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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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.”