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Seattle AWC Chapter: Multi-Media Exhibition Kickstarter Campaign!

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Seattle AWC Chapter: Multi-Media Exhibition Kickstarter Campaign!

Posted: 14 Apr, 2014

Seattle AWC Chapter member Amanda Koster is a force behind a major effort to raise awareness of what foster “kids” face when they age out of the foster care system. Amanda has launched a Kickstarter campaign for “The Long Road Home, Aging Out of Foster Care,” a multi-media exhibition at The Art Institute (May 1 – June 18).

Amanda is the founder of SalaamGarage, which works with artists, media producers and entrepreneurs to tell stories of people’s lives that aren’t always heard. Amanda’s Kickstarter campaign page states, “Our goal is for individuals who have aged out to experience these stories and see that they are not alone, and to inspire communities to engage in social documentary projects in their own back yard.”

As Founder and Executive Producer Amanda has recruited, built and led a team of about 25 volunteer media makers and producers over two years to date. The project involved building relationships and trust with four local Foster Care agencies in Seattle, which provided access to adults who have aged out.

About SalaamGarage, Amanda says, “We are media makers who build relationships with nonprofits and the courageous individuals they serve. From there we create and share independent media projects that raise awareness and initiate positive change engaging social communities on- and off-line. Our projects have been presented at TEDx, Ignite, Microsoft, South by Southwest, Web 2.0, SPE, The Huffington Post, Seattle PI and many other media outlets.”

Here is the link to the Kickstarter: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1028988202/the-long-road-home-aging-out-of-foster-care

WA paves the way: EHB 2335 (Extended Foster Care)!!

(From “Real Change News,” 4/2/14: http://realchangenews.org/index.php/site/archives/8827)

By providing housing until age 21, state’s foster care program to ease transition to adulthood

by: Aaron Burkhalter , Staff Reporter

About 500 people “age out” of the state’s foster care system every year. Within their first year as adults, about a third of these people experience homelessness, according to the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS).

A new law passed by the Washington Legislature is designed to prevent this. Under the law, foster kids who are in school or training programs can continue to receive housing support, case work and legal support until they’re 21 through the state’s extended foster care system.

The state started extended foster care in 2006, and over the years has extended it to young adults in the foster care program who are in college or employment training programs. This year, the legislature expanded the program to include people who are working at least 80 hours a month.

Extended foster care has been growing since 2006, said Jim Theofelis, executive director for The Mockingbird Society, a nonprofit that advocates for foster kids. The program started because hundreds of kids each year were leaving foster homes only to become homeless.

In some cases, Theofelis said, students avoided finishing high school so they could stay in foster care as long as possible. Young adults age out of the program once they are 18 and have a high school diploma.

Prior to founding The Mockingbird Society, Theofelis was a mental health counselor who worked with foster kids. He would at times advise his clients to not finish high school so they could continue to get state foster support.

“We essentially trained these kids to underachieve,” he said.

Many foster children have had to leave their home on their 18th birthday. Foster parents sometimes kicked foster children out after they stopped getting financial support from the state. If foster parents also had underage foster children in the home, other adults could not legally stay there.

The legislature allocated $3 million to pay for the program through 2019. The money could go to pay foster parents to continue to provide housing or to help former foster kids rent apartments. In order to be eligible, the young people must be enrolled in school or working 80 hours a month.

Students in the program can also get case management and legal support.

Click HERE to read the EHB 2335 Bill (PDF). Hooray WA!

 

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16 days left + 66% to goal

Thank you so much for supporting “The Long Road Home” art exhibit. $1859 left to raise. Let’s press on and share with our networks, again.

Here’s the link again: http://kck.st/1pxcPfc.

UPDATE: 23 DAYS TO GO

WOW! We continue to be blessed by more gifts to help us pull off this important exhibition! We currently have 40 backers who have pledged a total of $3306 out of the $5500 we hope to raise. That means we are already 60% of the way toward our goal!

