NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Following his graduation from Vanderbilt University, a 22-year-old Tennessee man said Youth Villages' LifeSet program helped him find a path forward after he aged out of foster care.
"As far as like skills building, as far as like planing for the future, I didn't have a lot of people in my life that were very successful with that. So I didn't have a lot of experience or examples to draw upon in doing that for myself. So I felt like I needed some help with that," explained LifeSet participant Tristan Slough.
He spent years in foster care before he aged out when he turned 18.
"I spent basically years and in state custody I had to address a lot of that trauma, addressed a lot of the frustrations and a lot of the insecurities that I had associated with like myself and the people that I interacted with," he recounted. "I think a lot of times what the state is like, ‘If you're good now, like, that's a success in and of itself.’ They've got so much going on. It's hard to look forward at problems that aren't even you know, coming up yet."
When he was staring down his 18th birthday knowing that would be a life-changing and potentially scary year, a friend told him about Youth Villages' LifeSet program and he was soon connected with a specialist.
"My ultimate goal is to figure out what the young adult would like to work on... each person is very different, and going through different life stages," explained LifeSet specialist Samantha Walker. "It's just about providing support and stability and then just encouraging them and giving them the tools that they need to be able to meet those goals that they have set for themselves."
Walker meets with Slough weekly to help him with anything from housing, to finding a job, to a college application.
"After you aged out of the foster care system, it's just a really vulnerable timeframe," stated Walker. "So, it's really important to have supports there for you that are going to be able to just like lift you up and make sure that you're doing okay is one thing that's really important and then make sure that you're able to assist them with their next steps and their goals they have looking forward."
Slough said LifeSet helped him stay on track allowing him to focus on his education.
"The basic skills, you know, as far as like, filling out applications... setting up financial aid... building study habits and building agendas. I had a lot of that worked out, but it was a very, like, chaotic time in my life, and I think I just needed some support and guidance to kind of help me apply those skills in a way that allowed me to really tackle these problems," Slough said.
According to Youth Villages, in Tennessee, about 1,000 kids age out of foster care every year and become some of the most vulnerable citizens.
"Sometimes we're seeing drop outs, homelessness, so there really is a great need and unfortunately, we don't have a lot of foster care homes for young adults over the age of 18," explained Walker.
Slough said LifeSet helped even the playing field. "A lot of us are disconnected from families or opportunities that you know the most successful people in our communities, you know, are just given. So they kind of, in a sense, make up for that and allow us to get that type of support," he said.
With a degree from Vanderbilt and plans to begin his graduate degree at Columbia University in the fall for his master's in social work, Slough admitted he is one of the lucky ones.
"My journey is best-case scenario. I had a lot of the skills and a lot of the willingness to develop, and I was given pretty much every opportunity that can come to somebody who's coming from a background like me, I also recognize that not everybody necessarily has those skills or has those opportunities," he said.
That reality is what is motivating him to give back to the community that helped him succeed when he graduates.
"It's just that it's luck. I was fortunate to have this opportunity," he said. "And if I can change that to where it's more of a given as opposed to, you know, 'lucky circumstances.' I think we could see a lot more success in young adults, especially from those coming from the backgrounds that I've come from."
In addition to a specialist, LifeSet participants are paired with a mentor in the community. Many of those mentors are matched with kids while they are still in the foster care system. Those interested in mentoring a child in Tennessee should read more about the mentorship program on the program's website.