BCFS Hill Country Resource Center: Where Collaboration Meets Compassion

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For someone who needs help in the Texas Hill Country – whether it’s counseling, crisis intervention, or education and employment assistance – traveling to multiple nonprofit offices around town to meet basic needs can be difficult, especially without transportation or the flexibility to miss work.

That’s why BCFS gathered local nonprofits under one roof at the BCFS Hill Country Resource Center Model is an innovative way to connect several nonprofit organizations and maximize their combined talents and resources. For the community, this means that those who are struggling have easy convenient access to a wide array of programs, services, and resources in one central location.

Services Available:

  • Counseling
  • Case Management
  • Emergency shelter placement
  • Literacy programs and educational support
  • Job training and job placement
  • Parenting support groups
  • Help for military veterans
  • Creative art therapy
  • Computer lab access
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Finding Her Way Home: Cassie’s Journey

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Cassie Carmichael’s high school accolades summed up in one word? Impressive.

She was offered academic scholarships by several universities, excelled on three sports teams, and worked as a lifeguard at the Baptist Encampment, all while maintaining strong relationships with family and friends. Her story is a triumphant one, but living that story was not always easy.

Child Protective Services took Cassie away from her mother, a heroin user, when Cassie was 14. While the separation was painful, Cassie says that her mom was “going down a path I didn’t want to be on.”

For Cassie, the hardest part was leaving her older brother. When Cassie entered the foster care system, her brother had just turned 18 and was not eligible to be placed in a foster home.

At first, Cassie rotated through a handful of foster homes in the Abilene, Texas, area. Since her brother also lived in Abilene, they were able to keep in touch. After a few months, Cassie was placed with the Mellings, a new foster family in Galveston – seven hours away. Cassie admits she had “attitude problems” about the move.

“I wasn’t really okay with being that far away from my brother because we’ve always had a great relationship,” said Cassie. “I kind of fought it and I didn’t want to be there.”

Even while Cassie was admittedly standoffish, the Mellings welcomed her into their Galveston home with open arms and lots of loving patience.

During Cassie’s sophomore year in high school, the Mellings decided to move to Brownwood, Texas, to be closer to family. The move also put Cassie 300 miles closer to her brother.

The Mellings made it a priority to help strengthen Cassie’s relationship with her biological family. When Cassie’s mom and brother came to Brownwood for her high school graduation, her foster parents invited them to dinner and made efforts to get to know them. “They really tried to connect with my family because they know how much it means to me,” she says.

Today, Cassie is a doting auntie to her brother’s newborn son. And now that she lives closer, she can visit often. “Every time I go over there, they make me change dirty diapers,” Cassie laughs. Diapers and all, Cassie loves spending time with her growing family. She enjoys taking her nephew to the park and “just having fun with him.”

The Melling foster home is a busy one by any standard: Cassie is the oldest in a household of eight, with four foster sisters and a foster brother.

Cassie is deeply grateful for her foster parents. “I love them so much,” she says. “They’re super cool and they trust me. They believe in all my goals and they know that I can do whatever I put my mind to.”

Cassie’s senior year of high school was packed with college entrance exams and a full academic workload, but she found time to be a member of the basketball, powerlifting and track teams and work as a lifeguard. Prioritizing her classwork while balancing extracurriculars paid off – Cassie was accepted to three universities, each acceptance letter arriving with an attractive scholarship offer.

Faced with a choice, Cassie signed up for college campus tours, starting with Angelo State University (ASU) and the University of North Texas in Denton. BCFS Case Manager Alexzandra Hust accompanied Cassie on the ASU tour. Cassie noticed most of the other students touring with their parents, but with her BCFS mentor Alexzandra by her side, Cassie wasn’t discouraged. “BCFS is part of my family!” she beamed.

Cassie fell in love with Angelo State and committed to attending ASU in the fall, accepting a $10,000 scholarship for her excellent GPA and ACT scores. She also plans on joining Angelo State’s Powerlifting Club.

With her freshman year of college in full swing, Cassie makes sure her busy schedule includes staying in touch with family.

“My foster mom would always joke with me, saying, ‘I’m going to make you take online classes because you’re going too far away!” Cassie recalls.

“It’s great now that I’m going to Angelo – she can come and see me all the time.” Passionate about helping people, Cassie plans to study psychology or social work.

“I’m just trying to go where God wants to lead me. I want to do social work so I can help kids like me. Then, I want to do psychology so I can work in drug rehab and try to figure out everything, from what kind of hold drugs have on people to where I can try to forgive my mom for all the stuff she’s done.”

