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Com Studies Prof Named Foster Care 'Angel'

Oct. 19, 2012
SHSU Media Contact: Jennifer Gauntt
Story by: Kelly Garrison

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Adjunct professor Terri Jaggers was recognized by U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady and representatives from the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute in September, when she received the "Angel in Adoption" award for her work with the foster system.  —Submitted photo


PAGEANT WINNER. Business Owner. Leader. Activist. Mom. "Angel." Sam Houston State University adjunct professor of communication studies Terri Jaggers has played many roles.

With all her achievements in each function, it may come as a surprise that she was a foster child at the age of 4. That is because statistics for kids in foster care may indicate a lower likelihood for success, she said.

But Jaggers has led a life that defies those odds and has gone on to help others overcome their own.

With her husband Pat, Jaggers has fostered 25 children, raising five of them to independent adulthood by either formally or informally adopting them.

She has made contact with influential lawmakers and impacted legislation for foster children, which began with implementation in Texas and quickly became the basis for new laws throughout the country.

In recognition for her work in helping foster children she was awarded, on Sept. 12, The Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute’s “Angel in Adoption” award.

“Terri Jaggers fearlessly and enthusiastically coordinated a community advisory board including corporations, churches, private agencies, and various city, county and community leaders,” said Leshia Fisher, program director for the Texas Department of Protective Services. It was Fisher who notified Congressman Kevin Brady’s office of Jaggers’s achievements and prompted him to nominate her for the “Angels in Adoption” award.

“Ms. Jaggers’s vision and leadership has resulted in the reduction of duplication, maximum use of resources available, renewed hope, goodwill, and credibility that is now growing exponentially,” Fisher said. “These partnerships and programs are now rooted and have positively affected the lives of many Texas children and families and will continue to impact generations to come.”

In her live leading up to becoming an “Angel,” Jaggers has had many avenues for sharing her passion for helping foster children. As a former Mrs. Texas United States (2005), Mrs. U.S. America (2008) and the reigning Mrs. United America 2013, she has used the publicity from the positions—as well as her personal determination and charisma—to raise more than $1,000,000 for foster care organizations and helped make Montgomery County the leading county in the U.S. for adoptions.

In addition, her insider viewpoint on the foster care system not only has led her to advise law-makers on changes that could improve the system, but has led to changes in the way foster parents are viewed, the options available to them, and the opportunities that are now presented to foster children.

“One of the things we took on was to get tuition re-imbursement for children who age out of care and to include children who are adopted from foster care,” Jaggers said. “Initially, foster families were not given consideration or legal standing to adopt the children they had, but then as things started to change, we realized that the best placements for these foster kids are with the people that love them and know them; let’s not move them home to home, let’s give the option to the foster parents.”

She explained that formerly, foster parents were often unable to offer permanent homes to the children they had developed bonds with; they were viewed as providing a temporary placement for children, and though they may have wanted to adopt, they would face financial difficulties by doing so.

Jaggers advises the student organization "Pay It Forward," which has three committees that work to help area foster children by providing holiday baskets for these kids (below) and working to educate the community on foster system-related issues, while participating in events for the children in Region 6 (above). —Submitted photos

“As a temporary foster parent, you would get state-funded assistance, but if the placement became permanent through adoption, there was no longer any financial help,” Jaggers said. “There was no assistance for college, insurance, or health care. Now that the subsidy is available for adopting families including college tuition, insurance, and healthcare, foster parents are more inclined to open their doors and home permanently.”

They were able to change the laws and financial funding about 10 years ago, and those effects can be seen at SHSU through the university’s FORWARD program and Pay It Forward student organization, both created to help foster kids transition into college. As the faculty adviser to Pay It Forward, Jaggers has implemented several teams of students who work together to address different aspects of foster kids’ needs.

The volunteerism team helps younger kids in Region 6 (Austin, Brazoria, Chambers, Colorado, Fort Bend, Galveston, Harris, Liberty, Matagorda, Montgomery, Walker, Waller, and Wharton Counties) by being a part of their important childhood events, from providing baskets for Easter and Christmas celebrations, to Project Prom and graduation.

The education/speaker’s team spreads the word to Texas foster youth through the Child Welfare PAL program and area high schools that tuition at SHSU and all other Texas state colleges or universities is covered 100 percent by waiver and that SHSU’s FORWARD program offers tailored assistance for former foster youth to enable their academic success as a Bearkat.

The mentorship team encourages and supports students during their transition time at college. As Jaggers pointed out, finding independence during the college years is hard for everyone, but the mentorship team, and all Pay It Forward teams, are open to all types of volunteers—foster kids, non-foster, and former fosters. This way, help can be offered or accepted as needed, and no one gets labeled, she said.

The Pay It Forward organization also donates Teddy bears to the courts for children who are just entering the system, because no matter the child’s age, going to court is an unsettling experience, Jaggers said.

“That is one of the worst parts of coming into foster care, coming into court and thinking you did something wrong and thinking everybody is in trouble because of you. And you just feel worthless and scared, and you don’t think of the courts as your friend, you don’t think of it as a safe place. Although that is what it’s supposed to be, you don’t think of it like that,” she said. “So when the judges give these Teddy bears to even the teenager on that first day, there is just something kind and endearing and innocent that it brings out of that person, and it’s something that is theirs, and it’s warmly received.”

In the past 12 months, more than 1,000 Teddy bears have been given away.

Pay It Forward has also hosted two adoption fairs, three days of adoption festivities, the Run for Hope, which raised $100,000 for Camp Hope, a Summer Camp for foster children, and honored foster kids who graduate from college or high school with the “Always Pursue” program. They have spoken at high schools, trained and volunteered at Camp Hope, and set up a display for Child Abuse Awareness Month at the Montgomery County Courthouse.

Pay It Forward unintentionally began supplying shoes to Montgomery County's homeless, who stole shoes from a display meant to illustrate the path each child will take through the foster system. Jaggers, however, saw the dissapearing shoes as a "blessing" that became a means to help more people. —Submitted photo

The display used 500 old shoes to illustrate the path that each child will take through the system any time a child is abused. That number represents the kids that enter the system for the first time each month.

When homeless people began to come to the courthouse and steal the shoes, Jaggers’s reaction was, “good, by all means,” she said.

“The biggest blessing would be if there are no shoes left. These used shoes represented something that is only a concept to most people, but it drove home that there is another level of society that will take those shoes, that need them,” Jaggers continued. “It was meant for one thing, but it was used again and again and it multiplied.”

Jaggers explained that her life principles are guided by her Christian faith, and her belief that life is all about your choices.

“I look at life as, there is a pretty simple reality to Christian faith. When you make a decision to become a Christian, you work to transform your life in the image of good, of love, of what you perceive God to be. You change your old nature to become something different,” she said. “I believe that we all have a responsibility to choose, not Christian or non-, but to choose to be what we are going to be.”

Jaggers has made the choice to effect change. Though the award took her by surprise, she appreciates that it will publicize her cause and agreed with her husband’s view that her work and her accomplishments are things that can help people see there is some good in the world.

“It’s kind of weird,” she said. “After I found out about the award, you just do it every day, and all of a sudden there is an award. There are people in the world who want to know that people live their lives for something besides themselves. I don’t think about it until somebody puts it in my face.”

To learn more about Pay It Forward, contact Jaggers at tej003@shsu.edu or 936.294.4318.

 

 

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