Giving City – Nov/Dec 19

Program Helps Former Foster Kids Thrive in College

Writer: Missy Keenan
Photographer: Duane Tinkey

When Kaley was a 15-year-old high school sophomore, her father unexpectedly died. Her childhood had been happy until then, but after her dad’s death, it was just Kaley and her mother living in their western Iowa home. Her mother’s behavior changed dramatically, and she became abusive.

“My mom stopped buying groceries and I lost more than 10 pounds,” says Kaley, whose full name isn’t being used to protect her privacy. “She beat me. She made me quit my job and my extracurricular activities. She wouldn’t let me have friends over, and she told my friends’ parents to keep their kids away from me.

“The tipping point was when she told me she had a gun and she was going to use it on me soon. I realized I had to get out of there right away.”

Kaley’s school counselor helped her get out of her house and move in with some relatives who eventually became her legal foster parents. In the safety and comfort of her new home, Kaley over the next couple of years began to thrive personally and academically. She started thinking about college, but she didn’t have the money to pay for it.

“I knew that getting myself to college and paying for it was going to be just me, myself and I,” Kaley says.

Kaley’s counselor told her about the Guardian Scholars program and encouraged her to apply. The Guardian Scholars Foundation is a Des Moines-based nonprofit organization that offers up to $8,000 per year for four years ($32,000 total) to help students who have spent time in the Iowa foster care system pay for college. As long as the scholarship winners stay in school, they automatically keep the scholarship. 

The program also provides scholarship winners with an adult mentor. The mentor may arrange tutors and holiday stays as well as offer career advice and other support. 

“The majority of kids in foster care were removed from their parents because of extreme abuse,” says Thomas Wolff (pictured), executive director of the foundation. “Kids age out of the Iowa foster care system at age 18, and most of them don’t have any family or adult support, financially or otherwise. Without anywhere to turn, they can end up unemployed, homeless or in legal trouble. So in addition to the scholarship money, we think providing our kids with a mentor is key. We want them to know there is someone out there who they can reach out to outside of campus. Some of them establish a relationship where they’re almost like family.”

Nationally, fewer than 3% of kids who age out of the foster care system ever graduate from college, according to the National Foster Youth Institute. This compares with about one-third of all American adults over 25 who have a college degree, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. About 85% of Guardian Scholars stay in the program for four years and earn a college degree.

Kaley was awarded a foundation scholarship three years ago and is on track to graduate from a private Iowa college in spring 2020 with degrees in counseling psychology and social behavioral science and a minor in Spanish. She hopes to attend graduate school and become a therapist.

“I saw a therapist as a teenager who really helped me develop the coping skills I needed,” she says. “He was there for me when I had no one; I’d like to be that same type of therapist for someone.”

Kaley says she’s grateful to the Guardian Scholars Foundation for the scholarship money, which will dramatically reduce her student loan debt. And she’s grateful for her mentor, who was also her financial aid adviser.

“She helps me figure out my finances, and also just checks in on everything with me,” Kaley says. “The emotional support was important too. We used to meet all of the time. Now that I’m going to be a senior we don’t meet as often, but I think that’s a good thing that I don’t need her as much.

“Everything I’ve been through has made me strong and resourceful,” Kaley adds. “I’m a survivor. I’ve been through some horrific things, and I refuse to be in that kind of situation ever again. In college you have more control over your own life, and I like that.”

Guardian Scholars Foundation

The foundation will host a fundraising event Nov. 12 at Moberg Gallery.
See details in the listing below.

To learn more about Guardian Scholars, to apply for a scholarship or to donate, visit



Ronald McDonald House

Annual Fall Gala

When: Nov. 2, 6 p.m. 

Where: The Meadows Events & Conference Center

Details: Includes a sit-down dinner, silent auction, games, and dancing with the band the Burning Sensations. $125; 

Italian-American Cultural Center

An Evening in Puglia 

When: Nov. 7, 6 p.m.

Where: Wakonda Club

Details: Featured in this annual fundraising dinner is cuisine from the Apulian region of Italy. Food is prepared by renowned Italian chefs/restaurateurs. $180 or $1,600 for a table of 10;

Cystic Fibrosis Foundation

Corks and Kegs

When: Nov. 8, 6:30 p.m. 

Where: Des Moines University

Details: Samples of local beers, wines and food, plus a mystery wine auction and musical entertainment. $90; 

The Guardian Scholars Foundation


When: Nov. 12, 5 p.m

Where: Moberg Gallery

Details: A fundraising benefit, the purchase entitles each household to one signed limited-edition print by artist Scott Charles Ross. $125;

Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden

Champagne and Chocolate  

When: Nov. 22, 6 p.m.

Where: Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden

Details: Holiday exhibition and cocktail party with live music, heavy hors d’oeuvres, wine and champagne, and chocolate. $115 for members, $125 for nonmembers, and $75 for those under age 35; 

Blank Children’s Hospital

Festival of Trees and Lights Gala

When: Nov. 26, 5:30 p.m. 

Where: Veterans Memorial Community Choice Credit Union Convention Center Ballroom 

Details: Includes a reception, auctions, dinner and program as Blank Children’s Hospital celebrates 75 years in Greater Des Moines. $235 ($135 for young professionals 35 and under);

The gala is followed by the Festival of Trees and Lights Nov. 27-Dec. 1 (hours vary) with decorated trees, entertainment, children’s activities, food and shopping. $5, free for children age 5 and under.

Make-A-Wish Iowa

Jolly Holiday Lights 

When: Nov. 29–Dec. 28 

Where: Adventureland Park

Details: Featuring 100 light displays on a 2.5-mile car ride. The park is open seven days a week. $20 per carload;


Des Moines European Heritage Association


When: Dec. 6–8

Where: Principal Park

Details: European-inspired food and drink, German cultural items and entertainment at an outdoor shopping market. Free admission;

Salisbury House and Gardens

Holly and Ivy Tour

When: Dec. 6–7, 11 a.m.–4 p.m.

Where: Salisbury House and private residences

Details: Each room of the Salisbury House will be decorated by local interior designers, florists and home furnishing stores. The tour also includes privately owned homes (specific details on the homes weren’t available at press time). $20, $18 for members, and $5 for children ages 6–12; 

Self-Help International

Empower Women Luncheon

When: Dec. 11, 11:45 a.m.-1:15 p.m.

Where: The World Food Prize Hall of Laureates

Details: Luncheon fundraiser for Self-Help International, which seeks to alleviate hunger and poverty by providing economic opportunities for rural residents to become self-reliant. $125 or $1,250 for a table of 10;

Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs

Celebrate Iowa Gala

When: Dec. 13, 7 p.m.

Where: Scottish Rite Consistory

Details: Entertainment from Iowa musicians, plus food, desserts, wine and signature cocktails from across the state. $125;

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