“I feel like God put me here for a reason,” says Cassie. “Everyone has places where things happen to them in their life, and they don’t know if they’re going to make it. I feel like God tests us, and this is what He did: He put me in this situation because He knows what we can handle and that we can get out of it and make something of ourselves.”

The Preparation for Adult Living (PAL) program operated by BCFS Health and Human Services-Abilene helped Cassie transition out of foster care and become the strong, independent young woman she is today. PAL helps youth aging out of foster care learn valuable life skills like building healthy relationships, responsible money management, goal-setting and health & nutrition.

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Award-Winning Resiliency

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Starla Huff and Nickolas Wilkerson are two youth from the foster care system who have faced more than their fair share of tragedy and injustice. By holding onto their faith, working hard, and a little help from supportive foster families and BCFS Health and Human Services-Tyler, today Starla and Nick both stand tall – ready for whatever tomorrow may bring.

Meet Starla

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Starla and her three brothers lived with their grandmother for many years while their mother battled drug addiction.

“My mom was a user. She did drugs while I was in her presence,” Starla remembers. “Often, she would take me with her wherever she was going.”

That experience, along with several instances of abuse, led Starla to her own struggles with chemical dependency and self-harming behaviors at a young age.

“I started doing drugs when I was 10 or 11, smoking and drinking,” Starla says. “I used to cut myself and I tried to commit suicide multiple times, and I was going to a dark place and most of it was because I was on drugs.”

“My family’s not very close, so I didn’t really know any of my family, except for, like, my immediate family, and they never cared for any of my mom’s children because my mom was, like, the black sheep in the family.”

Starla entered the foster care system on her 15th birthday and was moved to Waco’s Trinity Home of Faith, a shelter for youth in foster care. Two months later, on October 4, she arrived at the foster home of Mr. and Mrs. Rohus in a small East Texas town.

“I still wasn’t the best kid,” she recalls. “I’d get in trouble at school, I did not have a filter, I said whatever I wanted. I was still smoking.”

A year later, on her 16th birthday, Starla left the Rohus foster home and moved in with her biological father, a decision she now considers one of the worst she has ever made. According to Starla, her father sexually assaulted one of her friends.

A month later, Starla returned to the Rohus’ foster home, where she met a new group of foster youth who helped change her perspective.

“I’m so blessed that the foster home still had an opening,” she says. “When I came back, I was the oldest in the house, and so I had a lot of responsibilities. We started getting younger (foster) kids, so I straightened myself out. I told myself that I couldn’t do what I did when I was growing up, that I had to be a role model – so I did.”

Meet Nick

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Nickolas Wilkerson is an Oregon native who, like Starla, grew up in a family ravaged by the damaging effects of substance abuse.

“My mother and father were very abusive to each other,” Nick recalls of his parents, who both battled addictions to drugs and alcohol. “They couldn’t hold a job, they fought all the time, so we were finally placed with my grandma because my parents weren’t fit to care for us.”

Nick’s grandmother wanted him to have mother and father figures, so she sent him to live with an aunt and uncle in Texas when he was 8 years old. Nick moved to the remote Texas town of Harleton, where he stayed for four years.

“My aunt and uncle adopted me,” he explains, “but my aunt was really abusive. One night, I kind of felt like my life was threatened, so I ran away. It caused a whole ordeal with police, and the neighbors found out that she was abusing me. My aunt and uncle decided that they would put me into the [foster care] system.”

Nick entered the foster care system at 12 years old; at 13, he moved into the Hall family’s foster home. “They’ve been my support,” Nick says affectionately of the Hall family, who welcomed him with open arms and provided the stability and support system of a loving family.

“My mom showed me that through God I could accomplish anything,” Nick says of his foster mom. “They strengthened my religion; it was one of the biggest things they did for me. I was into sports, and they were very supportive of that,” he says. “They were just there for me.”

Preparation for Adult Living (PAL)

Soon after Starla’s return to the Rohus’ foster home, Mrs. Rohus told Starla about BCFS-Tyler and the Preparation for Adult Living (PAL) program. Nick first came to BCFS-Tyler when he turned 18, eager to take advantage of programs for youth who aged out of the foster care system.

Starla and Nick completed the PAL program operated by BCFS-Tyler. PAL teaches youth how to set and achieve their goals, create healthy relationships and learn positive self-guidance. From how to write a check to filling out scholarship applications, the PAL program teaches youth the skills needed in the “real world,” and how to succeed on their own.

“They helped with my FAFSA, they set me up with classes, and bought my books,” Nick said of BCFS-Tyler. “From there on, anytime I called them and needed help with college things or if I had a problem that I couldn’t solve by myself, they were there. They’re my support line.”

