Strong from the Start: Tori Bezzole-Hershey

Jess DewesUncategorized

Survival Mode
Second-year Scholarship Foundation Advocacy Fellow Tori Bezzole-Hershey knows what it’s like to have to grow up fast. As a young child, she was placed in the foster care system when her parents and grandmother became unable to care for her. As an adult, she recalls figuring out very early that she was going to have to depend on herself to get through a lot of the tough times. “It’s crazy to say, but it was always kind of like a survival mode for me. I didn’t really have a choice.”

A Fresh Start
By middle school, Tori was living with a foster family in Normandy and attending a charter middle school in midtown. While her grades were good, she found herself getting into trouble, arguing with teachers, and even getting suspended. But she noticed that the kids going to Cardinal Ritter College Prep, a private high school run by the Archdiocese of St. Louis located a few blocks from her middle school, seemed to be doing well. She asked a trusted adult to help her get an interview and, shortly thereafter, Tori met with the school’s president, Tamiko Armstead. In that meeting, Tori explained that she wanted a fresh start for high school, that she had big dreams, and that she had a foster family that was willing to get her there but couldn’t help her pay for it.

The hopeful 8th grader was given a chance and a scholarship to attend. She was told that she had to get a C in math, a course Tori did not enjoy, and that she had to get her behavior straightened out: no more suspensions, only good grades, excellence all-around. And she had to find a whole lot of money, all on her own.

Tori did not disappoint. She accepted the challenge with no means of buying a laptop, books, or uniforms. She knew she would be better off at the private school so she got to work sourcing assistance from Cardinal Ritter alumni and various social service agencies in the area. Soon, she had what she needed for her fresh start.

At Cardinal Ritter, Tori thrived both academically and in extracurricular programs that were essential to her success. She was an UMSL Bridge Scholar, a member of Cardinal Ritter’s Presidential Task Force, a participant in Big Brothers Big Sisters and College Bound, and a student athlete. Tori plugged into whatever resources she could to provide structure to her life and support her goal of going to and graduating from college.

“High school was hard because I was constantly bouncing around different [foster] homes. Throughout high school, sometimes I wouldn’t even know if I had a home to go to. The only stability I had was at school. I enjoyed going to clubs, volleyball practices, and meetings. Being involved at school kept me away from the parts of my life I couldn’t control.” During her senior year, Tori lost her beloved grandmother. Carrying the heartache of losing someone so dear to her, she once again had to rely on her own strength to get her through to graduation and on to college.

Tori was awarded a New Era Scholarship in 2020 to attend the University of Missouri – Columbia, majoring in political science.

Shortly thereafter, she heard about the Foundation’s policy fellowship, a part-time paid opportunity to work with peers on student-led advocacy priorities under the leadership of Karina Arango, Director of Advocacy. Tori’s Scholarship Foundation advisor, Ricky Hughes, suggested she apply since she was majoring in political science. When her application was accepted, she joined the largest cohort to date – fifteen fellows.  In a community of like-minded scholars, Tori found support and inspiration to stay focused on her college goals while also expanding her vision of what her future could be.

“I would say working with the Foundation has motivated me in times where I felt totally burned out and like I had nothing left. I would show up on Saturday mornings and talk about the issues with other fellows; how we’re not alone, and what we can do to influence real change. And it made me motivated all over again. The policy fellowship’s work has helped me realize that you do not have to just sit back and accept the systems as they are.”

Since joining the fellowship, Tori has made close friends, grown as a public speaker, and become a strong advocate for policy change. She has held her own in conversations with state and federal legislators, presented findings to Scholarship Foundation board and community members, and is working on her own policy brief about the foster care system and college access for those who grow up in it.

Tori’s belief that no one should be deprived of access or opportunity based on conditions that were passed down to them from their parents remains central to her professional goal of making an impact on the foster care system. “The support I’ve received from the Foundation, as a student and a fellow, has made me realize that there are many resources available in our community and my goal is achievable. When my grandma was alive, even though she couldn’t take care of me, I knew she was proud of me, and she wanted me to keep going. If I hadn’t had anyone at all who believed in me, I wouldn’t be where I am today.  I want to be that person for others by creating an organization that will be a new beginning for any kid who has felt unwanted or abandoned.”

Strong People Need Support, Too
Tori knows that her load could have been lightened had there been better supports in place for her and others aging out of foster care. “Transitioning to adult life was hard and I didn’t necessarily have anyone to help when I went to college: filing taxes, figuring out how to buy a car, or setting up an apartment. People would say, ‘Oh, you’ll figure it out. You’re strong. You’re resilient.’

And I am, but strong people need support, too. Throughout my life, I have found what I needed in various places, including my Foundation community, and combined that support with the persistence I bring to accomplishing my goals.”