OUR AWESOME KICKSTARTER!:
https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1028988202/the-long-road-home-aging-out-of-foster-care

Even though we are making good pace we still need help. If you have not pledged yet, please consider giving a gift to help us reach 100% of our goal. You can also help by sharing our content on social media or via email with anyone you can think of that might be interested in supporting this endeavor. Thanks everyone for helping us to share these important stories, raising awareness and making a difference in the foster community in Seattle and beyond.

Follow and share our posts on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram! Thanks again!

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/SalaamGarage

Twitter: @salaamgarage

Instagram: @salaamgarage

WOW! YOU ROCK! Thank you for a swift 50%!

Hi Friends!

THANK YOU SO MUCH! We launched a Kickstarter for our exhibition “A Long Road Home: Aging out of Foster Care,” May-June 2014 in Seattle.

And….wow, after 2 days we are ~50% there! So, that means we need the other 50%. Would you participate and help us out?
https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1028988202/the-long-road-home-aging-out-of-foster-care

I just got back from the DENT 2014 conference where this amazing community and my geek-let’s-change-the-world family really supported this project from the start. THANK YOU DENT-ERS! For backers who have supported “A Long Road Home” who know us via other avenues thank you so much! I wish you all could see the tear in my eye, feel the thump in my heart and give you all a bear hug.

We are so very grateful and this just motivates us to work harder. On behalf of the SalaamGarage team (media makers, participants, sponsors): thank you. 

Love, Amanda and SalaamGarage

Summer Homes

Written & Edited by: Kacie Grice & Christian Downes
Photography by: Della Chen —

For Summer Prescott, the definition of home is not one most of us would recognize. Without the familial compassion many of us take for granted, Summer attempted to find home–initially, within the framework of abandoned houses, with relatives, within the arms and hearts of those who were unable to truly care for her. She sought safety and security from those she loved, and in its absence, chose solitude–the origin of the hardest won independence. Over the course of years, Summer simply learned to survive the searching. She uses what she discovered to shelter others, and to teach them how a home can be made with a love that is just and generous.

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Summer was born a healthy girl in every respect to parents who loved her. When Summer’s father died before her third birthday, she would have to compete for her mother’s attention against a changing cast of boyfriends, drug and alcohol abuse. Despite the circumstances, Summer’s affection for her mother and little sister remained strong.

Through the years, Summer adapted to a constantly changing environment. Her mother’s boyfriends were often unstable and dangerous (one of these men was later suspected for the Green River Killings). Summer explained that one broke into the house to kill her mother’s new boyfriend. She remembers him sitting in the kitchen glaring at her with a lighter in his hand, setting fire to her favorite pencil.

“I don’t know why that affected me so much–it was just a pencil–but I was crushed”. She described the impression as strange, whereas other past, violent acts seemed to her like part of her story. She saved the pain of these incidents for moments when she felt safe to feel them.

Often, Summer spent long days alone at the nearby lake. She stayed in abandoned houses. She would regularly wake up there and go to school. The abandoned houses provided her refuge–for a time–but Summer had difficulty adjusting to the growth of the family, and became increasingly belligerent when her mother remarried.

At thirteen, Summer was sent to Mountain Park Baptist Academy, a place she describes as fire and brimstone. Her parents hoped she would find guidance, but for the next 19 months, Summer found cruelty, combative leaders, and children made to behave like soldiers. She found a different kind of love from her schoolmates–those who shared a similar suffering.

Summer was forced to memorize scriptures by writing them hundreds–even thousands–of times. She recalls writing First Corinthians 13:1: “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging symbol.”

With a tender gratitude and genuine esteem, Summer understood their actions as contrary to the teaching, but says she is grateful. “They were like clanging symbols, but God showed me that.”