Starla says the PAL program instilled in her a newfound confidence.“They taught me a lot about self-respect and to accept yourself for who you are. That’s really helped me, because I used to have really low self-esteem and I’ve gotten better about how I feel about myself.”

Award-Winning Resiliency

When Starla and Nick graduated high school one year apart, their case managers from BCFS-Tyler were right alongside them to celebrate. Shortly after graduation they were each awarded a prestigious accolade: the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services’ (DFPS) Foster Youth of the Year award.

The award is granted annually by DFPS to one outstanding youth in each of the 11 DFPS regions in Texas. Nick garnered the award in 2015, and Starla in 2016, marking the first time two youth from BCFS Health and Human Services have won the award back to back, much less both from the small East Texas town of Tyler.

“To win this award, the youth must demonstrate strong leadership skills, motivation, academic excellence and extracurricular involvement,” explains Carla McCalope, BCFS-Tyler Program Director. “Starla and Nick are both very grounded, motivated and determined to make it.”

“Starla and Nick are proof that through hard work and help from supportive families and effective youth programs, good things can happen. We can break generational cycles of abuse and poverty,” McCalope says. “We are so proud of them, and can’t wait to celebrate their next accomplishments.”

A New Beginning

Today, Nick and Starla attend Tyler Junior College. Nick is a biology major who aspires to go to medical school. Starla is working toward a bachelor’s degree in nursing, with plans to become a flight nurse in the Air Force.

“I want to finish college, I want a degree,” says Nick, matter-of-factly. “I want to make something of my life. My goal is to be a doctor. If God has another plan, then so be it, but that’s what I’m going for!”

“When my aunt and uncle put me back in foster care, I was angry and I didn’t really have anybody to turn to,” said Nick. “My foster parents that I have now, they took me to church and through that, I found that God had a plan for me; I found faith in myself and Him. My confidence was lifted and my joy was lifted.”

“Before I came into foster care, whenever I had gotten really into drugs, I claimed to be an atheist. I guess because I was so angry,” said Starla. “When I came to this foster home, they were going to church and said I had to come. The minister was talking about drugs and alcohol and basically everything that was my life. I started crying and praying, ‘Jesus, I need help, can you please guide me,’ and He did.”

Although they did not know each other until recently, Nick and Starla both followed similar paths: Both spent time in foster care, turned to BCFS-Tyler for assistance and, one year after the other, they were awarded the Foster Youth of the Year award by the state of Texas.

Too many youth across the United States experience abuse or neglect, and struggle to overcome the emotional and physical scars left behind. But just as Nick said, inspired by the Godly wisdom of his foster mother, we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us (Philippians 4:13), and with God ALL things are possible (Matthew 19:26).

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A Bright and Hopeful Future

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Savannah’s life growing up was not typical of most children, but her experiences have taught this now 18-year-old how to overcome life’s challenges with grace and optimism.

One of nine children, Savannah grew up familiar with Child Protective Services (CPS), which has been involved in her life since she was 3 years old. Her father was inattentive and struggled with substance abuse, leading to a very unstable home life for her and her siblings.

“I was taken away from my dad often and my mom was never in my life,” said Savannah.

They often did not have food in the house, and Savannah suffered from physical and emotional abuse. She was placed with other family members frequently, though this was not always a good alternative.

As a sophomore in high school, Savannah was placed in the foster care system. Not long after that, she learned of BCFS Health and Human Services-Kerrville from a friend. When she arrived at BCFSKerrville, she met with Case Manager Kathy Rice, and immediately felt welcomed by the place she had come for assistance.

“Ms. Kathy was like the parent I never had,” recalled Savannah.

Ms. Rice met with Savannah often and enrolled her in Preparation for Adult Living (PAL) classes where Savannah began to learn many new things. She was taught how to open a checking and savings account, manage her finances and stick to a budget. The bright-eyed young lady also learned how to apply and interview for a job, proper workplace etiquette, and even how to shop for healthy meals.

As is the case with most foster youth in Texas, Savannah aged out of the foster care system when she turned 18. This left her without stable living arrangements and uncertain about her future.

Unsure who else she could turn to, Savannah confided in Ms. Rice about her need for safe and secure housing. She disclosed that she hadn’t felt safe in a home for years, and she longed to feel peace and security.

At the time, BCFS-Kerrville had just completed renovations to apartments at Our House, a transitional living program that provides housing and wraparound support to youth struggling with homelessness. Savannah was overwhelmed with gratitude when she was accepted to the program. She moved into her new apartment, giddy with excitement and enjoying a long overdue sense of relief. For the first time in her life, she could lay her head down at night and feel safe.

