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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Moms get a HEAD START In Their Careers from BCFS Education Services’ Head Start

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In Head Start classrooms operated by BCFS Education Services, 3- and 4-year-olds learn the alphabet, practice new vocabulary words and prepare to hit the ground running when they start kindergarten. In addition, learning opportunities outside the classroom – in the lives of Head Start parents – are also making a profound impact on the family’s quality of life and their future.

“We conduct family assessments to discuss the parents’ goals and help improve the family dynamic,” says Jhanirca Velez Ramos, a Family Specialist for BCFS Education Services. “If a parent would like to earn their GED, for example, I provide them directions for how to obtain it. I encourage them to follow through. I make myself available and follow up throughout the school year if needed. My real passion is empowering people.”

The federal Office of Head Start lists family well-being initiatives as one of the program’s three core services, alongside children’s health and early learning. So, when moms in two Spanish-speaking families of Head Start children in Seguin told their Family Specialist Jhanirca they wanted to learn English, Jhanirca was excited to help!

Jhanirca referred Ms. Hernandez and Mrs. Garcia to the local school district where they completed an English as a Second Language (ESL) course.

After working at a local restaurant for 10 years, Ms. Hernandez was finally offered a promotion. Confident in her new bilingual skills, she accepted the promotion to serve as a Team Leader. She doesn’t plan on stopping there.

“At first, I didn’t want to accept the job because I didn’t know much English,” she explains. “I wanted to learn a bit more English first and then accept the position. Now, I want to go back and learn even more, because I’d like to move up to another position at work.” While Ms. Hernandez was settling into her new role as Team Leader at the restaurant’s corporate offices, her 5-year-old son, Sebastian graduated from Head Start and began kindergarten at his local elementary school. Just like his mom, Head Start helped build Sebastian’s skills and cultivated in him a love of learning.

Mrs. Garcia, another Head Start mother of four, had always wanted to learn English. She picked up some phrases from her kids and from hearing other people speak, but had never taken English classes.

“I wanted to be able to help my kids with their homework, and develop myself more, and not struggle so much,” said Mrs. Garcia. “It’s beautiful to know how to speak both languages.” Mrs. Garcia, who works independently as a maid, hopes to use her new English skills to open her own cleaning business. “I want to gain my commercial license so that I can clean government buildings or stores,” she says. “To be able to expand and make my business official.”

Both mothers are grateful for the help that BCFS Education Services has provided.

“Head Start has helped us a lot,” said Mrs. Garcia. “My daughter has learned a lot in the classes, and it helped us learn how to be better parents. Everything (in Head Start) is very good, very organized. (Family Specialist Jhanirca Ramos) is always motivating us and pushing us to go further.”

Mrs. Garcia’s daughter, Paula, has also graduated from Head Start, ready for kindergarten. “She’s more prepared, she knows more about the routines of going to school,” Mrs. Garcia said of her daughter’s first year of elementary school. “She learned a lot, and while some of the other kids didn’t go to pre-K, she is a bit more advanced because she attended Head Start.”

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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.”

Elijah’s Journey

Elijah Jung came to BCFS Health and Human Services’ youth transition center in Lubbock, Texas with nowhere else to turn. He entered the foster care system at just 10 years old after being removed from an unhealthy home environment. When he aged out of foster care at 18 years old, he experienced bouts of homelessness. Looking back, Elijah says that although that was the most difficult time in his life, he’s a firm believer in “what’s past is in the past.” It was his steadfast nature and refusal to give up that primed him to turn his life around when he first came to the transition center.

First, BCFS Lubbock Transition Center met his most essential needs, providing him gift cards for food. Once he had temporary housing in place, the transition center gave him a bicycle to get to and from school.

He also joined the Launch Project, a hands- on job skills training program offered through a partnership with BCFS, the local state university and workforce commission. The program taught Elijah the ins and outs of joining the workforce, from how to find a job to how to dress for success. Ultimately, this helped him get a job at a local carwash.

During the next month, Elijah was in and out of his home, and began having problems with his bike. BCFS helped him pay for repairs to his bike so he could keep going to work, and referred him to another local non-profit to receive clothing, food, and free haircuts to stay looking professional on-the-job.

Soon after, Elijah got another job at a nearby hotel known for working with BCFS youth.

The transition center partners closely with local employers and businesses, building relationships that help youth find – and keep – gainful employment. In Elijah’s case, this helped BCFS staff get real-time feedback on his performance at work, so they could celebrate his victories along the way, and re-train him in any areas that needed improvement, like rules of attendance and hygiene.

Even with a busy school and work schedule, Elijah still made time to volunteer at the Humane Society. So it was definitely a show-stopper when his only mode of transportation, his trusty bicycle, was stolen. Thankfully, BCFS replaced his bike so Elijah could stay on-the-move.

Until that point, Elijah had been receiving financial aid from a local residential treatment center to help pay rent on his small apartment. When this critical financial aid expired, BCFS picked up the tab and immediately began teaching Elijah how to budget and save. Together they weaned him off outside financial support entirely until he began to pay his rent, utilities and bills on his own.

Even as problem after problem arose, the BCFS transition center was there to support him. Finally, a turning point came for Elijah when the transition center helped him get into a Job Corps program in Utah where he could learn the skills to become a certified welder. So he moved to Utah, but always remembered to call “home” to the transition center to let the BCFS team know how he was doing. Since Elijah was a Texan transplant, unequipped for the cold Utah winters, his BCFS family sent him a care package of warm clothes and plenty of long-distance encouragement. At the Job Corps, Elijah earned his welder’s certification and his driver’s license.

At the annual Hope Chest event hosted by the BCFS Lubbock Transition Center, BCFS honors local high school and college graduates in foster care and those who aged out of the system. At the event, the youth go on a shopping spree for essential household items for their first dorm room or apartment, guided by volunteers with a budget, shopping list and calculator in-hand.