A close friend of Summer’s was killed–an incident motivating her to return to her family. This turned out to be temporary. “I was taken into foster care, when my Step Dad and I had a fight. We were both charged for assault, but the police took me to Juvenile Hall–my parents said they did not want me with them. I was at the detention center for only a few hours while I waited for a case worker to come take me to my first of many temporary houses.”

She had a new caseworker each time she was transitioned, and was abruptly moved around so often that she never had the chance to really know any of her foster parents. Summer remarked. “I was rarely in a home for longer than 3 days. They cared about the money (they got for foster care) not us, and didn’t trouble themselves to make any bluff about it either.”

But there was only one home where she felt cared-for. It was a home where rules were clearly established to protect the girls. Yet, even the time she spent at this home was short-lived.

One morning she was given a bus ticket and told not to return until 7 o’clock. Summer was devastated. She had never ridden the bus alone. She had no idea what she was doing–or where to go. Summer was certain that no one understood her or had the power, or desire to care for her. “I didn’t age out of foster care, exactly, I ran away.” She said, emphatically.

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At 15, she left foster care and lived with her  Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) sponsor. “I was not addicted to drugs or alcohol but I liked being a part of a family, and I found that in AA.” There she met a 32-year-old man. “He let me live with him in exchange for cleaning.”

The arrangement eventually became grim. “He tickled me and then kissed me. I tried to stop him and then gave in, thinking if I don’t do this I won’t have anywhere to go.”

He told her not to tell anyone because of their age difference. “This was the most desperate time of my life.” Summer said. Later, when she discovered she was pregnant with his child, she moved back in with her mother.

While Summer was still pregnant she met another man at AA, and fell in love. he was supportive during her pregnancy, and the couple married–but the happily wasn’t ever-after. A rift grew between them, ending the relationship. Though Summer felt guilty and flooded with shame, she wanted a divorce and a place of her own.

Despite being a single parent with a divorce in progress, she wanted to be a responsible provider, inspired by the simple dream of an apartment, a car, and a safe place for her children.

She began dancing at a popular strip club, after her friend boasted of making a thousand dollars a night. Dancing was not quite the way Summer understood it–you were supposed to touch. “You are a self-contractor, with lots of fees. It costs money to rent the stage, half of the cost of each dance goes to the club. If you don’t make enough you acquire a debt to the club–until it is worked off.” She explained.

“It is not much more than an average minimum wage job. Prostitution was encouraged.” Summer said the bouncer would shine a flashlight to alert dancers of a potential bust. One of her coworkers said point-blank, “Look around you–If you can’t strap on a condom and finish the job, you aren’t going to get by…so get out”. Get out she did. Summer met a drug dealer who helped her get out of dancing and find work as a server.

Summer then fell for one of her coworkers. He moved in with her and the relationship mutated gradually into violence. At one point, Summer had been beaten so badly, she thought she would die. Her head was so swollen that her face was unrecognizable. Though she had no plan, she found the courage to press charges, and see the man sent to jail.

Life took on a rhythm of child support, and longing. She sometimes got to visit her daughter for two days at a time–but no more than twice a month. The darkness stretched beyond her sight. Summer dragged herself to a church full of elderly people, where she could barely hear the sermons. “He was protecting me and was with me.” She added.

Summer befriended a man from AA who owned a tattoo studio and held bible studies. She recognized enormous changes in his life, and decided to check out the church he attended. Summer sat through all three sermons that day, listening over and over to the sermon about God being a father who never leaves us. The pastor apologized for fathers who had left. He spoke of avoiding the examples of people in church or people in the bible, following the example of Jesus in the bible.

Summer would come in every week and look around and see young people like herself. She didn’t feel alienated, judged or excluded. Summer reflected, “God protected me from so much…it’s amazing” She said, listing the things that she is surprised never happened to her. She never got into prostitution, was never addicted to drugs. When she was beaten, she hadn’t been killed, and somehow had the clarity to leave.