“I love the furnishings and having my own place,” she said. “Having the security of stable housing has helped me finish high school, work and prepare for my future.”

Only a year and a half after moving in to Our House, Savannah’s life looks quite different. BCFS-Kerrville helped her find a job, and through hard work she is now a shift manager at a local restaurant. She is also putting the other skills she has learned to practical use. She has been diligently putting away part of her paycheck, and her savings account is growing.

Savannah recently began classes at Northwest Vista College in San Antonio, Texas, and is excited about continuing her education in the health care industry.

“I’m the first one in my family to enroll in college, and I’m proud of that accomplishment!”

Savannah’s case manager, Kathy, called it a blessing to be Savannah’s “guide and friend.”

“Today, so many young people don’t have a stable and responsible adult in their lives – to help them with the simple things, like driving them to college orientation, or more complicated things like navigating Medicaid and insurance requirements,” said Kathy.

“I am so excited to see how Savannah grows with each new life experience. BCFS-Kerrville and I will be there to guide her every step of the way!”

Building A Young Leader

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Twenty-year-old Leroy Berrones-Soto sits attentively in one of his undergraduate classes at the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV). Considering his background and upbringing, to sit in this class, on this college campus, he knows is an accomplishment. In the back of his mind, Leroy knows he’s come a long way. Leroy was born the second of seven siblings in Rio Bravo, Tamaulipas, Mexico, minutes from the U.S.- Mexico border. By age four, he had endured sexual abuse at the hands of a family acquaintance. His mother and siblings soon left Rio Bravo, headed for the United States. At age seven, Leroy’s younger sister with Down syndrome passed away.

Leroy in “The System”

The family struggled to settle into their new life in the United States. Leroy’s mom worked long hours, and her children were often left alone. A neighbor reported Leroy’s mom to Child Protective Services (CPS) for leaving her children unattended without food. In 2005, when he was 10, Leroy and his brothers and sisters were removed from their home by CPS. “We had just gotten home, nobody was supervising us,” Leroy remembers of the day a CPS social worker arrived. “We had a long case history, since 2001.” For the next five years, Leroy and his siblings shuffled through different foster homes, shelters and even some return placements with their biological mother and father. During this time, Leroy’s father was tragically murdered while defending his daughter, Leroy’s sister, from a pair of gang members. During one of several stints in a foster home, Leroy’s younger siblings were regularly neglected by their foster mother. Leroy felt so powerless to help his foster siblings that he stopped eating altogether to try to get their foster mom’s attention and end the abuse. His hunger strike caused his health to deteriorate and Leroy was hospitalized for stomach ulcers.

Structure & Freedom

Just after his seventeenth birthday, Leroy was placed with a new foster family, Mr. and Mrs. Santiago and Susana Lopez, who, he admits, were the most stringent of all his foster care placements. The expectations were clear for Leroy and his housemates in the Lopez foster home: follow the rules. “They were strict with us, with our education, but they cared, and they provided us with structure and guidance in our daily lives. I had never felt that care from a foster parent. ” This new structure, surprisingly, brought a new kind of freedom for Leroy. “They were the only foster parents that allowed us to do extracurricular activities,” Leroy recalls. “They took time out of their schedule to take me to school very early in the morning.” Finally enjoying a stable home life, Leroy started exploring leadership roles in high school. He arrived before school each day to help the principal, and eventually became a hall monitor. He also joined the Criminal Justice Club. Leroy credits the Lopez family for encouraging his studies. With their support, Leroy graduated early from Lopez High School in Brownsville, Texas, earning the school’s Lobo Award for Service. Soon after, Leroy began classes in UTRGV’s Social Work program. “Sometimes foster youth think that some of us are just ‘lucky’ to have good foster parents. At the time, I remember fighting with the system, asking the agency to move me from the Lopez home. I’m glad they didn’t. It’s not about luck, but rather a team effort from all parties to gain each other’s trust.”

