Naomi Vogt, 22, is well on her way, balancing a full-time job while pursuing her true passion – a career in early childhood education. On the verge of completing her associate’s degree, Naomi is one of the success stories.
“Growing up in some hard situations, I’ve sometimes been at a loss on how to make it,” she says.
Right now, there are about 6,300 kids in Nebraska’s foster care system. Vogt, who lives in Grand Island, was one of them. “Aging out” at age 19 meant being disconnected from an array of foster care support and services provided by the state.
Vogt could have spiraled. Many of the 260 who age out in Nebraska each year do, encountering joblessness, homelessness, mental health issues and unintended pregnancy. But she didn’t.
“Opportunity Passport has helped me so much,” Vogt says.
Nationally recognized and evidence-based, Opportunity Passport™ helps those ages 14 to 24 who are aging out or who have aged out of foster care. The program combines financial education and coaching with a savings-match incentive.
In Nebraska, Opportunity Passport is implemented through Nebraska Children and Families Foundation in cooperation with numerous community partners, including Central Plains Center for Services in Grand Island and North Platte. A $48,000 gift from Centris Federal Credit Union supports Opportunity Passport efforts in those two cities.
“Opportunity Passport’s unique approach to financial literacy allows unconnected youth the ability to improve their financial capability by teaching them the skills they need to wisely earn, spend and save money,” says Nancy Ferguson, executive director of the Central Plains Center for Services, an organization that has been working with at-risk youth for more than 25 years.
So far, 990 young people have participated in Opportunity Passport throughout Nebraska, gaining a crucial understanding of asset building, money management, good credit, investments and taxes through the program’s “Keys to Your Financial Future” curriculum.
“These young adults are increasing their financial IQ, developing healthy relationships with banking institutions and taking personal control of their financial futures,” says Doug Lenz, director of the Central Plains Center for Services.
In addition to financial literacy, Opportunity Passport provides real dollars-and-cents assistance to youth by matching money saved for asset purchases.
“The chance to utilize the financial match is such a great opportunity for the youth to pay for a car, first apartment or house, education expenses, investments and more,” says Camille Ohri, a PALS (Preparations for Adult Living Specialist) and Opportunity Passport facilitator with Central Plains Center for Services.
She adds, “This program really provides the youth with hope and an opportunity to have some options they might not have otherwise.”
Ohri and Mark Jensen, another PALS and Opportunity Passport coach with Central Plains, have trained 90 young people in the Central area alone. Jensen says it’s not an exaggeration to call the program life-changing.
“Whether it be for an asset purchase or reduction of debt, it can and does make a huge difference in a youth’s life,” he says. “It increases confidence, rewards their hard work and reinforces positive thinking and goals. It gives many youth the chance to begin with, understand, maintain and continue good credit for the rest of their lives.”
Jason Feldhaus, a longtime youth service worker and vice president of Nebraska Children’s Connect Youth Initiative (CYI), is another enthusiastic proponent of Opportunity Passport, an essential component of CYI for the past 11 years.
“Opportunity Passport is the perfect program for our youth to begin a process of trial and error to develop the financial skills necessary to support improved financial stability and increase their economic flexibility to deal with unexpected events in their lives,” Feldhaus says.
Centris Federal Credit Union says Opportunity Passport and the Nebraska Children and Families Foundation have been great partners in helping the institution reach more people in Grand Island and North Platte.
“This initiative has allowed us to ensure that our resources are being utilized to the fullest extent possible and that more people reap the benefits of receiving solid financial education that will have lifelong impact,” says Dawn Gonzales, vice president of community development for Centris Federal Credit Union.
Vogt says she knows her chances for long-term success have been enhanced by her connection to Opportunity Passport: “I’ve learned so many helpful things about credit, housing, life skills and emotional support that I probably wouldn’t have gotten without it. Not having parents and growing up in foster homes, I never got that kind of support from someone or any program.”
Jensen says he hopes continued resources, like those provided by Centris Federal Credit Union, will allow the program to grow and reach as many youth as possible: “This is a program that needs and deserves to be maintained because it really does give our youth opportunities – opportunities to learn, grow, achieve, mature, save, budget and most importantly, develop relationships with caring and responsible adults.”
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From angry kid to proud and grateful family man
Jesse Lincoln, 23, is focused on the future: marrying his longtime girlfriend (now fiancé), advancing at work and potentially growing his young family.
“I want to have another baby,” he says.
He and Desiree have two children. Daughter Willa just turned 3; son Rhydian will be 2 in January. Their house is bustling, and Lincoln is happy. But that wasn’t always the case.
“I was an angry kid,” he says.
Family dysfunction and neglect led to an unsettled childhood. Lincoln was in and out of foster care but says, for him, foster care was a good thing: “Otherwise, I think I would have ended up in jail.”
Instead, the foster care experience led him to Connected Youth Initiative (CYI), which led him to get involved in Opportunity Passport. He admits he was reluctant at first: “I didn’t really care to do it.”
He says Desiree pushed him to follow through. And now, no regrets. Through Opportunity Passport and its matched savings incentive, Lincoln has been able to buy a reliable vehicle for his family and save for their house in Oxford, Nebraska. They moved in last July.
Opportunity Passport also helped on the education side, teaching how to navigate the home-buying process and manage credit. Along the way, Opportunity Passport coach Camille Ohri says Lincoln learned something else: “He learned not to be afraid to accept help.”
Despite a turbulent past, the future is full of possibility. Lincoln is looking forward to finishing his college degree and advancing his career at Becton Dickinson, a medical equipment manufacturer. “I’m trying to climb the ladder,” he says.
He and Desiree are working on a wedding date, too.
Sitting in his new home – a home filled with love and positive energy – Lincoln is optimistic and grateful. “I appreciate everything Opportunity Passport did for me.”
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A mom at 17, she cleared hurdles and clung to hope
Sisters Scarlett, 2, and Henley, 5 months, have a powerful role model in their budding orbits; a woman who can speak to them, firsthand, about facing and overcoming the hurdles that life will inevitably throw down. It’s their mother, 20-year-old River Pavusa.
“Everybody has different obstacles, but you always have to have hope and faith in yourself and faith that everything will work out. Throwing in the towel might seem an easier option, but in the long run, if you keep pushing and fighting for your goal, that’s all that matters,” Pavusa says.
She is a bona fide overcomer, a title earned by her own resolve and an assist by Opportunity Passport. Her story can be told in flashes: going in and out of foster care, leaving an abusive relationship at 17 while pregnant with her first child, letting her car insurance lapse and then getting into an accident on an icy road the very next day…
“That one day really made a difference,” she says.
The crash resulted in a $3,500 settlement against her and cost Pavusa her driver’s license. Despite her best efforts to pay down the debt, she wasn’t making headway. Opportunity Passport and its savings match proved invaluable. With guidance from her Opportunity Passport coach, Mark Jensen, Pavusa saved enough to pay off the settlement and have her driver’s license reinstated.
“I was so happy and proud of myself,” she says. “Opportunity Passport really changed my life.”
She loves knowing that her ailing grandmother, who had a key hand in raising her, is able to see her succeeding: “I’m married, have two kids and I’m on the right track.”
Pavusa has a long-range goal of becoming an accountant. She’s had to put classes on hold for now for health reasons – but she looks forward to getting back to it as soon as possible, another lesson in perseverance for Scarlett and Henley.
“It’s very hard to say you can’t do something when you have two little eyes watching you.”