For this final installment in a six-part yearlong series about the nearly 16,000 kids in state care, writer Sheri Smith meets an inspiring group of teens in foster care who are determined to make a difference.
Autumn is 17 years old and a junior in high school. While other kids her age are struggling to figure out what they want from life, she has a clear vision for her future: “I’m going to help people.”
The wish to help others is not what you expect to hear from a teenage girl who has been in the foster care system since she was 3 years old, bounced around to different states and is now living in an Arizona group home.
You think to yourself: People should be helping her.
But Autumn says helping others has always been her goal.
“When I was really little, I wanted to be a princess. I’m not going to lie,” she says, laughing in that sweet, spirited way only a teenage girl can. Then she turns more serious.
“When I turned 10, I knew I wanted to go to college and be a psychologist. I know what pain feels like, and I don’t want anyone else to experience that. I’m committed to making a difference in the world that I’m in.”
I think back to a piece of paper I’ve kept in a folder marked “Foster Care Research.”
It’s a quote I jotted down at the beginning of my year-long journey of learning and writing about foster care and adoption for Raising Arizona Kids.
I kept the note because delving into a topic as bleak as abused and neglected children meant I needed something hopeful to see me through.
The note reads: “Neglected children who are offered consistent love and attention tend to turn into remarkable human beings with unusual compassion for others, inner strength, empathy and resilience.”
I’m not exactly sure where I even came across those words. I think it was written on a sign somewhere at one of the many facilities I visited while reporting this series. But when I met Autumn and her friends, I suddenly realized just how true that sentiment — hand-scrawled on the back of a notecard — could be.
To sugarcoat what teens in foster care go through would be an injustice to their life stories.
By the time foster children reach their teenage years, they may have been removed, returned and removed again from their families. They have often lost touch with siblings and other relatives. They have usually suffered abuse — emotional, physical or sexual.
At the very least, they have been deprived of security, both financially and emotionally, and they have often felt neglected and rejected by the world.
As bad as that seems, it gets worse. That’s because, even though everything that has happened to them took place through no fault of their own, they are often made to feel stigmatized by their situation, like they are flawed or have done something wrong.
Of course, that couldn’t be further from the truth. These kids have done nothing wrong.
They have not failed; the world has failed them. Yet kids like Autumn want to make that world a better place.
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A foundation of hope
Colleen Walski of Cave Creek started the Scott Foundation in 2007 after her only child, 27-year-old Scott Sean Walski, was killed in a senseless act of violence.
She says the plans for the foundation began on the day of his funeral with donations that had been made in Scott’s honor. She felt a calling to do something truly great with the money. “I knew it would be about children,” she said.
The first year after her son’s death, Walski was searching for direction. She started volunteering at an elementary school “partly so people would just leave me alone,” she says.
Walski felt she needed to get away from the “noise” of well-meaning outsiders offering her advice on how to cope with her situation. She knew she had to get the answers from within.
While volunteering at the school, she realized there were kids who were as emotionally raw as she was.
“One little boy was the sole survivor when his family had been murdered. He was expected to be in his chair and take his test, just like everyone else,” Walski says.
It made her question our priorities as a society.
She wanted to help kids heal. She decided the best way to do that was to employ the tactics that had worked for her: selfless service and looking within.
Over the past 10 years, the Scott Foundation has impacted the lives of more than 4,950 youth and has redirected nearly $600,000 in donations back to the community. But the project Walski is most proud of is her recent endeavor to help foster teens “awaken the superhero inside.”
The foundation’s featured program is called the Young Adult Masterclass and is currently training 15 students to become future leaders who will make positive changes in the world.
The ultimate goal of the four-year program is to get the kids out of “the system.” Some time between 18 and 21 years of age, foster children “age out.”
Aging out often means being turned out on the street with nothing but garbage bags full of belongings and the clothes on their backs.