Inspiration Opens New Doors

While Leroy lived in the Lopez home, CPS conducted periodic visits to check on the family. During one visit, Leroy was approached with an opportunity he could not resist. “The CPS Youth Specialist asked me if I was interested in being on a youth panel,” Leroy recalls. He agreed, and joined a panel of current and former foster youth. Collectively, they provided local CPS staff with their perspective, experiences and struggles while in the foster care system. The panel, Leroy says, was put together to help inspire improvements in the policies and procedures that are part of the daily lives of foster youth. “Social workers can’t always see what we see, as foster youth,” Leroy explains. “When I started serving on the council, youth would bring up their issues, and we would work toward changing the system.” While working to help others, Leroy learned of BCFS Health and Human Services-McAllen, in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley. He was 18, aging out of foster care, and looking for some advice on how to prepare for life on his own. At BCFS-McAllen, Leroy received case management, home visits and help planning his transition into independent adulthood. BCFS-McAllen staff also helped him fill out college applications and choose a career path. As a young adult from foster care, BCFS-McAllen helped Leroy acquire funding to pay for his college dorm through the Education and Training Voucher (ETV) program. “I was going to be kicked out of my dorm,” he recalls about his housing situation before BCFSMcAllen stepped in to help pay his housing fees and keep a roof over his head. BCFS-McAllen also gave Leroy some emergency funding to buy food during the Christmas and Thanksgiving holidays when campus cafeterias closed. Through working with BCFS case workers – along with his turbulent childhood and experience in the foster care system – Leroy became inspired to choose youth advocacy and social services as a career. “Leroy is one of our center’s most active youth,” says BCFS Case Manager Deyanira Garcia, “because he’s an advocate for other foster youth. He’s always showing me different resources that he comes across that other youth from foster care can use.”

Answering the Call of Duty

“I want to work with Child Protective Services,” Leroy says. “Since I’ve experienced foster care, I can help youth who are in my same situation, and help understand and solve their problems.” In November 2015, the Texas Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC) invited Leroy to join the newly formed Behavioral Health Advisory Committee to represent young adults struggling with mental health and substance abuse issues. “I, myself, receive mental health services,” he admits candidly, “and I see other people that need services, and they don’t have the resources, or they don’t know about them. I’d like to work to create something that makes resources available to those who need them.” The HHSC appointment is one of many accolades Leroy has earned since high school. Among them, Leroy was named “Teen of the Month” by the Teen Toolbox Youth Development SPOTLIGHT, and he was named Youth Representative on the HHSC’s Texas Council on Children and Families. He has presented his insight to lawyers from the Texas State Bar’s Continuing Legal Education (CLE) and has been invited by the Angels of Love Foundation to discuss his experience with the foster care system. In January 2016, Congressman Ruben Hinojosa (TX-15) bestowed a United States Congressional Commendation upon Leroy. Leroy has also received the Foster Club’s Young Leaders Award, an annual recognition of the success of young people from foster care. Leroy has also been selected to participate in the 2016 Congressional Foster Youth Shadow Program, where youth from foster care are given the opportunity to share their experiences with federal lawmakers.

“I am not a statistic”

Leroy has indeed defied the odds. Nationally, according to a report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, only half the youth who have been in foster care will earn a high school diploma, and only 20 percent of high school graduates will attend college. When Leroy earns his bachelor’s degree in 2019, he will be part of the less than 10 percent of youth from foster care who achieve college graduation. He shows no signs of slowing down! “It’s rewarding, being able to help other teenagers,” he says. “Agencies, departments, people call me to go speak to foster parents or teenagers, to motivate them. That spreads the message, which is also what I want, for them to be successful, and not be a part of the negative statistics.” “I feel like people are listening to what I say,” Leroy continues, “and that’s important, because for years, I never felt like my voice was being heard.” After earning a graduate degree in criminal justice, he plans on a long career with Child Protective Services, hoping to be as instrumental in the lives of youth as his BCFS-McAllen caseworkers were for him. “BCFS-McAllen was extremely helpful for me. I really admire their work,” he says. “Without them, I don’t know what would have happened.”

Nick’s Journey: From Foster Care To Higher Education

In 2015, The Department of Family and Protective Services awarded Nick with the “Texas Foster Youth of the Year” award. Nick spent six years in the foster care system, and with the help of BCFS Health and Human Services is now attending college with a 3.5 GPA.

Like many foster children, Nick’s story begins with a loss: in his case, when his aunt and uncle gave up their rights to him, leaving him in the foster care system.

“At first it was a difficult thing to process, you know, being left by your family — the ones who say they love you,” Nick said.  “It was hard to cope with. But over the years I started realizing that this is probably the best thing that could have happened. It’s been so beneficial — I couldn’t see it going any other way.”

In his years in the system, Nick learned to find familial support in unexpected places. Nick bonded with other young people in foster care, who gave him strength to carry on even in the toughest of circumstances.

“Being in [the foster care system], you hear a lot of different, horrible stories. Some of the stories I’ve heard made me think, wow, I was the lucky one. If they can still be here, I can push on too.”

Screen Shot 2016-03-23 at 3.04.52 PM.pngPushing on proved difficult, and Nick had a particularly huge hurdle to overcome in the rejection of his biological family.

