TRAVERSE CITY -- Shawn Semelsberger squeaked through her teenage years in foster care.

"Being part of a system, I felt like I had no voice, or I had a mousey one that didn't make a difference," she said.

Now 22 and an advocate for foster care youth, Semelsberger commands attention and inspires young people to triumph over obstacles she understands so well.

Semelsberger was 14 when she was placed in foster care. She lived with several area foster families and spent time in a residential home. Her stays usually lasted from a couple of months to a year. For a time, she returned to her biological family.

But part way through her senior year in high school, Semelsberger turned 18 and "aged out" of the state's foster care system. Her case was closed, and she was "released into the world." It was a harsh place for a teenager ill-prepared to survive it alone.

Semelsberger hopped from couch to couch and then landed at a "drug house" where she said she managed to avoid being influenced by her environment. The only way she ate was through the school's free meal program for at-risk students. Still, Semelsberger graduated from Traverse City Central High School.

"I somehow got my diploma. I somehow was able to cope," she said.

Foster youth may qualify for funding and help to make the transition from foster care to adulthood, but particulars of Semelsberger's case meant that aid was out of reach. She knows there are too many others who also are pushed into the world without enough support. Trouble lurks: Pregnancy, drugs, jail, homelessness and dropping out of high school.

"There's really no path to society," she said. "We are just breeding this really lower class of society."

Semelsberger not only survived, she thrived. She takes classes at Northwestern Michigan College and wants to be an art therapist. She's active with a number of local and national agencies and is an advocate on foster care issues. She travels throughout the country, participating in about 150 public speaking events so far.

The Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative helped Semelsberger when she had few places to turn. The organization is affiliated with Michigan Youth Opportunities Initiative, which serves a 10-county region. One of its primary functions is to help foster youth take on adult responsibilities. The program offers training to manage personal finances and encourages young people to save through a money matching account. That provides a "financial safety net," Semelsberger said.

MYOI Youth Coordinator Brenda Kalchik said Semelsberger is an "outstanding leader."

She's "extraordinary," said Supervisor Mike Pavlov, who is continually impressed by program participants' eloquence on foster care matters.

Semelsberger also sits on the board of directors for Third Level Crisis Intervention Center, where Executive Director Steven Hampton called her a "good fit."

"She does a fantastic job. The insight that she brings to the board is one of the youth," Hampton said. "She definitely knows her stuff."

When she speaks to teenagers in foster care, Semelsberger tries to inspire confidence. She tells them it's possible to navigate the system "to some extent."

She continues to push for changes to help foster youth but appreciates the difficulties policy makers face.

"I just kind of believe... that it's everyone's responsibility... to do something for your society. I don't think what I'm doing is unique or special," she said. "I'm just doing what I think I should be doing."

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