YES Program Helps Former Foster Care Youth Turn Dreams Into Reality

Since she was five years old, Eugenia Doreen Wallace – who goes by Doreen – knew she wanted to be a lawyer.

From a young age, Doreen and her brothers would gather in the living room and act out mock trials with made-up evidence and arguments. Their pretend cases centered around “crazy” topics, such as “Who ate the last slice of pizza?”

Although her dream of being a lawyer was a lofty one, she built her confidence in the art at a young age and found the support she needed at home to pursue her passion.

“My dad was so supportive,” said Doreen. “He would always make me read encyclopedias and watch Condoleezza Rice and things to do with the law. I was always confident because I had my dad’s support.”

Unfortunately, home was not always a safe place for Doreen. Her parents struggled with drug addiction, leading to Doreen and her brothers being placed in the foster care system. During the summer before sixth grade, Doreen transitioned into kinship placement with her godmother. By the time she turned 18, she had lived in three different foster care placements, including a girl’s home and a kinship placement with her half-sister. 

During this uncertain time of transition, the school debate team was one place where Doreen found a sense of home.

“I never really found my niche or a place I belonged until I found the debate team,” said Doreen.

“It just made sense. I fit in there.”

In high school, Doreen began getting recognized for her skills in public speaking. She was offered the opportunity to do advocacy work with the Missouri State Youth Advisory Board, a program under Missouri Children’s Division. As part of the Youth Advisory Board, she got to share her experience as a foster youth and helped push for and pass key legislation for youth in the system.

“It used to be that when you age out of care, you’re left without health insurance since you no longer have a guardian,” explained Doreen. 

As a result of these advocacy efforts, the Missouri General Assembly passed legislation in 2014 that extends Medicaid coverage for foster care youth until age 26.

By the time Doreen turned 17, she was eligible for the Youth Educational Success (YES) program, an opportunity that she had been looking forward to for years.

The YES program exists to help youth in foster care address barriers to education – such as lack of financial resources, emotional support, and social opportunities – and increase the number of foster kids attending and graduating from a higher education program. The program is generously supported by several churches based in the Kansas City area, including Church of the Resurrection, United Women in Faith (formerly United Methodist Women), and Village Presbyterian Church.

Some of this support goes towards emergency assistance for basic needs like food, hygiene, and transportation. For Doreen, the YES program helped her find scholarships and grants and complete challenging schoolwork. It also helped her navigate life after graduation, find a job, and learn life skills like paying bills and doing taxes.

“It’s really like a silver lining for youth in foster care who want that higher education and who want that help,” said Doreen. “We are in that percentage of kids who are at a disadvantage. The YES program gives you hope.”

In August 2019, Doreen moved to St. Louis to pursue her dream of becoming a lawyer and start her Master’s in Legal Studies at Washington University School of Law. She credits the YES program for helping her to find an LSAT prep course to help her increase her score and get into law school, as well as assisting with tuition and textbook costs.

While a student at Missouri Western, Doreen began developing what would eventually become a professional network for women in business, Female Force Association.

It started in her college dorm room, where she would invite girls over for a safe space to “just talk.” Over time, they started supporting each other with their business homework and sharing their ideas and aspirations.

After graduation, the momentum continued, the group expanded, and it was officially incorporated as a nonprofit in 2020. Their vision is to “inspire women across the nation to take part in a sisterhood that helps to develop businesses, network with like-minded women, and inspire others.”

“I hope it has a great impact,” said Doreen. “I want us to be somebody who is a light and an inspiration for other people. Somebody helped me, so I want to help the next person.” 

Doreen still lives in St. Louis and plans to pursue her Jurist’s Doctorate (JD) to become a lawyer in the future. Currently, she is taking a break from the intensity of school to work as a senior paralegal for an orthodontist firm in the city.

Although she lives several hours from Kansas City, Doreen likes to return every month or so to reconnect with friends and family and attend YES social events. Even amidst her success, she continues to come back to her time in YES as a pivotal moment in her life that helped her get one step closer to her dream.

“Even now, I love to talk about the YES program,” said Doreen. “I tell everybody I know about the YES program. Hopefully, I can be an ambassador for the program and advocate for youth to have access to this program and get involved.”