Soon after, Summer met a really cute guy. The two talked about the bands they liked. He took her iPod and downloaded every song by Tool and A Perfect Circle for her.

Summer, blushing and giggling, exclaimed “I fell in love with him on the spot”.

summer 08

He began to go to church with Summer, but she didn’t know what he would think. She was shocked when he became a Christian.

A little while later he came home from a church retreat and said, “I am not supposed to be sleeping with you. I want you to be my wife.” Summer knew he adored her son and daughter as his own, and they began to make wedding plans. Just before the wedding, Summer discovered she was pregnant. They were overwhelmed with excitement.

Some changes came with ease, while others were jolting. Almost immediately after the wedding her husband lost his job. “But we were surrounded by community. It was so humbling. The church has helped in crazy ways. People showed up from my community group with everything we needed for the baby. We got so much baby lotion that we still had some four years later! They paid our rent and made it easy to take the help–and ask for it–because they just said its God’s money. I learned how to see this for myself. What I have isn’t mine. It is His for me to give. My car isn’t mine–it’s His, so I can give a ride–things like that. It changed our life–having people serve us.”

In addition to her roles as a wife and mother, she is a volunteer with REST: Real Escape from the Sex Trade. She especially loves to serve women that have suffered similar traumas as she.

Summer also has a deep affection for the former residents of Mountain Park Baptist Academy (the institution was shut down after two resident boys murdered a classmate).

She has reconnected with, and is encouraged by them, helping one another work through their suffering, and needs.

These days, Summer is relentlessly hopeful and feels at home in her story. “When I was a child I wanted most to be loved; now I want people to know they are loved–no matter what situation they are in.”

summer 06

 

 

PhotoServe Chats with SalaamGarage Founder Amanda Koster

PhotoServe Chats with SalaamGarage Founder Amanda Koster

kosterchat
COURTESY OF AMANDA KOSTER
Amanda Koster speaking at a Seattle TED lecture.

PhotoServe.com  talks with Amanda Koster, internationally acclaimed photographer and founder of the digital-storytelling, citizen-journalism organization for social change, SalaamGarage.

PS:  How did you start as a photographer?

AK: In 1991 I registered for Photo 1 at Creative Arts Workshop in New Haven, Connecticut because for the life of me I couldn’t understand how photography worked. I was mystified by photography. My grandfather, a Romanian immigrant, was a factory worker for Kodak. He was encouraged to understand the products and to play with all the latest toys taking pictures and making home movies. We sat through hours of very boring slideshows and home movies. Meanwhile he was glowing.  Honestly, I was more fascinated with how it worked vs. the actual content.

The impetus for that Photo1 class in 1991 was at Southern Connecticut State University while majoring in cultural anthropology (after switching from psychology). I thought being a photographer would give me a leg up on my fellow classmates, help get me get grants and generally serve as a skill would support my career as an anthropologist. Once I understood how photography worked I was completely hooked.

On a deeper, more personal level, I now see that photography helped me understand and express my own story, while empathizing with so many other people.  I grew up in a heartbreaking situation where I had no voice and being invisible was how I survived. My church caught on and removed me from my home at 13 and placed me with my un-official foster mom, Mrs. Green. I lived with her in high school and worked nearly full time to pay for University. If hadn’t told my story to my pastor Mitch Zeman, and if he hadn’t listened, my life would look drastically different today.

PS:  Tell us about SalaamGarage and how you came to start  the world-renowned digital-storytelling organization.

AK:   A few things.

First:  The rise of Social Media in 2006. It blew my mind. It seemed to me the goal was to build an audience and then say something. I felt I had something to say, and that it would stand out amongst all the useless noise on social media back then. It would become my new exhibition.

Second: Realizing I don’t have to be the one saying it. For about 15 years, I was working alone on social documentary projects alongside my commercial career. After years of exhibitions and schlepping my photos around I realized something. I un-hung yet another photo from yet another wall, and I wondered if I really cared about the physical photo at all, or was it the story? It was the story. Also, I may not have to be the one telling it, and it may not mean my photo on this wall. What if teams of people were doing this work together and we plugged it into Social Media? What would that look like?