“[It was] the most difficult thing that I’ve had to overcome, dealing with the rumors and all of the problems,” Nick said. “My aunt and uncle, when they gave me up, they blamed it all on me. That was really hard.”

Luckily, Nick also found a family in BCFS, who helped him land on his feet to transition out of foster care into higher education. Nick reaches out to his BCFS connections whenever he needs something, and they do their best to help him in any way possible.

“BCFS has been like another family to me. I have my case manager, and then her boss — they treat me like one of their own. They’ve had a big impact on me, getting me to college and getting all of my financial aid in order. They’ve been so helpful this whole process.”

“College is a hard time for any teenager,” Nick added, “so it’s really great to have them.”

Nick is currently studying at Tyler Junior College, where he hopes to get his feet wet before attending a larger university. Nick is thriving there, and his observations are typical of a college student: it’s fun, but challenging, and also quite expensive.

“You meet a lot of people, you have a lot more free time… It’s so much different. Yes, there’s a lot more work to it — but there’s a lot more of everything: a lot more freedom, a lot more homework — it all kind of blends together into a regular schedule.”

Nick’s major is biology, and his current goal is to become a doctor someday. Having experienced hardship himself, this career choice has to do with his drive to help others that are sick or struggling.

“I don’t like the idea that someone’s hurt, and I can’t help them,” he explains of his chosen path. “That really doesn’t sit well with me.”

Regardless, Nick admits that his curiosity for learning knows no labels or borders. “Quite frankly, if someone offered to put me in cooking school I would do it. I have a buddy who’s a welder, and I called him up and asked him to teach me to weld! I want to be a jack of all trades; I want to know everything.”

Perhaps it is this drive for success and knowledge that helped earn Nick the Texas Foster Youth of the Year award. Nick won first the regional award for male youth of the year before achieving the honor of the stateside award. He recounts both experiences as surprising, exciting, and a bit bewildering.

“When I won male youth of the year, statewide, Collette [coordinator at CPS Preparation for Adult Living (PAL)] called me and said, “Hey Nick, I’m really proud of you. Are you ready for this?” When she told him he won Texas Foster Youth of the Year, he was stunned.

“She said ‘someone’s going to call and tell you, so you have to act surprised.’ Sure enough, I got a call. The event was down in Austin — it was really interesting, and really fun, too.”

With optimism, ambition, and BCFS as his go-to in times of need, the future is Nick’s to conquer. He’s stronger for his experiences, and has learned that it’s okay to accept assistance when he needs it, because as strong as he’s become, everyone needs a support system.

“The most important thing I’ve learned is how to use my resources,” Nick said. “I’m not the kind of guy that likes to take a lot of help from people. If I can do it on my own, I want to do it on my own. They showed me that they’re just here to help, whether I want it or not. It showed me how much at times I really do need help — and that was a big deal for me.”

Troubled Past Fuels Young Man’s Future

By Jose Garcia

When I was a kid, my mother was my hero. Without a father in my life, she was all I had. My mother left me with a nanny most nights after school. She’d come home, kiss me goodnight in my bed and go to sleep. But I wished she’d be home waiting for me after school, with arms wide open for me to jump in for a hug.

I noticed things — things other six-year-olds probably would not notice. I noticed that when she was home, there was a smell of smoke and beer, and another odd smell I didn’t recognize. I noticed she wouldn’t look me in the eye when she talked to me; she would tell me to go to my room more often than my friends’ parents; and she would move her mouth like she had something in it. I also noticed she wasn’t sleeping well and was looking more tired, anxious and angry.

One day, some police officers came to my school and started explaining the symptoms and names of certain drugs. Suddenly, I realized my mom was doing drugs. When they told us the consequences of using drugs and that they could kill, I started to cry.

Screen Shot 2016-02-12 at 1.39.31 PMThat same day, I went home, woke my mom up and started questioning her. Like a lot of addicts, she was in denial, but I didn’t understand that at the time. When she denied it, I believed her because I thought my lovely mother would never lie to me.

I let it go for weeks. But over time I’d pay attention when people would get caught in a lie, and I noticed how the person’s face, gestures, tone and speed of voice would change as they lied. I confronted my mother again, and suddenly noticed all those same signs that she was lying to me. I told her what I knew about the consequences of drugs, and confessed that I was worried that she might die and leave me.

She started to cry with me, but it was all for nothing. After that night, she still acted the same way. I confronted her a couple of times until I got tired and decided to run away — thinking it would make her want to change. Every time, she searched for me and found me.

