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By Sholnn Freeman
University News
Oct. 31, 2011      

Overcoming Obstacles: Howard Student Starts Advance Project as Foster Youth Nonprofit

WASHINGTON – Despite tremendous odds, April Vance overcame a difficult youth as a foster child. Her success stemmed from an ability to stick to her dreams and focus on education. Most importantly, though, Vance credits her skillfulness in navigating the government’s complex and sometimes frightening foster care system.

Now Vance, a senior broadcast journalism major at Howard University, is on the brink of finding a way to use that knowledge to help kids maneuver the roadblocks she once faced. While other seniors on campus are job hunting and fine-tuning resumes, she is in the first year of starting a nonprofit organization called the Advance Project. The mission of the District of Columbia-based organization is to instill self-esteem, self-love and a drive for education in foster care youth.

“A lot of times foster care youth are displaced and they are moved around from home to home,” Vance said. “When that happens, education is always on the back burner. The focus is on surviving and having a roof over your head, or having a family that wants you.”

April Vance

The odds are typically stacked against foster care youth receiving a solid education. Sometimes foster youth go to work as early as age 14. She cites nationwide statistics that show low percentages of foster care youth completing high school and college studies. Foster children are at a higher risk of homelessness, incarceration, alcoholism, drug addiction, prostitution and suicide, she says.

Vance is intimately familiar with the foster care system in her hometown of San Jose, Calif. Her father, a construction engineer and former Black Panther, died when she was 6 years old, leaving behind Vance, an older brother, Rashaun and her mother to cope. As a result of the death, her mother suffered a mental breakdown and began to struggle as a parent. Child care officials in California stepped in, placing Vance and her brother in the foster care system.

At the time, Vance was 8 years old; her brother, Rashaun, was 10. They bounced around to eight different foster care homes in the area—sometimes together, sometimes apart. At age 11, Vance refused the entreaties of prospective adoptive parents who sought to take her in without her brother. “I didn’t agree with it,” Vance said. “They didn’t take us—thank God for that.”

Keeping Her Eyes on the Prize

She and her brother lived in a children’s shelter during their teenage years. Throughout the years, she and her brother had little contact with their mother who was working to show the courts that she had the ability to take care of the two siblings. During this period, she increasingly saw education as the gateway to living the life she wanted to live.

“It was my escape,” she said. “It was going to allow me to be the person I wanted to be. I remember sitting in the front of the class in high school. I wanted to always go home and study before I got on the phone and played around. I never gave up on it.”

At a college fair, Vance and her brother heard the pitch of a recruiter representing Howard University. Vance remembers the recruiter bragging about Howard students. “He called Howard students the cream of the crop,” she said. “I told myself ‘I’m going.’”

Vance wasted little time finding opportunities at Howard. In 2009, she volunteered at the White House as a communications liaison. The volunteer position turned into a part-time job last year. She has also toured the country this fall with Chris Brown and Young Money’s TYGA Tour. She works with the educational component of the tour, called Roar, which surprises 20 high-performing high school students in each tour city with free tickets to the concert, new Nike or Adidas shoes and other small gifts.

Giving Back and Reaching Forward

As a Howard student, Vance also volunteered locally as a mentor to foster youth. She focused on education, always aiming to show how education could be the key to opening doors for them.

Vance also kept close ties to the Silicon Valley Children’s Fund, the California nonprofit organization whose scholarships made it possible for Vance to attend Howard. Many of the group’s benefactors are corporate donors in the computer industry. In her junior year at Howard, the organization asked Vance to become a spokeswoman and a board member. In her position on the board, she learned how a nonprofit works.

She used the knowledge to develop the Advance Project, which she formed seven months ago. Vance is president of the organization. The Advance Project provides mentors for middle school and high school students in the foster care system. Currently, the organization is helping 62 students from Maryland, the District of Columbia and Virginia. Students also work on building resumes and get instructions on professionalism.

The students also get lessons that only another survivor of the foster care system can provide. For example, Vance has given the participants a talk about healthy relationships.

“I know a lot of them want to reconnect with family, but not all family is up to par,” she says. “We can love our family, but sometimes we have to love them from a distance.”

April Vance can be contacted at, or

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