Raleigh architect Kenn Gardner founded the W.I.S.E. Foster Care Scholarship program in 2004, a fund to help youth in foster care pursue the dream of a college education. In its first three years, the program raised more than $100,000 to help students emerging from the foster care system. Fewer than 10 percent of these young adults enroll in postsecondary education – and only two percent graduate. In 2007, Garner fine-tuned his vision, realizing that funding alone might not be enough. A comprehensive support structure was needed to help with the transition from foster care to independent young adulthood.

Gardner, in his second term on the Wake County Board of Commissioners, secured a start-up grant of $250,000 for what would become known as the Fostering Bright Futures Fellowship program (FBFF). An additional $5,000 donation from the National Association of Counties soon followed. The public-private partnership included Wake Technical Community College, the Wake Tech Foundation, and Wake County Human Services, each playing a unique role. Wake County Human Services identified participants and matched them with life coaches and mentors. Wake Tech provided participants with academic tutoring, career counseling, and financial aid services. The Wake Tech Foundation served as fiscal agent to oversee program logistics, including success milestones.

Gardner reached out to the local business community to help make the program sustainable. Jim Holmes, a partner at Raleigh-based insurance brokerage Trisure, became one of the program’s strongest supporters and financiers. He assembled an advisory board to raise private resources to cover education-related fees, housing costs, and other program expenses. In addition to Holmes, the board included Gardner, founding principal of Isosceles Design; Patrick Lindsey, a partner at Dixon Hughes; Kelly Musico, co-owner of MVP Plan Administrators Inc.; and Mike Waldrop, a partner at Waldrop Properties.

Fostering Bright Futures has flourished: Advisory board members have been added, two staff members have been hired, and corporate support has increased. Everyone on the Fostering Bright Futures team is dedicated to its mission of serving students. With the number of former foster children in Wake County expected to increase over the next decade, the need for the program will continue to grow.