ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — What a judge told Lisa Koykar almost two decades ago became a sort of catalyst for the rest of her life.

It wasn't anything particularly kind, more like "a kick in the gut," she said. Koykar was 18 years old and was being emancipated from the foster care system. 

She had been in and out of 11 different foster homes.

"He told me he would see me back in his courtroom in handcuffs," Koykar said. "I always use that as a source of motivation...I felt like I was on the right track."

Despite the less than thoughtful words of encouragement, Koykar, now 36, indeed stayed on the right track. She's days away from receiving her master's degree in nursing from Marquette University in Wisconsin.

Koykar felt optimistic after leaving the courtroom but in reality, the statistics are daunting: After reaching the age of 18, about 20 percent of the children who were in foster care become homeless, according to the National Foster Youth Institute. There is a less than 3 percent chance of former foster children earning a college degree. 

Koykar has a bachelor's degree and soon, her master's.

"I refuse to be a statistic," she said.

Lisa Koykar child 4 30 19
An undated photo of Lisa Koykar.
Lisa Koykar

Koykar's mother's parental rights were terminated in 1992. She was abused. People told her, essentially, she'd be nothing.

For a mother of three and a wife of a military man who serves the U.S. with pride, that's more than nothing -- Koykar's loving family is everything to her.

"I had people tell me that I would never succeed. I would never allow that to pull me down," Koykar said. "And I tell people now, listen, we all have greatness inside of us."

Her message for others spread like wildfire on LinkedIn and other social networks. Koykar said she hopes her story of defying the odds inspires others but helps to critically examine the foster care system.

"It just shows that there needs to be a lot of work in the system," she said. "For me, I used (the judge's words) as a source of motivation at a time when the cards were stacked against me."

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