The statistics that result from this should come as no surprise: “1 in 5 will be homeless within a year, 1 in 4 will be incarcerated in two years, 71 percent of the females will be pregnant before age 21 and 50 percent will be unemployed by age 24,” according to numbers cited in a 2015 Cronkite News study.
Walski says her program provides an “opportunity to get away from that. We want these kids to be employed — not even at regular jobs, but to become our future leaders.”
The first step to accomplishing this, as Walski has learned, is looking within.
Protecting your soul bird
When talking to the kids from the Scott Foundation, you hear phrases like “protecting your soul bird.”
Sixteen-year-old Morrena has a very interesting response when answering the question: “What is your soul bird?”
“It’s the peace inside of us,” she says. “It’s learning to listen to your heart.”
Morrena is a delightful girl. First of all, she is very funny. She cracks jokes and laughs easily, but immediately hides her face in a self-conscious, “Did I just say that?” kind of way.
Morrena tells me about the workshop all Scott Foundation Masterclass members must attend when first joining the program.
They stay at the Sedona Mago Retreat, a healing center based out of Korea that only kids from the Scott Foundation program can enter. The focus is heart-based learning.
In the peaceful, red-rock setting, these kids are taught how to go within to find the answers to the questions of their lives.
It is also the place they bond with one another.
After returning from the workshops in Sedona, the kids begin their work, and that starts with a question: “If you had unlimited money and resources, how would you make the world a better place?”
When you ask these kids a question like that, they have answers.
While many kids their age — who have not experienced the same level of challenges in their lives — might stammer for a response, these kids know.
The goal of the Scott Foundation is to help give these kids tools, so they can learn how to turn their vision into reality.
Vision Keepers is the term they use for the foundation’s board members — local business people who work with the kids to help them create business plans and figure out the steps necessary in reaching their goals. Tim Harris of Surprise is the executive director of business development at Scott Foundation and serves as a liaison between the foundation and local businesses.
So far, he says, they have partnered with some prestigious companies, such as Huntington University, Phoenix International Raceway, Al Magg Marketing Group and Microsoft. Harris emphasizes “selfless service” as the component that is probably the most crucial aspect to the Young Adult Masterclass.
He explains that the kids suddenly have a voice. “They feel part of something much bigger than themselves. Turning a negative to a positive, they use their trauma to help change the world.”
“I didn’t think I had a future,” says Rosa, a 16-year-old beauty with dark eyes blinking out at me from behind rimmed glasses. “What if I didn’t live that long? I didn’t have much motivation. Scott Foundation helped me.”
Rosa says she has also seen big differences in her brother, who also attends the program. “My brother was never an open person,” she says. “He always kept to himself. He wouldn’t talk.”
All the kids laugh when she describes her brother in this way as it is so different from the funny, outgoing boy they have come to know.
Walski reminds the kids that although they keep saying the Scott Foundation saved them, in reality, they found the answers from within. They saved themselves.
Something to give
It’s easy to look at the foster care system and see an endless pit of sadness.
There are certainly tragic stories. Most are never told. They’re the faceless victims of crimes and abuse that go unnoticed.
Kids are vulnerable, and without the proper supports, there’s not much hope.
The bright side is these same kids, with the proper assistance, have a lot to offer. They can transform their lives and help others along the way.
As I’ve followed this story from the beginning of 2017, I have heard stories that break your heart. I have also seen heroes, superheroes even — though only occasionally have they worn capes.
In almost every instance, the people who are helping the most are the people who have known the most sorrow and tragedy in their own lives.
The families who foster and adopt were often once foster kids themselves. The people helping the homeless know about life on the streets.
For that reason alone, it’s worth seriously considering helping these kids, either through organizations like the Scott Foundation or through other programs.
There are so many ways to help, such as mentoring, fostering, volunteering and donating. The alternative, the future these children would face without support, is unacceptable.
With more than 16,000 Arizona children in out-of home care, it’s going to take every one of us pitching in and doing our part to make a difference.
But as these children can attest, when you commit yourself to “selfless service,” the life you end up saving may be your own.