Written by: Victoria Garcia
Edited by: Christian Downes
Interviews by: Henk Dawson & John Harrison
Samuel Martin is a young man with a gracious manner, a warm smile, and a sly sense of humor. A recent graduate of the University of Washington, Samuel grew up in the Seattle foster care system.
During his childhood, love, caring, and adult guidance were scarce. Now he is using the lessons he learned during those difficult times to help other young people. At 23, he works as a mentor for youth in foster care. “For me, it’s all about giving back,” says Samuel. “So many people gave to me, so now it’s my turn.”
Samuel spent his earliest years with his paternal grandmother. Their home was not a happy one. “When my grandma was sober, she was a wonderful person,” says Samuel. “Wonderfully sweet, very genuine, very caring.” But she changed when she drank. “It turned her into almost a monster,” Samuel says. “She would come in just belligerently drunk and angry and tell me things like ‘You’re gonna end up like your father. You’re fat and you’re nothing. You’re not going to amount to anything.’” Violence often followed: “I was hit with vacuum cleaners, ash trays, wood sticks,” says Samuel in matter-of-fact tones. He remembers blaming himself for his situation: “It really forced me to ask ‘Why?’ and ‘How come you don’t love me?’ ”
When Samuel was eleven years old, his time with his grandmother came to a sudden end. “There were no other kids around that I could play with, so I sometimes sat in on this sewing class that was run by all these old ladies.” Samuel laughs. “I went to the little sewing class in the morning and I came back home, made a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and I left again. But during the time I did that, my grandma told me, ‘Don’t come back.’ ”
At first, Samuel didn’t understand: “Maybe two seconds later, I tried to get back into the house, because I realized I was thirsty. I wanted some milk. And she didn’t answer the door.” Samuel pounded on the door, but it remained locked. Finally, after an hour, the terrified boy called the police. Officers came to the scene, but Samuel’s grandmother wouldn’t let them in. “At that point, they took me to Child Protective Services (CPS) and tried to find me a place to live.”
CPS then arranged for Samuel to move in with an aunt. This was “kinship care,” a foster placement with a relative. It’s typically favored over a placement with a strangers, but often it’s still far from ideal: “[My aunt] was a very, very hard-working woman,” says Samuel. “She was in nursing school, and also had five kids of her own. So she didn’t have a lot of time.” But as a survivor of serious abuse, a caring adult’s time was something he sorely needed. Samuel explains how wrenching it can be when kinship care goes wrong: “When it feels like your family doesn’t want you, it’s not like you can just change homes, or say that you don’t want to be there anymore.”
Samuel quickly realized that he would now have to take care of himself. He learned to cook, to clean up after himself, and to do his own laundry. His aunt’s biological children, he says, helped him as much as they could, but being kids themselves, there was only so much they could do. “For the most part, [they] were doing the same thing as me, trying to survive, trying to make sure that they handled their own business, because that was the situation we were all put in.”
Samuel was now safe from his grandmother’s blows, but her words continued to haunt him, and to hurt. He blamed himself for her rejection, and he struggled, both emotionally and academically.
When he was in middle school, Samuel’s aunt decided to move the family to California. Samuel was not invited to come along. “[My aunt] didn’t even tell me,” Samuel says. “She had her son tell me. I’m excited because I’m thinking I’m going to California, and he says, ‘Hey, yeah, you’re not coming.’ ”
This was the second time that Samuel had been pushed away by the family member charged with his care. “The world kind of crushed around me,” says Samuel. “I know I was a handful and that I did bad in school, but it would have been nice to feel like somebody cared.”
Samuel’s social worker raced to find another foster home–difficult because Samuel was now an adolescent.
CPS found an aunt on his mother’s side who agreed to care for Samuel. This new caretaker was from a branch of the family Samuel knew nothing about. Now, he learned, not only did he have an aunt he’d never met, but he had siblings: two brothers, and a sister. Samuel’s adjustment to the new placement was rocky. He had deep emotional scars and learned to expect the worst from relatives. “My family says that I didn’t talk at all,” says Samuel. “They said that for the first few months there, I just didn’t speak.”
Samuel soon came to understand that his new caregiver was not a particularly tender or emotional person. But though his new home did not provide him with the warmth he craved, it did provide desperately needed stability, and an adult willing to push him in the right direction. “At the time, I didn’t understand it. I was a teenage boy and teenage boys don’t ever understand why people make them do stuff. But she got me really involved in my community, and because of that, I started to flourish.”
The programs Samuel worked with during this time would have a deep impact on his life. Through the Mockingbird Society, fifteen-year-old Samuel discovered his love of public service. “Every year they go down to Olympia and do a Youth Advocacy Day, where youth from across the state pitch in and create ideas for legislative change in foster care. … Shortly after joining the organization, I was able to testify in down Olympia in front of the senate. And that was the key moment when I knew I loved politics.”
A few years later, Samuel was accepted for admission to the University of Washington. No longer a floundering “problem child,” Samuel had learned how to focus, how to set goals and achieve them. But even so, the transition was rough. Though he was still a teenager, he was now utterly independent, with no familial safety net. “You think you don’t have support until you’re on your own, and then you realize that a constant roof over your head is better than not having one.”
Samuel soon discovered that there were dozens of key life skills that he had never had a chance to learn. “The biggest issue for me, aging out of the foster care system, is that I wasn’t prepared,” Samuel says. “I had to fall flat on my face numerous times for about the first three or four years. We need people,” he says. “We need other humans to gauge opinions, to figure out suggestions…We can’t do it alone.”
Indeed, after all those years of feeling unwanted, Samuel has now succeeded in creating the supportive, affectionate environment he always longed for. He has good friends, and a number of mentors. He visits his aunt regularly. “I have the opportunity to surround myself with people who care about me and love me; love’s in no short supply now.”
But in building this, Samuel has had to confront some deep-seated fears. “Growing up, it felt like nobody was there for me, so to be able to open myself was really hard…. You don’t want to have to rely on somebody else, because most times they’re going to fail you. And I think that you have to find a good balance with that, because everybody, in some form or fashion, is going to fall short. We’re human, it’s human nature. But for the longest time, I adopted this mentality of ‘the people I surround myself with have to be perfect, and the first time that they do something wrong to me, I have to cut them off.’ ”
This outward focus seems to serve Samuel well. Though his transition from foster care to university life was turbulent in many ways, Samuel has made the move from college to professional life with enviable grace. He is currently employed at Treehouse, a Seattle organization that provides support for kids in the foster care system. There, he works as an educational programs assistant, and he uses the hard-won lessons of his youth to help guide kids who are facing the same challenges he did. It’s work he loves.
But Samuel’s ambitions reach further. He is as certain now as he was at age fifteen that his future lies in politics, and he is working hard to make that dream a reality. For years, has been making regular lobbying trips to Olympia to speak with legislators about foster care, gang violence, and the need to reduce incarceration levels. “I know from my upbringing that it’s really a blessing for me to even be here today,” he says. “It makes me sick sometimes to see how people have to struggle to barely make it day-to-day, so the thing that really excites me is to advocate change–to be able to stand up for the person who doesn’t get a chance to say something.” Actively networking in preparation for his first campaign, he is considering a city council run in 2014.
When the time comes, he’ll be an easy candidate to root for. In the stories of Samuel’s early life, we see not just trouble and strife, not just problems and solutions, but a powerful kind of personal alchemy: Samuel has learned to turn pain into empathy, to turn doubt into discipline, and to struggle into true strength. It’s an ability that all leaders need, but that few possess.