. Garcia’s Odyssey advisor, Naomi Spear, said she made up four whole classes through Odyssey this year.

“She worked at home and here. She worked tirelessly,” Spear said. “This year she was completely different.”

Having that person there for her is what pushed Garcia to not just get by with reaching minimum requirements.

“I had the goal of graduating. I wanted to show her how much I appreciate her and respect myself,” Garcia said of Munzi.

And whereas some like Garcia find their strength in an adult mentor, others find different ways to succeed.

Tyffiniee Vincent, 17, has been through about five different foster homes in about a year. A junior at Bremerton High School who started running start at Olympic College this year, she never had someone encouraging her to do well in school — she had the opposite.

“She pulled me out because I was succeeding,” Vincent said, of her mother taking her and her younger sister out of school last March. They ended up in foster care last September.

For Vincent, it was proving her mother wrong and that she could succeed that drove her to push herself.

While Vincent has a year until her graduation, Garcia is excited to soon call herself a graduate. Munzi plans on adopting Garcia’s 16-year-old sister and although she wanted to adopt Garcia, the paperwork did not process before her 18th birthday.

However, even though the two are not legally bound or connected by blood, they both consider each other family.

“She knows that I’m here for her and whatever she needs for the rest of her life, I’m going to be there,” Munzi said.

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