York County foster teens head to colleges in fall

Alice Fisher smiles with her foster parents, Annie Zirkle, left, and Sam Zirkle. Fisher is one of seven York County foster teens who graduated from high school or college this spring.
Alice Fisher smiles with her foster parents, Annie Zirkle, left, and Sam Zirkle. Fisher is one of seven York County foster teens who graduated from high school or college this spring.

Alice Fisher has worked hard to earn her degree from York Comprehensive High School. She has lived in foster care for five years and has had to overcome many obstacles.

Despite her struggles, Fisher's preserverance and a love of reading helped her advance from special help classes to mainstream classes. In the fall, she will be off to college with a scholarship.

Fisher, 18, is one of seven York County foster children who graduated this spring. Five of them, including Fisher, are high school graduates and two have completed two-year college degrees.

"This is the largest and most successful group we've ever had," said Lynn Wallace, foster care program coordinator for the York County Department of Social Services.

All of the foster program's high school graduates are going to college and the two-year college grads will be entering four-year colleges this fall, Wallace said. All have high GPAs and have earned scholarships, she said.

On Friday, the graduates will attend a celebration honoring their achievements. The guest list includes foster parents, case workers and in some cases biological family members.

"We celebrate their accomplishments as I did my own girls; we are just as proud of them," Wallace said. "No doubt a foster child has many more things to overcome."

Fisher graduated from York Comprehensive on June 6 and will begin classes at Spartanburg Methodist College in August. "I am proud of myself; I never thought I would graduate," said Fisher, who plans to become a nurse.

Annie Zirkle, who became Fisher's foster mother five years ago, said that when Alice first came to live with her, Alice was in a resource class -- a special class for students who need extra help.

But by the end of Alice's first school year living with foster parents Annie and her husband Sam Zirkle of York, Fisher had been moved into mainstream classes.

Fisher has not let the challenges of being in foster care stop her from being successful, said Michael Williams, Fisher's case worker from the local DSS office.

"The sky's the limit for her," he said.

This year, Fisher earned a literary scholarship. She was recommended for the award by her English teacher, Lauren Klepinger. "Alice was a very avid reader. She would ask for a pass to go to the library two or three times a week," said Klepinger.

To compete for the scholarship, Fisher had to write an essay about why reading was an important part of her life.

For Fisher, the answer was simple.

"It's my get-away place when I'm going through something hard. I find a book where the person is going through the same thing. If they can get through it, I know I can get through it, too," said Fisher.

Fisher's favorite books are mysteries by authors such as Mary Higgins Clark and Christopher Pike.

In fact, books are what helped her through her darkest times. When she was placed in foster care five years ago, Fisher said she would often escape from her troubles by reading books in the Goosebumps series.

"I tried to solve the mystery. When I read, it's like I'm in the book with him or her," she said.

Fisher said she had been removed from her parents' York County home when she was in the seventh grade due to neglect. She lived in two group homes and several different foster homes before being placed in the Zirkle home.

"When I got here, I thought I'd be moving somewhere else, so I didn't unpack my stuff. It was frustrating -- you didn't know how long you were going to stay," said Fisher.

In the bright blue house where they have lived for 40 years, the Zirkles have raised three biological children and cared for 80 foster children.

They have been foster parents for 18 years.

"Seems like forever," said Sam Zirkle.

The Zirkles have fostered teenagers and children as young as 9 months, and have adopted two of them.

"I have kept kids some long term, some short term," Annie said, "All of them calls me Granny."

Many of their former foster children still visit.

"I think it's a blessing to see them," said Annie.

Some who live nearby visit three or four times a week, Annie said.

Fisher is the third foster child to graduate while living in the Zirkles' home and the only foster child they are caring for now. Advancing age -- the Zirkles both are in their 70s -- and Sam's recent health problems have kept them from taking in any more children.

York County currently has about 200 children in foster care, said Wallace.

Children come into foster care for a variety of reasons, said Wallace. The No. 1 reason in York County is physical neglect -- not providing for the child's basic needs, including food, shelter and medical needs, she said.

Right now, York County has 59 foster homes and needs more, said Valinda Jones, foster care supervisor for York County DSS. "For many of these children, we are their family," said Jones.

Fisher and 79 other foster children know they can count on Annie Zirkle to be their family.

"I know she will be there for me," said Fisher. "She has always been there for me."