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Giving students a home

Contributing Writer

Published: Sunday, December 5, 2010

Updated: Sunday, December 5, 2010 16:12

Central Florida Future

Michelle Davis

Last year, while some students went home to celebrate the holidays with their families, one UCF student, still in Orlando, found herself sleeping on four different couches. As this holiday season nears, she's still not sure what her plans will be.

According to the U.S Department of Health and Human Services, there are currently 423,773 foster youths in the U.S.; junior advertising and public relations major Tara Dinoski is one of them.

Dinoski was 14 when her mother's parenting rights were terminated when she tried to commit suicide in front of Dinoski and her brothers, who were ages 5 and 3.

"It was really gory and bloody, and that was the day we all got separated," Dinoski said. "I really made a point of walking to the payphone to call the cops, and I was just so unfazed by this because this was my life and this is what I was used to, seeing my mom in these kinds of situations."

Up until she turned 17, Dinoski was placed in different group homes and foster care until she was able to move to Florida with her grandfather.

Today, Dinoski is a student with a mission: She wants to help foster students succeed in college and encourage foster youths to do so. This led her to create Golden Hearts at UCF, a student organization dedicated to raise awareness about foster care and build a family-like support group for former foster students, international students and students from broken homes.

"A lot of foster care youth are used to being the adult in the family at a young age, and they're given all this responsibility," Dinoski said about why these individuals need and deserve a support system of their own.

Dinoski said she led a normal life in high school, but that all changed when she came to college and noticed how dependent students still are on their parents.

"I was struggling to do well academically, but also with the emotional stuff that happened in my past and not having anyone or anywhere to go over the holidays," she said. "This Thanksgiving again I don't know where I'm going to go. I have my grandfather, but it's not the same. I don't feel the same sense of community or welcoming when I come back like a college student looks forward to and feeling like people actually understand you."

According to the Transitional Age Youth government website, only 2.5 percent of the foster youth actually graduate from a postsecondary school. Although the number of foster students at UCF can be obtained, Diane Reitz, the senior programming computer analyst at the Office of Student Financial Assistance, said the university must be very careful to guard the privacy of foster youth students because of the need for their security.

Still, less than 10 percent of the nation's foster youth attend college. Reasons include financial barriers, failure to apply and lack of motivation and support. Others get lost in the system or simply age out. Dinoski was successful in seeking a college education, but statistics show most are not as fortunate.

"The financial support is there because I sought it out," Dinoski said, "but I can't really be like, ‘Hey, can you check up on me emotionally?' "

The goal of Golden Hearts is to correct that problem.

As the first organization of its kind at UCF, Dinoski said the group has a unique niche.

Once they are accepted as a registered student organization by SGA, the cabinet will be ready to dive into developing Golden Hearts.

"Tara is one of the most passionate people I've ever met," said radio-television major Valerie Cooper, the secretary of Golden Hearts. "She puts in 100 percent and is full of ideas to span our reach and raise awareness."

Those ideas include obtaining training from the counseling center for a mentor/mentee program, as well as applying for a $50,000 grant from the Pepsi Refresh Project, something Dinoski mentioned and was excited about.

"I wanted Golden Hearts to be reflective of what UCF is — diverse. I wanted to include the UCF creed in what we do, in being creative, being excellent, you know, fighting for scholarship and involving our community," Dinoski said.

Support and attention through published articles and YouTube videos are already gaining Golden Hearts exposure.

For example, Cooper, who met Dinoski this year in their LEAD Scholars class is not a foster child but stepped in to support the organization's cause.

"The things foster youths go through is stuff we don't think about and sometimes take for granted," Cooper said. "If there's anything I can do to alleviate the situation, I'll do whatever I can."

To put it in Dinoski's words, Golden Hearts has become a family.

"The thing I'm most proud of is I remember calling my grandfather saying, ‘I hate UCF, I feel like I'm not fitting in here,' " Dinoski said. "I tried a bunch of things and couldn't find what was for me, so I made my own group. I hope it's inspiring for any other UCF student who may feel like they don't fit in. If something's not there, make it happen."  

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