A year later, my brother was born. My mother was hardly ever there, so I changed his diapers, fed him, bathed him, and taught him things. I was 7 years old and taking care of a newborn. I was deprived of my own childhood because I couldn’t play, think or act like a regular kid. I had to be dad to my little brother because no one else would. Running away wasn’t an option anymore because I couldn’t leave him alone. I had to be strong for him.

Years passed and we went from aunt to aunt, uncle to uncle and they couldn’t stand us. We would argue and they couldn’t take it. When the time came that my brother and I were old enough to know what we wanted to do, I made the decision to run away from home, but this time I brought my brother along. I decided I wanted to get into foster care because I felt like it was the only way out of the life we were living. I left my brother with an aunt I trusted and entered foster care alone. It took a lot out of me to leave my brother behind.

I didn’t know how it was going to be in foster care. I went in scared, worried, with low self-esteem, and feeling weak. After all those years of lies, arguments, beatings, put-downs, and disappointments, I decided to put up some walls – from now on I wouldn’t allow anyone to lie to me, beat me, or make me feel bad.

I started to act tough, which led to me getting in trouble. I started to smoke, get in fights, tag in restrooms, argue with adults, and skip classes. I realized I was heading toward the same life my mother was living — I felt like past was following me. I was letting her control me even though she was no longer around. I decided I would not let my mother, my once hero, manipulate me anymore.

I decided that I would begin to live the life I wanted to live. I wanted to be that person that looks good in others’ eyes; I wanted to be that person who is not afraid to speak out for what he believes; I wanted to be someone. I wanted to have a life.

So I made a list of life goals and wishes. They were: get in sports, build my self-esteem, find out what I’m good at and master it, make close friends, find that one special girl, finish high school and graduate from college. I also wanted a career that’d help me save money to buy a car, a house where my brother and I could live, rehab for my mother to quit drugs, and a house where my mother could live and expect to receive us with open arms.

No one can block me from what I want because I have set my mind to it — that’s my wish and no one will ever make it change. I am a kid who never gave up on his dream; a kid who was bullied and yelled at; a kid who stood up for his brother no matter how many times he got beat up. I am a kid who sticks to his word and will never lie to you, never bully you, never put you down, and never tell you that you can’t do it. I thank God for giving me strength and knowledge, the power to keep my word, and the chance to live and help people.

I have been abused in every way you can imagine, but that will never stop me from standing up for myself, for what’s right, and for the people I love. I won’t let abuse, mean words, sadness, weakness, or lack of confidence take me down. Instead, I will stand up and rise. I will make the people around me stand up for themselves and help make them better people than they think they can be.

Lucille Thomas contributed to the story.

Education: Not Just An Option, But a Necessity

By Tessa Bump

In the summer of my seventh-grade year, I discovered my life would change forever. I would be going into foster care, in a new world with people I’d never met before. I was so nervous of all the factors that would influence my life for better or worse. I worried about how I’d explain this to my friends, would I ever see my family again, and what happens if I don’t like it in this new home? But as time passed, these worries subsided and things got better.

When I moved in with my foster family, I felt that they weren’t my real family and never would be. I kept my guard up because I was so nervous. Thankfully I had my older sister with me and that made the transition a lot better. Eventually I realized my foster parents wanted to care for me and improve my life.

I was in foster care for five years and I truly believe it has made me the person I am today. I have been through many struggles in life – and yet I wouldn’t change a thing.

Screen Shot 2016-02-09 at 1.51.28 PMEver since high school I knew that college wasn’t just an option for me – it was a necessity, and something that would improve my life forever. I surrounded myself with good friends who valued their education and were very ambitious. I signed up for student groups that prepared me for college so I wasn’t afraid. Being a foster child means all my tuition and fees are paid for, which was a huge blessing I definitely took advantage of through BCFS Health and Human Services’ Education Training Voucher (ETV) program.

Only 3% of youth in foster care across the U.S. attend college and earn a degree.

I don’t know what I would have done without BCFS’ support through the ETV program. They provided me with so many useful and necessary items for college, like my laptop, school supplies, housing – the list could go on for pages! BCFS made it easy for me to request funds, or ask a question. I am so grateful I had the support of the program to make my college career less stressful.

I graduated with my Bachelor’s degree and now I’m working on earning my Master’s. This has in part made me feel like I’ve grown into an adult, and now have those real “adult” problems to overcome. As an undergraduate, my focus was on going to class and working a few part-time jobs. But in graduate school, a lot of the funding support goes away so I have to worry about saving money, paying bills, and staying on top of my finances.

I studied abroad this summer in Greece and Italy. I am so excited to have the opportunity to travel the world and experience things most people never will.

