By DAVE GYMBURCH Sentinel staff writer

Although not related, Rome Free Academy seniors James Finnie and Scott Ryan have lived under the same roof for the past year and share a determination to overcome lifelong personal upheavals and setbacks.

As the two foster-care students prepare to graduate from RFA on June 26, their diplomas represent a milestone that can be difficult for such children, and will help shape their hopes for better times ahead.

Finnie, age 18, says he is "happy...excited" about graduating, and "I want to go to college...get on with my life, forget about the past." He estimates that he has lived in 10 foster homes over the years, and at times would go to bed not knowing where he would be next.

Ryan, age 19, has a range of emotions about graduation including "excited and nervous...happy...proud." He is proud that he will be going to college, and that he has overcome the deaths in the past four years of his father and a previous foster parent.

Finnie and Ryan expressed appreciation for their current foster parents, Christopher "Kip" Carrier and his wife Patty Carrier of 6443 Karlen Road in the Town of Lee. Both 65 and retirees, they have had five foster children during nearly six years in the program through The House of The Good Shepherd agency, said Patty. Finnie and Ryan will be their second and third foster children to graduate from high school, she added.

It can be unusual enough for foster children to graduate, much less two from the same foster-care family, said RFA guidance counselor Michelle Skibitski. RFA counselors agreed that Finnie and Ryan are two of the most inspiring examples in the school’s class of 2010 with about 400 seniors.

Foster children often have "such hard lives" and can "spend years" with child protective service agencies, said Skibitski. While Finnie and Ryan "came through the system...they made it," that is "not always...the case," she noted. They "landed in a good foster home" with the Carriers, who provided "tender loving care" in guiding them, she added.

Finnie and Ryan discussed their lives in recent interviews at the Carriers’ home:

¿ Finnie, a foster child with the Carriers since April 2008, said he was born in Syracuse, the son of James O’Connor and Kerry Finnie. He said his parents separated when he was a child, and he was "back and forth" between them until he entered foster care at age 8 following issues that developed while with his father.

Finnie said he also attended high school in Chittenago and Oneida, and was placed with the Carriers after previous foster families "didn’t work out." Among the continuing difficulties, "I’d get close to a family...and I’d leave....Get close to friends...leave them behind," he said. He also found it "hard to explain to friends at school" regarding his foster-care status.

Finnie said he "always liked school," adding "I wanted to prove my dad wrong....I was determined to do better." He has a sister and several step-siblings, noting he will be the first in his family to graduate. He said he is proud of his RFA accomplishments, including learning construction-related topics and participating on the swim team. A wooden chair that he built is in the Carriers’ backyard.

Finnie said he has stayed in touch with his father, who lives in Maine, and plans to move there after graduation to live with him while attending Eastern Maine Community College for a construction curriculum. He communicates with his mother online.

Of living with the Carriers, Finnie said "at first I didn’t like it," but "now I appreciate what they’ve done....All the stuff they gave me."

Finnie also expressed gratitude to RFA guidance counselor John Davis, RFA resource teachers Cynthia Sirni and Tracy Morehouse, and House of Good Shepherd counselors Ron Behe and Mark Niedzielski.

Finnie could have gone "in a lot of different directions," but began to "understand he has marketable skills," said "Kip" Carrier. After long years of uncertainty, Finnie said he now knows "what I’m going to be...where I’m going to go."

¿ Ryan, who said he originally was from the Utica area, came to the Carriers about a year ago. His previous foster parent, Michael Boulanger, 56, of Rome, died in May 2009 after suffering cardiac arrest while driving his car along Chestnut Street. Ryan had been a foster child of Boulanger for about three years, and the death "was difficult for me."

Ryan, who said he is the son of Thomas Ryan and Michelle Rose, noted that he entered foster care about eight years ago after his parents separated. He said he was with his father for a visit when he was stricken and died in 2006. An uncle also died after that.

The deaths have been "difficult to deal with," said Ryan, who was depressed by them. With the Carriers, "it’s been good....I’ve been doing very good," he remarked. The Carriers, who also have a 14-year-old foster child, were told by House of Good Shepherd representatives after Boulanger died that they were the only available Rome-area family for Ryan, who otherwise would have had to change schools for his senior year, said Patty Carrier. "Kip" Carrier said they were good friends with Boulanger, and "we did it for Mike and Scott."

Ryan said his progression through high school, where he has taken classes at RFA and at BOCES, has been helped by staying in contact with his mother along with several brothers and a sister who live in the area. He said "people have been encouraging me." Patty Carrier observed that "Scott has a caring family."

Ryan also expressed thanks to Skibitski, RFA Assistant Principal Michael Rizzi, RFA resource teacher Alan Ringlund, BOCES teacher Richard Szmurlo, and House of Good Shepherd counselors Kayla Fontaine and Scott Bush.

Ryan plans to attend Mohawk Valley Community College to major in criminal justice, and intends to stay with the Carriers until age 21 when he must leave foster care. "Kip" Carrier remarked that Ryan has "dealt with all his losses in his life," and still has "all those hopes and dreams ahead of him."

Having raised two children of their own and now retired, the Carriers said they sometimes are asked why they are so involved in the foster-care program. "Kip" Carrier said he wanted to work with children after retiring from his work as a state field audit specialist, and to help give direction and hope to those who need it. Patty Carrier noted the importance of helping foster-care children who "have a lot to deal with."