Third: Countless requests for “coffee talk.” “I’d like to meet for coffee and pick your brain…  I want to do this kind of work too…. can I carry your bags….?”  These seemingly harmless requests would flood my inbox 20 times a week and stress me out. It is impossible to meet all of these people and yet here they, want to do this kind of work. Why not create a platform for them to do just that?

So in 2006 I formed SalaamGarage and built the first itinerary and ground team in India. In 2007 I led the pilot trip to India to work with Vatsalya (Note: Vatsalya dedicates itself to empower vulnerable children to be responsible citizens in the mainstream society by instilling the value of love, equality and justice, and to ensure a better future for them  to become contributing members of society). I learned a lot, made a lot of mistakes and finally understood what SalaamGarage really was, literally mid-trip. I am forever grateful for that team and their patience with me as I worked out the kinks real-time. In 2008 long-time friend, colleague and powerhouse Maggie Soladay and I teamed up and more teams blossomed internationally. In 2009 things exploded and SalaamGarage has been growing ever since.

PS: How do you find your teams?

AK: They come to us. They are folks who have a similar vision for storytelling as we do. They are people who are sick of using their creativity to sell stuff for a living and want to reignite and re-engage their original passion for storytelling. They are people who are interested in media and want to work alongside seasoned professionals.  They are people who just give a damn and just want to be a part of something greater than themselves. SalaamGarage is built of these kinds of folks. We leave our ego at the door.

PS: How do you separate your group from other organizations doing similar reporting or do you?  What is unique about SalaamGarage?

AK: I don’t really think that way. Ultimately I wish SalaamGarage would dissolve and we wouldn’t need to tell such heartbreaking stories or raise awareness about our own neighbors.  The more teams working together on independent storytelling media projects in their communities or around the world the better!

PeaceTrees Vietnam bomb removal organization in the DMZ./© Amanda Koster

PS: How do you get the word out about your special stories? Special events, radio?, TV spots, blogs, etc.?

AK: Mostly via Social Media and old-fashioned word of (electronic) mouth. That leads to traditional media blowouts, exhibitions, press, radio, forums, etc.

PS: What has been the most exciting aspect of starting SalaamGarage?

AK: Seeing teams with amazing hearts and creativity come together to work hard, very hard, on projects they care deeply about.  Seeing people eyes light up when they hear we want to know them and share their story.

PS: Who are some of your personal heroes, whether they are photographers or not?

AK: Sebastio Selgado and Robert Frank. Also Käthe Kollwitz , Peter Gabriel, Bono and Jesus.

PS: What recommendations do you have for photographers today who may want to do this type of photography or any type of photography?

AK: Don’t believe the lie that anyone or anything is your magical key to success. “Cool factor- VIP pass and we’ll give you photo credit” will never ever pay your bills. There is no easy way. You have to be still and listen deeply to your own inspiration, trust it and follow it. And you need to save your money. You have to get up every day and in the face of failure keep working at it. Choose your projects and your teams wisely.

PS: What’s up next for Amanda Koster and SalaamGarage?

AK: SalaamGarage Seattle is producing and publishing its stories on the site this summer. We will launch a Kickstarter in the fall to raise money for our traveling exhibition “Long Road Home”. I’d like the New York City and Seattle Aging Out of Foster Care work to travel nationally to raise awareness of this nearly unknown situation: America’s orphans.

“Long Road Home” with Brendan Zincavage who is Aging out of Foster Care in Seattle./© Henk Dawson

We took a break from SalaamGarage Global to launch Local. However there has been a swelling interest in international trips, so sign up here and we’ll build and lead some more.