Even though Elijah had moved far away, he was not forgotten back home at the transition center when Hope Chest came around. BCFS paid to fly him back to Texas for the big event, where he was honored alongside the college graduates for earning his certification in welding. He was also given a $1,000 gift card to shop for household and hygiene essentials.

Most importantly, Elijah was able to reconnect with his BCFS mentors that helped him grow into a confident, hopeful and independent young man.

A Road to Faraway Places

Lisa Zamora was only in the 8th grade when she was placed in foster care. The journey would not be easy for her. Tough adjustments had to be made. Trust did not come easy.

“It’s stressful being placed to live with strangers, trying to get them to trust me, and learning to trust them. You don’t know how the household is run, so what you’re accustomed to really doesn’t matter,” said Lisa. “You have to learn to adapt and live in someone else ́s environment which can be difficult – especially when you’re so young and you see other children coming in and out of the household.”

The instability of the transition into foster care caused Lisa to rebel, but her wayward days were short-lived.

“Nothing lasts forever, and hope will get you a long way. You have to find some willpower to accept your circumstances and keep trucking forward,” says Lisa.

With a laser-sharp focus on her education, and a network of inspirational teachers and BCFS programs in place to support her, Lisa began “trucking forward” – toward college. She always knew school would be important to her, and even at a young age she excelled in her classes.

“I believe my teachers saw potential in me and I looked up to them,” says Lisa. “Many of them cared enough, beyond just my school work, and encouraged me to grow up to be a better person, and to aspire to do better for myself in all aspects of life.”

Confidently, Lisa made a profound decision for one so young. “I never wanted to go back to the life I was forced to live when I was young. I always wanted better for myself.”

BCFS Health and Human Services’ Education Training Voucher program helps youth in foster care pay for college tuition and related expenses so they can make a smoother transition to self-sufficiency and adulthood after aging out of the system. Lisa credits the BCFS ETV program for setting her on the right path to earning a degree and stand on her own two feet.

“The program helped me be able to sustain an independent lifestyle. I have always worked, but it helped immensely knowing that I had a program that would provide me with financial assistance to help me reach my goal of obtaining a degree.”

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Juggling the demands of work plus college classes could have overwhelmed Lisa – and unfortunately high college dropout rates among youth in foster care show that’s a disappointing trend – but Lisa says BCFS was her stabilizing force. “When my school course load became stressful and my work hours were cut, BCFS put my worries at ease because I knew I’d be able to stay in school and finish my degree no matter what.”

Lisa acknowledges that her experiences and educational pursuits have forced her to mature in many ways – and even her dreams for the future have changed.

“At this point, I would rather travel the world with a suitcase instead of settle down too quickly and acquire a mountain of debt,” says Lisa. “When I started my first semester as an undergrad, I wanted the ‘white picket fence’ ideal, but now I just want to enjoy my freedom and live an adventurous life, if possible.”

Where does Lisa dream the great adventure of her life will take her? “Somewhere far, far away – traveling.”

Lions, Tigers and Bears, Oh My! Kendall County Head Start’s Zoo Trip

Zoo trip thrills Head Start students from Kendall County

Nearly 150 Kendall County Head Start students, parents and staff enjoyed a field trip to the San Antonio Zoo, sponsored by Knights of Columbus, Council #8521 from St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Spring Branch, TX.“The zoo provides a great learning opportunity for the children,” said

“The zoo provides a great learning opportunity for the children,” said Sherr’y Johnson, BCFS Education Services Center Coordinator. “They not only get to see the animals, but they get to study their habitats and learn about what the animals need to survive.”

“Our theme for class lessons this week has been building and making things,” said Johnson. “We incorporated that lesson with how the zoo builds a safe environment for the animals, and how it provides both a shelter for the animals and a way to enjoy, learn about and study them.”

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As in years past, the Knights of Columbus donated $500 to BCFS Education Services Head Start in Kendall County to fund the zoo field trip.

“Knights of Columbus met us here a few years ago when our parents were having a bake sale to raise enough money to go to the zoo,” recalls Johnson. “I explained the reason for the bake sale and they were thrilled at the prospect of being able to help. They said ‘we want to do it every year; we feel like it’s important.’”

Sixty-two Head Start students and 70 parents and guardians attended the field trip.

“The families want to go because they want to be a part of the experience, too,” says Johnson, “so it’s a great bonding opportunity for the families to participate in their children’s education, which is something Head Start supports at all times.”

Take a look at some of the photos from the field trip here.

For more information about BCFS Education Services, visit DiscoverBCFS.net/HeadStart.

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BCFS Education Services is part of a global system of health and human service non-profit organizations led by BCFS, focused on boosting educational readiness and outcomes in the classroom, as well as ensuring families have the resources, tools and information needed to start their children’s lifetime of learning off on the right foot.

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.

Isaac’s Story: A Life Transformed

Isaac was struggling through a difficult time when he came to BCFS Health and Human Services. He had bad habits to kick, a juvenile record, and needed help to focus on his education.

That’s when he joined BCFS’ Youth Averted from Delinquency (YAD) program.

“When I first started working with BCFS in the YAD program with Mr. Taylor, my life slowly started to get better.  The more I listened, the better off I got.  The life skills program taught me a lot of skills that I use in my everyday life.

My life is great now. I no longer use drugs, and I’m happily married and have a beautiful daughter.

In a week, I will graduate high school. I plan to go to the Fire Fighting Academy in Abilene to get my certification.  Then, I plan to come back to Kerrville and hope to join the Fire Department in my community. I’m really grateful to have worked with BCFS and their staff.”   – Isaac

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