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UT grad wants to help teens in foster care after her own experience

Reagan Dodson entered the foster care system as a teenager and decided to pursue social work in college. Now, she wants to help kids like her.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Reagan Dodson was 16 when she first entered foster care to leave an unhealthy situation at home.

"I am the one who told the police on my parents," she said in an interview in 2020. "Most kids that go into foster care don't want to be removed from their parents, but at that time, that's the only thing that I wanted."

Her mom and her mom's boyfriend were arrested, and Reagan and her sister were moved into a foster home. 

RELATED: You Are Not Alone: Foster care

While navigating life as a teen away from her family, she found help from her "forever foster family" and Youth Villages, a nonprofit that helps young adults in foster care.

Just before she turned 18 and aged out of foster care, Reagan sought out resources and support through the system's extensions.

"I had a lot of plans of, I want to apply for college, I want to get a car, I want to get my own apartment at some point. I need someone to help me figure out how to do all these things," she said.

Youth Villages' LifeSet program provided Reagan with resources, mentors and support while she attended Pellissippi State Community College and then the University of Tennessee.

"A perfect candidate for our program would look like any young adult who wants to meet with someone weekly, they want to learn different independent living skills and they know what their goals are," said Jessi Zeigler, a LifeSet specialist. "A lot of young adults don't know what their goals are. So a lot of times we spend the first couple of months working on goal setting and what that looks like for them because our program is entirely based on our young adults and what they want to work on and what they want to learn."

The program connected Reagan with Zeigler and Youth Villages' Carolyn Ordal, who acted as a support system through mentorship and weekly meetings.

"A lot of times, our young adults in the foster care system don't necessarily have a lot of people on their side, and that's why I like our services so much is because she not only has one, but two of us, along with all of our programming staff to be there for her," Zeigler said.

During her time with Youth Villages, Reagan acted as an ambassador for teens in foster care like her for Youth Villages' partnership with Steven Tyler's Janie's Fund at a Grammy viewing party in Los Angeles.

Credit: Reagan Dodson

She was also able to reconnect with her family and became an aunt after her little sister had a baby girl.

With her time in the LifeSet program coming to an end, Reagan is on a path to help kids in the foster care system. 

She interned in the McNabb Center's foster care division and graduated from UT with a social work degree in May.

Credit: Reagan Dodson

"I just got super passionate about the foster care community and specifically advocating for teens that are in foster care because of my experience and the experience of a lot of others that I met and like support groups and different programs," Reagan said.

She plans to take a gap year to travel before pursuing a master's degree in social work.

She wants everyone who is able to consider becoming a foster parent.

"There're so many kids sleeping in offices right now because there's not enough foster families," Reagan said. "If you're feeling a calling to be involved in the foster care system, do it. Even if you can't be a foster parent, you can do respite just on the weekends, one night or support a foster family because it's a really tough job, but it's definitely needed."

Aging out of the foster care system is scary, but there are a lot of resources for teens going through this process.

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