SalaamGarage is also looking for sponsorships and powerhouse partners. Places to publish these stories like MSN, NPR, etc. Places to exhibit the work. Outright cash or grants to produce exhibitions, books, build the organization and offer scholarships, committed leaders to build and lead trips and in-kind items such as printing our exhibitions, publishing and distributing our books, giveaways. SalaamGarage is content rich and is looking build collaborations with organizations who are hungry for raw, community focused, social documentary content. If you have an idea, contact me: amanda@salaamgarage.com.

For me? Professionally I have been digging combing media, content development, project managing, tech and software. I’ve been doing that for the last two years in addition to photo assignments and am totally fascinated. It’s the geek in me. Personally I am ready to settle down and will close on a house July 31st.  Interesting timing for the launch of  “A Long Road Home.” The SalaamGarage team in Seattle is going to tell my story starting with my very first home, ever. If you knew my whole story you’d see how fitting this is. Very fitting.

PS: If you were not a photographer, what would you be doing?

AK: Great question. Maybe I’d run an orphanage, teach practical life skills to girls from tough situations, more public speaking and write my autobiography. I think it would help people. And maybe include a few photos!

We thank Amanda Koster for taking time to chat with PhotoServe.com this month and we will be providing updates on the “Aging Out of Foster Care” stories.  You can view her TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) talks and other lectures here.

For more updates on the local Seattle and New York City stories,  visit SalaamGarage. You can also see the press on  their Aging Out of Foster care for New York City chapter work at The New York Book Review,  ABC Newsand an earlier report on PhotoServe.com.  And more on the PeaceTrees Vietnam bomb-removal project can be viewed here.

 

- See more at: http://www.pdnonline.com/photoserve/PhotoServe-Chats-wit-8669.shtml#sthash.LaZ7fjRX.dpuf

Samuel Martin: An Advocate Come of Age

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?’ ”

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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.’ ”

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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.”

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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.

Pages and Pages: Jessica’s Unfolding Story

Story by: Jessica Garcia and Natalie St.Martin
Edited by: Natalie St.Martin, Susan Anstine, and Stephanie Hansen
Photos by: Natalie St.Martin and Amanda Koster

Hello, I am Jessica, 23 years old. I’m the oldest of 9 kids. I entered foster care at age 5, with 2 brothers 2 and 3 years younger than me. I can’t quite remember how I was take, only that we were left alone for so many days. Since 1997 I was in 57 different foster homes. I was physically abused in a few foster homes. At some places I stayed, they treated us ugly and verbally abused me. I felt almost like Cinderella minus the prince part and 10 times worse.

Jessica Garcia was the very first person to sign up to tell her story with us. She responded to our request eagerly, pouring out part of her life story even on the intake forms. I corresponded with her for a few months via email before we finally managed to meet at Street Bean, a coffee shop that is run by New Horizons. She had carefully hand-written her story on ruled paper; front and back of five full pages.  She read it aloud to me. It is a heartbreaking story. Jessica has scars to show for it – as well as a smile that is strikingly beautiful.

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At age 9 years I returned with my mother. She had a crack addiction and would leave me with 4 kids to watch. She beat me and gave me alcohol to shut me up. There were times when there was no food, lights or clean clothes. There were rats in the home, and we lived in unclean conditions. We were taken away. I was separated from my siblings at 10 years old and lived in Spokane. I was abused in one foster home, then went to live with a family that cared deeply for me and I felt alive and loved. I loved this woman so much. She had a great heart and believed in God. I was moved back to Yakima due to my closeness with her. They wanted to adopt me. But due to my mom being part native, I was in Indian CPS and my mom didn’t let me go.

I was miserable from then on and turned to drugs and alcohol for comfort. I started staying with strangers. I moved to Seattle at age 16 years and went to treatment, but ran. I then was placed with my mother again, only to have the worst time. I was getting high of weed and she was smoking crack. I was removed from her home because we fought a lot. I went to group home after group home, and ran away. I was told by my probation officer to get back into a foster home. I was so lost, sad, tired, hurt and traumatized that death ran through my mind. I met a case manager who worked with homeless youth and she told me to tell her what I felt and my hurts. I asked her, “why do you care?” and she said, “Because someone needs to care for those of you who are being left unheard.”

