TORONTO - When 21-year-old Tia McGregor sees the younger kids who like her have grown up in foster homes — kids who have to figure out life without a family to support them the day they turn 18 — she tells them to follow their highest ambitions and their most cherished dreams.

"Do what you love and the rest will follow," she says.

The fourth-year Queen's University drama student knows her message is pretty hard to take seriously when you're 18 and have just been kicked out of your foster home.

"It didn't help me when people told me," she said. "For youth in care, there is so much more you have to think about."

Most former foster kids think they can't afford ideals, dreams and ambitions, said McGregor. They've got to worry about the rent, groceries, tuition. They've got to walk the tight-wire of daily life without the safety net of a family.

McGregor attended her third annual Hope For Children Foundation awards dinner Sept. 19 at Hart House on the University of Toronto campus. She collected a $2,000 scholarship to help with another year of post-secondary education. In total, the Hope For Children Foundation gave out $140,000 this year in scholarships to Catholic youth who had been through the foster care system with Catholic Children's Aid Society of Toronto.

One-hundred-six young people collected scholarships this year in amounts of $1,500 for community college students and $2,000 for university students.

For these kids the scholarships are a very small part of their financial picture, said Catholic Children's Aid executive director Mary McConville.

"We wish it was more," she said.

Statistics Canada released a study Sept. 12 showing the average Ontario undergraduate pays $7,180 in tuition fees alone. Since 2006 Ontario tuition fees have increased by a cumulative 71 per cent, said the Canadian Federation of Students — Ontario. Add in modest living costs, books, transportation and the real cost of an academic year is more like $11,000, according to the Hope for Children Foundation.

But still, the high-achieving McGregor urges idealism and big dreams on younger foster students. A high school math and science whiz, McGregor began university in astrophysics, trying to pursue the safe science career people expected of her. She wanted to study a little theatre on the side, but chemistry got in the way of a drama minor.

"In the end, I couldn't lie to myself," she said.

She switched programs despite the expectations of her foster family and former high school teachers, because the alternative to following a dream is grim and lifeless. She's blossomed as a writer, comedian and actress and spent last summer with the Thousand Island Playhouse summer theatre program acting and leading writing workshops for high school students.

None of this success was built into McGregor's beginnings. Her mother discovered she was pregnant at 15, and because the father was black the family rejected their daughter and granddaughter. McGregor's mother developed a drug addiction and her father was mostly absent. At six McGregor took refuge at her best friend's house every day and then every night.

Eventually that best friend became McGregor's foster sister and by the time she was eight the neighbour family officially became her foster home. Soon afterwards, McGregor's foster family moved from Scarborough two-and-a-half hours' drive east to Campbellford, Ont.

Small-town life was stable, warm, accepting — all she could have asked for. Unlike many foster children, McGregor stayed in the same home until she went away to university.

But she never had to look far to see how much more difficult things could have been. One of her foster sisters turned 18 last year before graduating from high school. Under Ontario law foster children are no longer crown wards at 18 and must immediately move out. McGregor's foster sister found a place with a school friend 45-minute's drive from her school. The 18-year-old managed to finished high school despite the dramatic dislocation and is now attending college.

McGregor believes the things she's experienced and seen in her life as a foster child have done more than toughen her up for life. They've also made her a better writer.

"I have more life experience, maybe," she said. "And that makes for a good writer."

Published in Canada: Toronto-GTA