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Ceremony Wraps Up Backpack Challenge, Honors Achievements Of Children In Foster Care

By Molly Daly

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) -- Philadelphia's Department of Human Services marked the close of this year's backpack challenge Wednesday afternoon with a ceremony at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts on north Broad Street. The event also recognized the academic accomplishments of older kids in foster care.

DHS says this year's challenge was the most successful to date, collecting more than 3,200 backpacks, along with school supplies, and more than $10,000 in contributions to help older youths in foster care. 17-year-old Aicha Soumaoro, a senior at Dobbins Vocational School, says those backpacks are loaded.

"Pencils, books, sharpeners, calculators, all the things we need for school."

DHS Commissioner Vanessa Garrett Harley says the money donated gives high school graduates who are continuing their education a leg up.

"We're now able to buy laptops, for our first year college students."

One of those students is 18-year-old Troy Smith, who'll be attending Delaware County Community College. He has big plans.

"Computer science major, and then after that, I'm looking to join the military, help pay off some loans, gain some discipline and then transfer to New Jersey Institute of Technology."

backpack challenge
Left to right: Troy Smith, Leidy Torres, Aicha Soumaoro. (credit: Molly Daly)

18-year-old Leidy Torres says there are a lot of misconceptions about older kids in foster care.

"I definitely think that people don't expect foster youth to make it this far, to make it to college, not even graduate from high school."

Yet Leidy did graduate, from Abraham Lincoln. She's now a freshman majoring in psychology at Temple University.

She, Aicha, and Troy attribute a lot of their success to the Achieving Independence Center, established by DHS, and run by Valley Youth House, to help foster youths make a successful transition to adulthood.

Commissioner Harley says AIC teaches the basics, and then some.

"Balancing a checkbook, how to open a bank account, how to apply for a job, how to perform at a job interview, how to dress for professional interaction, even how to wash clothes."

Troy says AIC offers even more.

"There's also staff that you can relate to, that'll help you through anything, any challenge. If they don't have the information, they'll find it for you."

Donations, of money, backpacks, and supplies are still being accepted.

It may not seem like much, but even a little can go a long way for a young person in need.

"A pencil, a backpack, can go far," says Troy. "You know much those things can cost, you know how much that can add up? A pencil -- a box might cost $3, but to someone who actually needs help, who is trying to pay something else off, will benefit greatly from that."

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