This case worker got her into a shelter with YouthCare and she was able to be stable for a while, even earn her GED and get a job with Mockingbird Times. But as her 18th birthday approached and she faced aging out, she sunk into a depression. She was moved into an adult shelter after her birthday, but there she started drinking again and soon got kicked out. Living with her mom after that was as awful as it had ever been, so she left and was homeless for a while.

I would drink at parties only so that I had a place to crash. I slept with men to stay places but it wasn’t a lot of them, 3 or so. I didn’t like doing this so I walked away from them, but remained with one of them. I was so tired of living and tired of sleeping outside or at parks, buses and in alleys.

This was a low point for her. She recalls going to the University Presbyterian Church drop-in center and praying with a woman there. A series of events that followed convinced her that God heard her prayers.

I was picked up by the case manager from the shelter. They took me to their office and they fed me, gave me clothes and some gift cards…I didn’t believe God was real till I remembered my prayer with Gretchen at the U-Pres, and I said, “God is real.” I had gotten so much in just one day. It was hard to believe. The program paid for the cost of rent and utilities. All I had to do was attend school or find a job.

I attended college. And then I found out I was pregnant. I was scared but happy. The guy I was with I had known since I was 18 years old. It was one of the men I slept with to have a place to stay. I thought he was a good guy only to be told by his other baby’s mom that he was playing with us both and that he lied to me…he was deported and left me with nothing for our child… Later I had a C-section and had a lot of help from Gretchen and Mars Hill Church. I never felt so much love and care in my life. I was brought food and clothes for my daughter and got a crib though my housing.

She lived with a family from the church until she was able to find housing on her own, but then things went really wrong. The baby’s dad came back and she believed him when he said he wanted them to build a family together. Meanwhile, she was still struggling with alcohol. One day she told a relative that she didn’t want to live anymore, and he called her friends saying she was suicidal. They called the police and her daughter was taken into Child Protective Services. Her relationship with her baby’s dad continued to spiral downward as he became more and more violent. She tells the story of when he stabbed her in the back with a knife, and she would have died except for neighbors calling for help. He was sent to jail, and she did her best to move on. But Jessica says it has been very difficult to figure out what to do with her life.

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All of this stuff is due to my growing up in foster care. And not knowing how to have a normal life or even know how to start a life of my own. I wasn’t told in foster care about adulthood. I continue to face trials daily or feel sorrow from the pains of my past and for my daughter. I let her go with her dad’s mom who doesn’t let me see her. I’m trying not to cause her more pain than I already have. It hurts me more to be without her. I’ve been doing trauma counseling and reaching out to people to heal and grow. The system has a lot to do with my trials and struggles in this life. I know its gonna be hard to grow because I don’t like change and don’t trust it…I won’t give up or stop trying or making better decisions for my self. I realize in order to have I have to let people go and try new things.

The training she did receive was on how to cope with constant transition and short-term or volatile relationships. She is friendly and easy to talk to, but hard to keep up with and hard to track down. As of July, I have known Jessica for a whole year. In this time I have gotten a feel for what life is like for her now. So much has happened in a year it would be hard to tell, but even though there have been quite a few different living arrangements, a new guy, and now another baby on the way, overall I have seen her get a little bit steadier. Only once did we manage to meet when we scheduled to meet, however.

Although we couldn’t schedule a photo shoot, she did spend Thanksgiving with me and some friends last year, and I have one photo of her from that day. She is a delightful and surprising person, who deeply appreciates any act of kindness.  She is one of the most thankful people I have ever met. And yet I see how hard it is for her to really receive love and believe she is valuable.

