Three sisters, ages 8, 9 and 10, spent hours at a Rock Island park one day in 1997, waiting for their mother to come and take them home. When the police came instead, Shamika Armstrong Harrison and Tanika and Cherita McNeal quickly dismissed the offered explanation that their drug-addicted mother had been hospitalized.
"We already knew she was in jail," Tanika McNeal said. "We knew. We were used to it."
On that day, the sisters began a harrowing journey through the American foster care system. It took them to 20 different homes in a matter of five years, more than a few of those under the care of paid custodians so abusive and/or indifferent the girls often lacked clean clothes to wear to school.
Their journey could have ended with the sisters being a part of the legion of statistics that chart the hardluck fates of foster system products.
That fewer than half graduate from high school, for instance. Or worse, that 40 percent experience at least a period of homelessness by age 24.
Instead, with a short walk across a stage on Dec. 17 at the Davenport RiverCenter, Harrison, now a 24-year-old married mother of two, and Tanika McNeal, 23, became part of a much happier statistical category.
When they collected their bachelor's degrees in Criminal Justice from St. Ambrose that day, they joined the fewer than 3 percent of former foster kids nationwide who receive four-year college degrees.
"It is a huge accomplishment for both girls," said Julie Voss, who distributes scholastic aid to former foster children as Educational Training Voucher coordinator for the Iowa Department of Human Services. "A giant accomplishment."
The two new college grads credit the stable environment supplied them in recent years by Ryan Saddler '96, MEd '06, SAU's director of student disability services, his wife, Linnea '03, and by Linnea's mother, Norma Webb-Green.
The Saddlers were Harrison's last foster parents while Webb-Green served the same role for Tanika and Cherita McNeal, the latter a sophomore this year at Scott Community College in Bettendorf.
The McNeal sisters live now with the Saddlers, who met the girls through Gospel Mission Temple in Davenport. The sisters also credit their faith and Pastor Jimmy R. Horton for helping them complete their educations.
Tanika McNeal saves a little credit for herself, but only to the extent that, "I let myself trust God and (the Saddlers). I'm proud of myself for letting them come into my life. Trust was a big issue for me."
The sisters' success also is owed to a spark within them, one they carried through the loss of both birth parents to prison, through the many placements and schools, the abusive environments, the torment from schoolmates.
"It could have been us wanting to make something of our lives," Harrison said. "School was an outlet from what was going on at home. We were successful at something.''
The sisters chose to major in criminal justice as a means to reach back, help and encourage current and future foster children. Harrison works with juveniles at Family Resources, Inc., in Davenport. She hopes eventually to attend law school, with an eye on family court. Tanika McNeal is a Rock Island County corrections officer and volunteers as an advocate for foster children at Scott County Kids.
"We would like to be symbols of hope," Harrison said. "When you are going through things, it seems like it would be impossible to get to where you can be independent or successful. We want those young people to know there is still hope for them and not to give up on their lives."
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