By Justin Much
When he initially learned about the Maurice Undergraduate Initiative Competition, Western Oregon University student Matt Verley didn’t have much time to put together a proposal.
What he did have was passion for his subject, and that sparked a proposal in almost no time.
Verley, a 29-year-old junior majoring in public policy and communications, speaks with zeal when he discusses foster care and the necessity for structure and guidance in a young person’s life. Essentially orphaned at age 11, he speaks from the heart on this topic.
Hence, foster care became the focus of Verley’s Initiative project, “Wolves Fostering Hope.” Verley believes that foster children often lack exemplary leaders in their lives, and that having a mentor can be the difference between a meaningful life and a lost one. His views were engendered through experience.
“My mom passed away just weeks before my 11th birthday … She and my dad divorced back when I was three,” Verley said .
“She battled cancer and had really given it her all,” he continued. “They tried to do everything they could do to help her. We didn’t have the foresight to prepare for what we are going to do if she loses the fight … part of it is, you don’t want to face that reality. Especially my grandparents, they didn’t want to think about burying one of their kids.”
Verley said all his mother’s siblings were entrenched in raising their own families at that time; there wasn’t much they could do to help Matt and his younger brother, Danny Walsh. The siblings were split up and swept into the often inhospitable world of foster care.
“I ended up bouncing around some foster homes and group homes in Nevada,” Verley recalled. “Dealing with that type of emotional burden, you get into some problems. Back then people weren’t really good about having kids talk about stuff. It’s gotten better over the years.”
Making things better for foster kids was the first notion that struck Verley when he learned about the Maurice Undergraduate Initiative Competition. He found out about it almost in passing, but he figured it was no accident.
“I found out five days before the proposals were due,” he said. “But I immediately recognized this was the type of thing I wanted to be involved in. I created my proposal and a week later received email confirmation.”
The Maurice program began three years ago, the endowment an idea of Alfred P. and J. Dolores Maurice of Monmouth.
WOU’s Director of Advancement Tommy Love, a member of the project’s board, said “Fred” Maurice is a retired college professor. His goal with the initiative is to foster enrichment by encouraging college students to expand their academic experience with a project that goes beyond the scope of their studies. Projects are not part of regular classes, nor can they be used for college credit.
What participants do is cite a problem in society and seek solutions for it.
Love said Maurice originally hoped to see the project ideas cross a wide spectrum, and those hopes have been realized.
“The initial proposal is a project that is dear to (the student’s) heart,” Love said.
Wolves Fostering Hope was just that for Verley. He believes a crucial point in his upbringing transpired at age 14 when he was admitted to the Nevada Youth Training Center in Elko.
“That’s where I really gained a lot of support, and that’s where this idea (Wolves Fostering Hope) came from,” Verley said. “We had group therapy sessions: one-on-ones with psychology sessions. The staff up there served as mentors for a lot of us.”
Verley entered NYTC at age 14 and left just before he turned 18, the age at which he said kids “grow out of foster care.”
He was on his own, but he felt fortunate to have some basic tools.
“You know what, it was really run like a military academy,” he recalled “There was a lot of structure and a lot of discipline, something with a lot of foster homes you really lack.”
He hopes Wolves Fostering Hope can help alleviate that dearth of discipline. Verley’s project proposal is thorough, and includes lists of planned fundraisers, partnerships and advocates. One crucial advocate is his fiancée, Amanda Gerlick, a WOU senior communications major.
Gerlick helps Verley generate public-relations and publicity ideas and methods to attract mentors into the fold. He said some local businesses, such as Crush Wine Bar and Yeasty Beasty Pizza, have offered to provide a venue for fundraisers, while WOU’s Abby’s House has helped his quest to find mentors.
“Unfortunately, foster children are always going to exist; it’s not something we can solve,” Verley said. “Through this program I feel that there is the possibility of creating (an environment to change) the products that come out of the foster-care system.
“You can’t say the kids that come out of foster care are the pillars of the community — that’s just a hard fact,” he added. “Mentoring, someone close to their age encouraging them to make strides toward achieving a better lifestyle is important. You need to have someone to look up to.”