She recently came by for dinner. We talked about how she is starting to see her part in her relationships and conflicts, and we celebrated that she has been sober for over 100 days. She continues to describe how she feels God is helping her.

God reminds me he is here for me that he cares for me and that I am a worth everything good in this world. It doesn’t come easy to trust in God when he’s invisible, but love, respect, peace, joy and random acts of kindness have been God’s way of showing me not to give up. I’m grateful to have faith and belief; without it I wouldn’t be where I am. I do get discouraged and fall down but God continues to fight my battles no matter what. Support and understanding is what I need in order to grow. It’s hard not to know my path in life. I get scared of another program ending, I fear a lot due to my experiences and my fear is what keeps me from growing. I know it will get better, and It won’t always be great at times but God says I will not be alone.

Thanksgiving with Jessica

Jessica, seated second from the left.

Brendan: Changing the Patterns

Photos by Henk Dawson
Story by Oliver Sharp

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“They moved me from one foster house to another every few weeks.  When I was eight, I was placed in what was supposed to be my permanent family.  It was right after that when my mother died of a heroin overdose.”

Brendan is an outgoing college senior who is finishing his sociology degree at the University of Washington.  “My parents were recovering alcoholics.  They were doing pretty well when I was born, but then things got tough.  They divorced when I was three years old.”  Both of them began drinking again, and his mother went back on heroin.

Before he became a ward of the state, Brendan watched his mother lose the struggle with addiction. Once, she was trying to make the bed, and fell backwards and passed out.  Another time she collapsed in the bathroom; a drawer was open and blocked the door, so they had to break it down to get her out.

He and his mother shared some good times together; she bought him his first pair of roller blades and sometimes they made pottery together.  But most of the time, he was on his own.  Although both parents were musicians, Brendan can’t play a note. “Nobody was ever there to teach me.”

As his mother succumbed to her heroin addiction, Brendan was moved from one foster family to another.  He was finally placed with one for several years.  At first, he benefited from an environment that had some of the structure he craved.  But as time went on, the situation deteriorated.  “They were very religious, very rigid.  We had a lot of conflict.  My grades weren’t good, they didn’t like my friends.”  Brendan is gay, and the family was extremely homophobic.  He concealed the truth from them, but they probably had their suspicions.  He had grown used to hiding inner turmoil from the world by then.  “I feel like it’s a performance sometimes, in my own head.”

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The relationship grew increasingly tense.  Then, he was able to reconnect with relatives across the country, and they offered to take him in.  He lived with them for a few years during high school, and that was the happiest period of his life.  ”They were supportive, and my relationship with them was really positive.  They gave me a lot of freedom, but they were there if I needed them.”  Even though he ended up attending four different high schools in four years, “my grades were good and I was doing something right.”

He was excited about going to college, but there was a rude shock in store.  “I felt like I wasn’t on the same level with everyone else.  In English, I couldn’t even speak in class because everyone was so much farther ahead.”  It was also “my first taste of complete freedom.”  During the first two years he went into an emotional tailspin and struggled with his classes.  “I wish I could have made better decisions and that school had been different.”  But he made it through that difficult time, and now he’s doing well in his classes and will soon be graduating.

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Although his life seems to have turned around, the legacy of his experiences is still with him.  It’s hard to hold down relationships.  ”I was abandoned forever,” he says quietly.  ”It’s hard to trust people, or I trust them too much and too fast and get disappointed.”

When he thinks about the future, he tries to be optimistic.  Stability is the thing that he wants most—“I would feel a lot better if I had security.”  But darker thoughts are not far away.  ”I don’t feel young.  I’ve gone through so much stuff that most people haven’t dealt with.  I feel aged.  Things have always been so crazy .. there is no space for happiness.”  When he reflects on his experiences, he thinks about how they have shaped him and how he would like to remake himself. “But it’s hard to change the patterns, even when you know they exist.”

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