by Donna McBride, Pinal County Program Administrator II, CASA of Pinal County, and Pam Burke, Pinal County Juvenile Court CASA Coordinator, CASA of Pinal County

The holidays are here, and excitement is in the air. Santa is the “hometown hero” for many children this time of the year – but only for some children, unfortunately. There are some kids – more than we want to admit – who are not thinking about presents. They are only thinking about day-to-day survival. And as one foster teen shares below, he is his own “hometown hero.”

This is a journey about my life. I was a foster kid, along with my siblings. I was afraid from the day we were taken away from our parents. That fear followed me throughout my youth and turned into distrust, shame, feeling sorry for myself and depending only on myself. Nothing was explained to me and my future was uncertain. I was separated from my siblings. I was so confused, and wondered, “Why did my parents let this happen to me? Was it my fault? Don’t I deserve a family?”

I grew up in the foster care system, drifting in and out of relationships and trying to be “normal,” whatever that was. I know I didn’t feel normal. How can you when you don’t know where you will be living, where you will be going to school or who will be there for you. I was in survival mode, and just trying to get by. I had four different case workers, lived in six placements, including juvenile detention and a number of group homes, and attended five different schools.

Every time I had to change placements my belongings were put in a trash bag. Some of my childhood is just a blur, with no school pictures, no mementos of achievements from school and no parent cheering me on at my Little League games. Living in the foster care system meant that no one was permanent in my life. It was a revolving door of case workers, attorneys, foster parents, therapists, teachers and judges.

Then, I turned 18. I was an adult in the eyes of the court, and was “aging out” of the child welfare system. I should be able to fend for myself, but I had never paid rent, bought groceries or managed my own expenses. I went from someone telling me what to do and how to do it on a daily basis to being lonely and afraid. On my own for the first time in my life, I had no one to catch me if I fell. I was responsible for functioning in a world on my own. I felt so alone.

As a child, I was an innocent victim, but as an adult I had to make decisions, and those decisions would help me to shape my destiny. I was forced into a system that cared for me, but did not prepare me for being an adult. I could continue to be a victim of my circumstances, but I wanted to turn those negatives in my life into positives. If only I had made more positive choices, I would have no regrets. I cannot erase my past, but I can embrace those obstacles that I have overcome and move forward.

Even though I grew up away from my family, who were dysfunctional at best, I met some great people who looked beyond my fears and distrust and accepted me for who I was. One of those people included my Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) volunteer. He listened to me when no one else was willing; he believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself; he advocated for my best interests in and out of court, and he encouraged me to follow my passion. I will never forget what my CASA did for me.

My journey is not over, but I do see light at the end of the tunnel. I finally earned my high school diploma. I now have a full-time job and am going to school part-time. I am unsure of what I want to be when I grow up, but I do know that I have forgiven my past, triumphed over adversity and can now focus on the person I was meant to be.

My “hometown heroes” are all the kids, like me, in foster care in Pinal County, who have decided to change their lives by looking beyond their past to a future that is whole and bright. These youth cannot do it alone. They need the support and compassion of healthy adults and a community willing to give them a chance.

Fred Rogers, from “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” once said, “We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility. It’s easy to say, ‘It’s not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem.’ Then there are those who see the need and respond. I consider these people my heroes.”

As a community you can be an advocate to one of our “hometown hero” youth by becoming a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) volunteer, becoming a foster parent, being a mentor, or employing a youth and helping them to start their future.

For more information on CASA of Pinal County, call 520-866-7076 or visit case.org.