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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Striking A Chord With Jackie

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Jackie Boyer loves to play the guitar. “I like that you can make it your own,” he says. “You can make it personal, you can make it unique. Whatever you do is really up to you.”

When Jackie came to BCFS Health and Human Services-Abilene, he had dropped out of high school and experienced periods of homelessness. Four years after his first encounter with BCFS-Abilene, at the age of 21, Jackie is now gainfully employed, has his own apartment and is working toward a fulfilling career. Jackie’s story goes to show that in life – as in music – “whatever you do is really up to you.”

An Abilene native, Jackie entered the foster care system at age 14. A severe case of diabetes put his father in a nursing home, and the mental and emotional strain that placed on Jackie’s mother left her unable to raise her four children.

Jackie is the youngest in his family, with two older brothers and an older sister. Jackie was able to stay with one of his older brothers in a foster home temporarily, but they were separated when the brother aged out of the system. Jackie was later transferred to a new foster home.

When Jackie aged out of foster care, he struggled to stay on a stable path. For a while, he was homeless and had nowhere to turn. But things began to fall into place when he was accepted into Our House, a transitional living program operated by BCFS-Abilene. Our House provides safe, comfortable housing to young men overcoming homelessness, while helping them save money, improve their life skills and prepare to move out on their own.

However, Jackie’s stay at Our House proved challenging for him and his housemates.

Jackie found it difficult to follow the house rules or stick to his Personal Transition Plan – a set of individualized rules and goals that helps each resident grow to self-sufficiency. When his hyperactive behavior disrupted the other residents, Jackie was asked to leave.

“It wasn’t until he found Our House, enjoyed how nice it was, and then lost it that he decided to take responsibility and overcome all the things that had been holding him back,” said Emily Cole, Regional Director for BCFS Health and Human Services. “He wound up on the streets again and said ‘I don’t want to do that again.’ It was a motivating factor for him to get it together,” said Cole. “Not every fairy tale ending comes with a picture-perfect road getting there.”

Although his time at Our House came to an early end, he remained actively involved in other BCFS-Abilene programs, including the Texas Workforce Commission program which helped him define his career goals and advance his education.

“I got help with my schoolwork, they helped me get my GED,” Jackie says, “and they helped me write a résumé and find a job.”

Jackie landed a full-time position as desk clerk and bookkeeper for a local hotel, and soon was offered the opportunity to move into one of the hotel’s units built out as a small apartment. It’s become another step toward Jackie’s goals of independence and selfgrowth.

When Jackie began a relationship with a young woman who was pregnant, Jackie, excited at the prospect of helping care for a newborn, joined the Fatherhood EFFECT program. Fatherhood EFFECT is a parenting education program operated by BCFS-Abilene that teaches the characteristics of a good father, like discipline, masculinity and work-family balance.

Although the relationship, ultimately, did not work out, he says he completed the program “for his own personal gain” and learned valuable skills about decision-making and healthy communication.

Living independently, holding down a job and studying to earn his GED simultaneously proved to be a challenging combination for Jackie. Staying active in BCFS-Abilene’s programs was daunting with a jam-packed schedule, according to his case worker, Alexzandra Hust. But, he powered through the study sessions, long work shifts and weekly life skills workshops at BCFS-Abilene.

When he earned his GED in December 2015, Alexzandra and the BCFS-Abilene team were overjoyed. Soon after, they helped Jackie file financial aid and admissions applications for local colleges. He plans to study psychology at Cisco College.

Jackie’s experiences in foster care inspired him to choose a career field helping others.

“I plan to be a social worker working for Child Protective Services or Betty Hardwick, I haven’t decided which yet,” Jackie says. The Betty Hardwick Center provides mental health care for children and adults, residential services for people with developmental disabilities, and early childhood intervention services.

Today, Jackie still plays the guitar and plans to dabble in songwriting for an added creative outlet for self-expression. He doesn’t shy away from opportunities to share his story, and over the next few years, perhaps his song lyrics will be another window into the ups and downs of his personal journey.

“I have made some great memories at BCFS,” says Jackie, “and I will never forget the people I have met there over the years.”