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Scholarships from DCFS offer foster kids life-altering chance

 Scholarship winner Ajustice Bernadez who will be attending University Illinois this fall receives plaque from Ted Gibbs Governor Quinn's

Scholarship winner Ajustice Bernadez, who will be attending the University of Illinois this fall, receives a plaque from Ted Gibbs, Governor Quinn's deputy chief of staff, and DCFS Chief of Staff Denise Gonzales, at the awards luncheon held in Chicago Friday. | Nausheen Husain~Sun-Times

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Updated: August 29, 2013 7:54PM

The childhoods of Ajustice Bernadez and Keithan Hendrick followed the same trajectory: foster kids before hitting double-digits, adopted by grandparents, struggling to be role models to younger siblings.

A “burden lifted off [their] shoulders” is how they described what happened next: They each got a full scholarship to a four-year university in Illinois.

Bernadez, 18, and Hendrick, 21, were selected to get scholarships from the Department of Children and Family Services. The scholarship, available to Illinois foster kids accepted into a university, helps students get tuition and fees waived for four consecutive years, plus a monthly stipend to help with living expenses.

“This made me feel like I can actually do something for myself,” said 2013 scholarship winner Bernadez, who moved in with her grandmother at the age of 9 after her mother was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

DCFS and the student’s school share responsibility for funding the scholarships — 48 new winners were announced Friday. For anyone who has received one of the scholarships since the program began in 1964, the award can be life-altering.

“This opportunity literally allowed me to take care of my family,” said 2009 scholarship winner Hendrick, who adopted his two younger brothers when he was a sophomore at Eastern Illinois University studying applied engineering. He is now a second-year law student at the University of Illinois.

“It has inspired my little brothers,” said Hendrick, who was the keynote speaker at this year’s awards program Friday.

Some 238 students applied for the scholarship this year, down from last year’s 312, a drop DCFS spokesman Dave Clarkin attributes to a steady decline in the number of foster kids in Illinois.

In her application essay, Bernadez stated a simple truth for her and her two sisters: “My neighborhood is full of broken dreams and simple temptations.” Influenced by her mother’s condition, Bernadez plans to study psychology at U. of I. this fall.

Bernadez said she applied to one scholarship each month in the hopes of finding a way to pay for school.

Each rejection added to her discouragement until she got word of the DCFS scholarship in May.

“It didn’t really hit me until now that I have the opportunity to go to school for free,” she said. “Now, I’m like, “Oh my God, this is actually happening.’ I’m getting a second chance.”

“Now,” she added, “I just have to get through college.”

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