In five years, I hope to have my PhD and either be teaching or administrating in a school district I love. I am only 22 years old, so having a family isn’t my biggest goal for the immediate future. Finding a teaching job is my focus this year. It’s time I start my career and build my life up to the expectations I have set for myself!

Becoming independent and successful is my number one goal in life at the moment – and I would love to travel and see the world!

I am thankful for all the people in my life that helped me through hard times. I’ve learned that no matter where you come from, you make your own life and your own happiness.

Christina Tanzola contributed to the story.

BCFS’ Education Training Voucher (ETV) program is administered on behalf of the State of Texas, allowing Texas youth in the foster care system to make a smoother transition to self-sufficiency and independence by providing funding for education, training and services not covered by any other funding source. The program covers the cost of tuition, housing, utilities, books and school supplies, child care, transportation, medical insurance, and a computer. Visit http://www.TexasETV.com for details.

Shelby’s Journey

From a very young age, Shelby Bradford has known abuse. At the age of seven, she had been victimized by sex traffickers. After spending years in foster care, she was confronted with abuse once again, resulting in her removal from her foster home at the age of 17.

Amid all the chaos and betrayal, she maintained hope and optimism that carried her through – ultimately coming to BCFS Health and Human Services in Tyler.

Screen Shot 2016-02-01 at 1.28.48 PMShelby began working with a case manager at BCFS Health and Human Services. Her home life stabilized as she joined a loving foster family, and she worked toward furthering her education. With BCFS’ help, Shelby secured financial aid to go to college and was accepted to Sam Houston State University to study psychology. Her stellar performance in high school also helped earn her several scholarships.

Today, Shelby is very active in church and attends all of the youth events at the BCFS center in Tyler.

Shelby has overcome unspeakable hardships with grace. Her “don’t take things for granted” mantra has motivated her to live in gratitude and keep working hard. Her BCFS “family” is always on the sidelines cheering her on, as she presses on toward her bright future.

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Community Foundation of Abilene Awards $24,000 Grant to BCFS Health and Human Services to Expand its Reach

Community Foundation of Abilene Awards $24,000 Grant to BCFS Health and Human Services to Expand its Reach

ABILENE – The Community Foundation of Abilene has awarded BCFS Health and Human Services a $24,000 grant to hire an additional Youth Support Case Manager to serve local youth struggling with homelessness, poverty, unemployment or an unstable home life. The Youth Support Case Manager will help youth from troubled backgrounds achieve stability and self-sufficiency by providing guidance, support and connections to local resources.

After completing a comprehensive needs-assessment of each youth, the case manager will help them identify their personal, educational and professional goals and develop a transition plan.

The case manager will provide ongoing support necessary to help the youth achieve their goals – which may include help securing housing; employment support like resume-building and work skills training; and educational support including tutoring or help submitting college or financial aid applications.

“We are grateful for the continued partnership of The Community Foundation of Abilene in serving local young men and women in need,” said Emily Cole, BCFS Health and Human Services Regional Director. “This grant enables us to fill gaps between other funding sources and ensure that all the youth that walk in our doors can receive the help they need.”

The new case manager will serve youth from the BCFS Health and Human Services center, as well as BCFS’ Our House. The BCFS center provides case management, counseling, and assistance with education, employment and housing to teens and youth. Many of the youth served at the center have been removed from their homes due to abuse or neglect and spent time in foster care, or have been involved in the juvenile justice system. The center is open to any youth who need a quiet study spot, a home away from home, or a chat with a counselor or mentor. BCFS Health and Human Services also provides parenting education courses for fathers to learn healthy communication and parent-child bonding tips.

BCFS’ Our House is a transitional living home that provides temporary shelter to young men in Abilene who are struggling with homelessness. Residents at BCFS’ Our House connect to programs at the BCFS Health and Human Services center for help furthering their education, securing employment, and learning life skills to prepare to move out on their own.

For more information about BCFS Health and Human Services’ work in Abilene, visit DiscoverBCFS.net/Abilene or call (325) 692-0033.

 

BCFS is a global system of health and human service non-profit organizations with locations and programs throughout the United States as well as Eastern Europe, Latin America, Asia and Africa. The organization is a national leader in medical sheltering and emergency management and response, providing critical emergency support services to federal, state and local governments. BCFS also provides residential services and emergency shelters for children who are abused or neglected; assisted living services and vocational training for adults with intellectual disabilities; mental health services for children and families, foster care and adoption services; medical services; early education; transitional living services for youth who are at-risk and those in the juvenile justice system; residential camping and retreats for children and families; and international humanitarian aid for children living in impoverished conditions in developing countries.