A young man sits in his dorm, looking at the new furniture around him as he settles in to start his first year of college. He has a mini fridge, sheets, towels, a new desk and desk chair, a new laptop and tablet — things the average college student would need to start the year off right.
But in his hands, he also has a letter of hope from a volunteer. And in his mind, he’s holding onto the weekly phone call made by a child advocate who is fighting for him to do well as he prepares to age out of the foster care system and be on his own in a few months — fighting the odds against him with his past, and fighting for a future he didn’t think he had.
Last weekend, the Court Appointed Special Advocates for children of Ellis County presented one 17-year-old with a financial donation through the crowdsourcing website GoFundMe and school supplies needed for him to settle into his first year of college. Because the young man is a minor and his case is still with Child Protective Services, his name cannot be disclosed, but CASA volunteers spoke about the moment and how difficult life can be for those who age out of the system without any support. The young man started his first week of college Tuesday and had been in CASA’s care for six months, moving around between three different places.
“A lot of these teens are coming in with behavioral issues, experienced or witnessed to, since they were pre-schoolers,” said CASA volunteer supervisor Kim Garlitz. “The ones we have in care, they haven’t run away. They’re trying to make it. They’re trying to stay away from drugs and alcohol, and the temptations are there and are probably more so for these kids because they don’t have that strong family support. They’re staying away from that, they’re going to school. They’re going to counseling and doing what they can do. Just to see them talk about their career goals and their dreams is incredible.”
Mechanically-minded, this young man wants to work in commercial HVAC, installing big chillers on big office buildings and more. Garlitz said CASA was fortunate enough to match an advocate with him who is a retired WISD teacher and who knew the ins and outs of getting into college or trade school. Kim Kriegel, who spent more than 20 years teaching and is a current WISD board member, has spoken to the teen every week since he became a part of CASA. She’s been a CASA volunteer for almost two years.
“We had this teen who desperately needed help, someone to go to the college and advocate for him and make sure he got admitted and in his classes and got his text books — everything a true parent would do,” Garlitz said. “She could walk the walk and talk the talk, and knew all the acronyms and everything. It’s something she excels at, so she was able to go in and make sure he had everything he needed. And then there were the rest of us who wanted to help. I remember my parents leaving me on the lawn at Abilene Christian and that was probably one of the most sheltered universities at the time, but I was scared to death and I didn’t want them to know that. But I had never been away from home on my own. And these kids may have things in their pasts they’re trying to overcome. And have a better life than what they came out of and I think we can encourage that.”
Right now, CASA has about 100 active cases with about 40 CASA volunteers, with children ranging anywhere from newborn to teenager, and most have a great possibility of aging out of the system Garlitz said. And in August alone, the organization received three more cases involving 15 children. Each CASA volunteer is assigned one case at a time.
When a child ages out of the foster system, CASA executive director Rhodie Rawls said it’s much more likely that child will end up homeless, in the criminal justice system or on the streets without a decent family connection. At age 23 and 24, less than half of former foster youth are employed, almost 25 percent are or will be homeless, more than 75 percent of young women become pregnant, according to the 2010 report “Midwest Evaluation of the Adult Functioning of Former Foster Youth” based on the study of more than 600 young adults who aged out. The report also stated nearly 60 percent of young men who have aged out are convicted of a crime, and more than 80 percent are arrested at some point or another. Only 6 percent of former foster youth had two- or four-year degree.
“The worst thing we can do is let a child age out of foster care with no family connection of any kind,” said Rawls. “I don’t care who it is or what it is, if we can’t give them their family, we need to give them some connection of some kind because they’re not going to make it if they don’t have that. It’s going to be tough enough if they do have it, but if we put them out on the street with no one, you can bet your last dollar what’s going to happen.”
This young man had no intention of going to school, said Rawls, adding that Kriegel was instrumental in changing his perspective and making sure it would happen by doing what she could to get him in to college.
“My main problem I had was proximity, because he was in Conroe. I only physically went there one time, but I talk with him on a weekly basis,” Kriegel said, with Rawls adding that an Ellis County child who comes into the foster care system may be placed anywhere in the state even though the case might have originated in the county. “We just talked about how he was and what he was thinking. I would go over whatever step in the process he had to do. He was nervous, yes. Was he intimidated? I don’t think so. The community support has just been awesome, from citizens to the Lancaster Elk’s Lodge and individuals and just being able to see we’ve given him an option now that he can be successful is amazing, because when we started with him, I personally don’t think he really thought he could be successful. It wasn’t in his realm of possibility.”
When Kriegel worked at Waxahachie High School, helping students realize their capabilities was her passion and the fact she’s able to help this young man do the same falls right in line with that, she said. Rawls then joked about how Kriegel is an advocate who doesn’t take no for an answer and keeps encouraging the child to not give up ad realize college didn’t have to be scary for him. This was her second case with CASA.
“It was sometime in the middle of June when I was going through the steps and he had taken the responsibility of getting the home he was in to take him to the library to take the test he needed to take and everything for college. He had to do all of that, where usually a parent would do a lot of it. He took responsibility for that,” Kriegel said, crying. “I called him two or three days later and said, ‘Ok, now you need to do this, this and this.’ He said, ‘I’ve already done it Ms. Kim. I’ve already done it.’ It was just good. That’s great. He had already gone way beyond what I expected him to do in the short time frame. This allows me to still help kids.”
When the chance for college became a reality, a CASA board member started working with Citizens National Bank employees to gather supplies. The group loaded up two car loads for the young man’s dorm, said Garlitz. The Midlothian branch of CNB also got together and donated cash for him to take care of incidentals, and community members donated $1,000 with comments of support.
“We told him not to worry, but of course he was worried, but we didn’t want to spoil the surprise,” said Garlitz. “Nannette Paghi wrote him a letter, and it was so inspiring. I saw him — we kind of got the room set up and were just kind of finishing when he took the letter and squatted down on the floor, so intent and so grateful. He was really speechless at the thought that random strangers had gone to such lengths. How supportive and encouraging is it for someone who didn’t have a lot to come with all this behind him and take it going forward and hopefully be inspired and do what he needs to do?”
She said when a person lives in foster care for six months, the child is basically told everything, from what to eat to what clothes to wear and when to sleep. Now, the young man will get a little bit of freedom to relax and make his own decisions.
“I do think he’s going to have to realize that this stuff is his, no matter where he goes from here, and these people came together to support him and he was very overwhelmed and very touched,” Garlitz said. “We all went out to lunch just before his orientation, and we were all just checking on orders and passing the salt, and I looked over and he was praying. He was thanking God for everything everyone had done. I’m sure it wasn’t only about the food that day. He’s very appreciative and he’s a good kid at heart. He’s just had some bad luck and gone through things that I don’t know everyone would have come out as strong as he is right now.”
As for what’s next, Kriegel said she’ll continue to stay in touch with the young man on a weekly basis even after his case is officially closed, just to check in and keep supporting him.
“Next step for him? Making straight A’s,” she said, joking. “Actually, we’ll be happy with pass.”