Funds help former youth in care pursue post-secondary education in B.C.
MAPLE RIDGE, B.C. -- British Columbia's sky-high cost of living has made post-secondary education out of reach for many. Basic living expenses for the average student are nearly $19,700 per year, according to the B.C. Ministry of Advanced Education, Skills and Training.
The financial burden is a major barrier for former youth in care. Programs supported by United Way are now making their dreams a reality.
In 2017, the province made a Provincial Tuition Waiver available for young people who have been in government care.
Soraya Bellou from Maple Ridge was one of those recipients. She was placed in foster care when she was 15 years old.
"You really feel like you're in a place of survival,” Bellou told CTV News.
Bellou immigrated to Canada in 2006. Her family grappled with divorce and the stress of mental health challenges.
"Being on your own you really feel like there's no room to make a mistake, because inevitably at the end of the day, what's it going to look like when you do fail?” Bellou said.
Despite her unstable home life, she was accepted into the University of British Columba at the age of 17. Her degree was paid for by the Provincial Tuition Waiver Program.
"There were a couple of times in which I inevitably failed courses," Bellou said.
That’s because she had a full course load and was working seven days a week.
"If you need to take time to study and prioritize your education, you are making a conscious choice to lose money that's going toward your rent, your food and all your additional expenses," said Bellou.
It's a reality those with family support don't always face.
"They may be living at home rent free and these former youth in care don't have access to those supports," said Kim Winchell, director of social impact at United Way of the Lower Mainland.
Ninety-two per cent of B.C. parents with children under 30 support them financially.
Bellou struggled for years, until United Way stepped in.
"The Youth Education Futures Fund is a fund that provides former foster care youth with living expenses," said Winchell.
It meant a lot to Bellou.
"It really felt like somewhere in the universe, someone was looking out for me," she said.
The 23-year-old is now thriving and is armed with a bachelor's degree in biology.
"Her story is one of strength, and one of resilience and one of inspiration," said Winchell.
Bellou has applied to medical school and hopes to become a pediatrician.
She says the help she's received has given her a new outlook on life and she's excited for the future.
"I kind of just like to see where life takes me and what doors open and kind of just go along with the ride."
The Youth Futures Education Fund distributed $430,000 to 449 students across B.C last year. Twenty-seven per cent of recipients were Indigenous.