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Westmoreland group honors grads in foster care program

Austin Bachand | Tribune-Review
Amy Fontana (right) hands Lashaya her graduation gift as the Independent Living program of Westmoreland County commemorates her at Gianilli’s II on Thursday, May 29, 2014. The Independent Living program for young adults in foster care is to help to get them on the right track for living on their own and starting their adult life.

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By Alicia McElhaney
Friday, May 30, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

The Westmoreland County Independent Living program held a graduation celebration on Thursday at Giannelli's II in Unity to honor 16 students in foster care who graduated from high school or obtained GED diplomas this year.

The students' families, staff of the Westmoreland County Children's Bureau, Commissioner R. Tyler Courtney, court master Annaliese Masser and Judge Meagan Bilik DeFazio attended the dinner celebrating the students.

Each received a laptop and software programs as a graduation present from the program.

The Independent Living program is a federally and state-funded program founded to ease the transition from foster care. Any young adult who has been in foster care between the ages of 16 and 21 is eligible. At 18, they can opt out of foster care.

“We're proud to have such a high number who stay” after turning 18, said Rebecca Lewandowski, the Independent Living supervisor at the Children's Bureau.

The program offers participants a chance to learn basic life skills in a group that meets at the courthouse in Greensburg. Professionals teach them about issues such as engaging in safe sex, cooking fresh meals, driving and purchasing car insurance.

Teresea Lytle, who graduated from Westmont Hilltop High School near Johnstown, credited the program with helping her to finish high school.

“Starting my freshman year, I didn't want to do anything,” Lytle said. “I almost failed, but at the end of the year, I worked hard. I was able to pass, but barely. IL pushed and motivated me to graduate.”

Lytle will attend Penn Highlands Community College to study special education.

Twins Lisa and Jason Pina, who both graduated from Southmoreland High School this year while each worked 40 hours a week at Taco Bell, said the program did more than help them to graduate.

“It helped us gain tools to use when we graduate, like time management,” Jason Pina said of how the program helped him manage high school and a full-time job. He plans to study industrial design at the Art Institute in Pittsburgh and hopes eventually to own a tattoo shop.

“It taught me how to budget,” Lisa Pina added. “I was able to buy a car.” She plans to study business at Westmoreland County Community College.

This year's dinner was especially exciting for Lewandowski because every student in the program expected to graduate this year did so.

That 100 percent is a rare statistic, she explained.

“Statistically, children in foster care don't have the same graduation rates as other children,” said Shara Saveikis, executive director of the Children's Bureau.

She cited childhood trauma, mental illness and being around or engaging in drug and alcohol abuse as major deterrents.

“Grad rates are lower for kids in foster care than the national average,” Lewandowski said. “We wanted to give them an incentive to graduate.”

Her team applied for grant money to give the students a reward for graduation. Now, they promise students laptops once they graduate.

“Tonight has given me the chance to learn so much,” Commissioner Courtney said. “We expect future graduates to be contributors to society, and we need to give them skills. IL does that.”

Alicia McElhaney is an intern for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-850-6220 or

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