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University hosts first Thanksgiving lunch for foster care students

It is the season of giving and the Ohio Reach Scholars Program is giving back to the community.

On Nov. 15, The Office of Multicultural Student Access and Retention in partnership with the Ohio chapter of Foster Care Alumni of America and other agencies hosted a Thanksgiving lunch in Jefferson Hall for Southeast Ohio foster care children and their families.

The early Thanksgiving dinner for current and former foster youth is a statewide event, but this is the first year one has been hosted in Southeast Ohio. The 1 to 4 p.m. lunch was an opportunity to introduce high school foster care students to a college environment and integrate them into the Ohio University family.

“These events are important because they raise awareness in the community about children in foster care,” said Michael Outrich, a senior geographic information systems major. “It allows the Ohio Reach Scholars and Ohio University to reach out and serve the community. It also offers a glimpse into what higher education is to those who are in foster care by showing them the resources and support available to them if they choose to attend college at Ohio University.”

In the past, OMSAR has coordinated alternative programming for the Ohio Reach Scholars during family-themed weekends. Jacob Okumu, program coordinator for student outreach and development services, said the Scholars now want to help plan an event for others.

“They’re already asking, what can we do to help, to reach out to other people?” Okumu said. “You (OMSAR) are creating an opportunity for us to now acknowledge that we have gifts and talents and that we can actually give back.”

Marlene De La Cruz-Guzman, director of OMSAR, said the Ohio Reach Scholars can play an instrumental role in mentoring the high school foster care students.

“One of the things that they tell us is they wish they’d had our services even before they came to Ohio University … this is a really good opportunity for them to touch base with the next group of Scholars,” De La Cruz-Guzman said.

De La Cruz-Guzman also said there was a lot of support for the event, not only within the University, but also from the Athens community. Local barbeque restaurant Kiser's  catered the Thanksgiving lunch, Ohio University Housing and Residence Life provided the space and many of the foster parents brought desserts.

“Everyone was grateful for those who put in the time and effort into planning for the event and for making it a huge success,” Outrich said. “The food was absolutely delicious and the sense of family and community was felt among us all.”

In the future, OMSAR wants to establish a formal student mentoring program so that foster care students in high school have the opportunity to connect with Ohio Reach Scholars and learn firsthand about the services and resources available to them at the University, such as financial aid and free health care.

OMSAR hopes to use this first Thanksgiving lunch as the groundwork for growth. Future Ohio Reach Scholars Program initiatives include establishing a grant writing program, formalizing the student mentoring program and reaching out to local organizations to welcome foster care students to the Athens campus.  

“It’s really important for us at Ohio University to develop this identity that’s committed to serving Ohio Reach Scholars because we’re not only setting out once you get here to support you, but we’re going to make those connections now while you’re still in high school,” De La Cruz-Guzman said.