Andrea Laney. Courtesy of Andrea Laney.

No one seemed to have great expectations for Tieshawna McDaniel and Andrea Laney.

Estranged from her mother, caretaker to her disabled father, Laney was placed in foster care in Tazewell County at 16 years old.

Meanwhile in Bristol, McDaniel as a child was ordered to live with her grandmother since her father was absent and her mother wasn’t capable of care.

Tieshawna McDaniel. Courtesy of McDaniel.

Both stayed in the foster care system until reaching adulthood at 18, when they could have become another depressing statistic: according to the National Foster Youth Institute, less than 3 percent of foster children graduate from a four-year college.

But Southwest Virginia literally has great expectations for these women.

While Charles Dickens’ novel features a penniless orphan named Pip who finds himself bequeathed a fortune of riches, Southwest Virginia’s Great Expectations provides resources and funding for former foster care children to receive a college degree and the promise of a richer life.

“Foster youth have a lot more hurdles to jump through when they go to college,” said Laney, 20. “They don’t have family support, housing, transportation. It’s hard for foster youth to find somewhere to live, especially in rural areas, so most have to work full time. They need more help than other students.” 

Added McDaniel, 22, who graduates this week from Virginia Highlands Community College with an associate’s degree: “If I didn’t have Great Ex in my life I wouldn’t be in college right now. I’d be working full-time in fast food and in a funk of great depression. Great Ex opened so many doors for me that had been closed.”

Great Expectations was founded in 2008 through a gift from Mark and Barbara Fried, who owned a Crozet-based real estate firm that developed residential communities and commercial properties throughout Virginia. Launched at five community colleges (Danville, Germanna, J. Sergeant Reynolds, New River and Southside), Great Expectations today serves 1,500 foster youth annually and this year plans to offer programs at all 23 Virginia community colleges.

In addition to books, food and transportation aid, and peer mentoring, Great Expectations in 2019 began offering housing stipends, funded in part by the Richard and Leslie Gilliam Foundation, to further ease the financial burden for foster youth to focus on college studies. 

According to Great Expectations, its successes include:

  • Over 3,500 young people who have experienced foster care have enrolled in college.
  • 42 percent, or 1,477, of its students have graduated with a community college degree, diploma or certificate, or transferred to another college or university.
  • 23 percent of its students graduate with a college credential compared to only 8 percent nationally.
  • One recent study by Chmura Economic & Analytics found that the annual societal costs per foster youth are $45,886, including government aid, lost economic output and incarceration costs. “Therefore, the return on investment for the Great Expectations program is undeniable and … the estimated savings are 3.6 times the cost of program delivery.”

Living in Gate City in rural Scott County, Mike and Debbie Quillen knew first-hand the struggles facing foster children. Debbie Quillen had cared for foster children earlier in life, so when they were approached about helping fund Great Expectations, the couple immediately said yes.

“It’s just kind of a forgotten group,” said Mike Quillen, 73. “There’s not an advocacy for the foster care system other than social services people.”

A Virginia Tech alumnus, who retired CEO of Alpha Natural Resources in 2012, Mike Quillen said, “If we could help just one child or one young adult it would have been well worth the contribution, and gosh, it’s just gone on since then. To see the program still going on this many years later is rewarding.”

The gas cards, grocery cards, book fees and housing stipends are certainly important, he adds, “but the real heroes are the coaches who listen to the kids and meet with them. Anybody can hand them a gas card, but really good coaches are the ones who can have a conversation.”

That’s certainly true for McDaniel and Laney.

Graduating high school without a car, driver’s license or a home, McDaniel was introduced to Great Expectations’ office at Virginia Highlands. Her coach connected her with a shuttle bus to transport her to school as well as a variety of other financial resources. 

“I never thought college was an option, but suddenly I was able to see it in a different light,” she said. After graduating in May, she plans to pursue her bachelor’s to fulfill her dream of becoming a marriage counselor. 

“I’m so happy,” she said. “I want to be able to keep going in my studies as long as I can.”

For Laney, her tuition at Southwest Virginia Community College was covered by a Pell Grant, but Great Expectations helped with books and groceries, even paid for her car to get fixed so she could drive to school. She now also receives a $400 a month housing stipend. 

“Things like that are so helpful for students who need it,” she said, “because if it wasn’t for that I would have had to quit classes and work more. When I started college I was working two jobs. Now I just have to work one.”

In 2021, she received her associate’s degree in criminal justice and soon will start online classes at Lindsey Wilson College in Kentucky to earn a bachelor’s degree in human services and counseling. 

In the meantime she works as an administrative assistant at SVCC’s Bluefield Center, helping former foster kids like her navigate adult life.

“I take the initiative to talk to them and try to relate to them because they don’t have much support, especially people their own age,” Laney said. “Without [Great Expectations] I honestly don’t think I would have continued my education. Sometimes it gets too hard to juggle so many things. They just provide a pathway to get where I am.”

Michael Hemphill is a former award-winning newspaper reporter, and less lauded stay-at-home dad, who...