Valley News -

By Jeff Pack

Temecula resident makes a difference in the life of a college student


Last updated 7/19/2019 at 12:12am

Courtesy photo

Temecula's Kelly Smith is a mentor volunteer to California State University San Marcos student and former foster youth, Tatiana Apelu.

It was a presentation that Kelly Smith and her husband, Wendell, had attended at Rock Church that would lead her to become a mentor to a college student and former foster child, forever changing that young student's life journey.

According to Smith, the presentation dealt with volunteering with foster children, but Smith and her husband were more interested in working with foster youth that were working toward college and beyond.

That's how she found Promises2Kids, a leading nonprofit organization originally founded over 35 years ago as the Child Abuse Prevention Foundation of San Diego County.

Two years ago, Smith signed up to be a volunteer. About that same time, Tatiana Apelu, who was in and out of foster care homes for 15 years, joined the program and was connected with Smith.

Today, Apelu, whose foster care case spanned across four counties and seven homes, is 21 years old and a student at California State University San Marcos, where she is studying sociology.

She is scheduled to graduate next year and is currently looking at graduate school options, with Smith's help. She said Smith's influence and support has been crucial to her success.

"When I joined Promises it was the first time in my life that I was allowed to have someone being very interested in me, not just because of who I am but because of where I've come from," Apelu said. "They understand a little bit more why life after 18 is super important."

Meeting Smith, she said, was impactful.

"It's done a lot for me because I have trust issues with adults and female figures because of my past with my mom and my stepmom and other people as well," Apelu said. "I tended to not to be a main focus of their lives or one of their priorities, and it kind of made me fall off the deep end. But Kelly, like the first time I met her, she actually wanted to get to know me, and from then on she's always wanting to know about my day and even the little things."

It was then that she came to establish trust.

"The first time I realized that I could start trusting her is when I told her that, 'Hey, I'm sick, I can't go to the gym this week.' And so she's like, 'OK, well I'm going to drop off stuff for you because you're sick.' I never had someone genuinely care that I was sick before."

The life of a foster child is difficult, and once the child turns 18, they age out of the foster care system and many times, those children find themselves on their own.

For Smith, even though Promises2Kids asks for a yearlong commitment, she was in for much more than that.

"I knew in my heart that if I was going to take this on it was going to be a lifetime," Smith said. "Every child has been through the foster care system has had grownups come in and out of their lives and do their job for however long they have to do their job and move on. And maybe some people stick, you know, I'm sure there are some relationships forged and things that happen, but I think that's pretty few and far between just because there's so many children and so few people that are helping them.

"You don't just go into this lightly. You have to make sure you have the time and the resources and the heart and everything ready before you take this on because you cannot do it halfway.

"Now, Tatiana is super special, so, I'm not sure it would have been such a bond if it had been someone else, but it was definitely not a year commitment for me," Smith said.

Apelu agreed and is grateful that Smith has committed so thoroughly to her.

"Thankfully I got into the program and then they brought Kelly in and that's when everything started changing for me because I started seeing myself differently," Apelu said. "I don't see myself as a foster youth anymore; I see myself as someone that able to create a future. I don't have to just be just a former foster youth; I could also be a college professor, which I've wanted to do for a while now."

Smith said she appreciates the opportunity to watch a young woman like Apelu grow.

"I just get to watch Tatiana be awesome," she said. "You know, sometimes I can suggest something that she might not have thought about, but mostly, and I told the guys at Promises2Kids, she has her stuff straightened out. I wish I was that together when I was 22 years old because she's great."

Smith said they do a whole host of activities together, including visiting colleges and helping to teach Apelu to drive.

Apelu has an older sister who attends San Diego State University through the Guardian Scholars Program, and her sister was able to help her find a school like California State University San Marcos that would accept her through the program after high school.

"High school was really rough because having moved so much, and I was going through a new placement during that time," Apelu said. "But I knew I wanted to keep my education going because that was the only thing consistent for me in my life."

With her feet firmly on the ground, Smith supporting her and her future mapped out, Apelu is ready to take on the world, even if she needs to be reminded from time to time.

She recalled a time she was talking to the Smiths about a sociologist that she respected and the couple asked what school the professor taught at.

"They said, 'Why don't you apply there?'" Apelu said. "And I said, 'I'm never going to get into Berkeley.' And they both turned around and were like, 'That is not true.' I was like, 'Woah.' It finally hit me that, oh my gosh, I think I'm smart. People who have like a master's (degree) and a Ph.D., they're telling me that I am smart, why am I not accepting that?

"They're like, 'Why not Stanford or Harvard or Columbia? Like they're really pushing that forward because they believe in me and I don't think anyone has ever believed in my education like that before. Not even myself."

Apelu said she is considering Columbia University for graduate school now.

Smith said she was thrilled she finally made the decision to join Promises2Kids and that people who may be interested in getting involved should do a little soul searching before hand.

"I'm not sure what everybody's motivation is, this has been a longtime coming for me," Smith said. "It's not a thing you put on your resume. It's not something you do to talk about, you know; it's not that. It's someone else's life that you're merging with your own, and that's personal."

For more information on Promises2Kids, visit

Jeff Pack can be reached by email at [email protected]


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