Recently, I was talking with Mandy, my PLANK editor, about our experiences as advocates with CASA of Los Angeles. She recounted a recent experience and I was so moved by the story that I asked her to share it with you.
THE UNEXPECTED ROLE MODEL by Mandy Denaux
I remember when I was 8 years old I had a teacher named Mrs. Pickens. She was pretty and smart … and I wanted to be just like her. In the (many) years since then, my role models have come in many forms – teachers, bosses, friends … even an actress or two. Each of them serving to inspire and motivate me … or perhaps demonstrating a trait or position to which I aspired. Typical stuff from the people you’d expect. But, a few weeks ago, I found a role model in the unlikeliest of places.
Like Mary Beth, I am a volunteer with CASA of Los Angeles, an organization dedicated to improving the lives of children in foster care. It’s work that can be challenging, but for me, it’s been the most eye-opening and rewarding work I’ve ever done. And it’s a role that has brought me more than I think I can ever expect to bring to it.
Through my role with CASA, I’ve had the opportunity to meet and get to know the older sister of the girl for whom I am an advocate – we’ll call her Kim. And it is her story that I’d like to share with you …
I first “met” Kim on paper – a name in a stack of papers I was given when I was first assigned her sister’s case. I read “Kim’s story,” as it intertwined with her sister’s … and my heart went out to these two kids who had faced the most difficult of situations.
I’m sure most of us have a story – sad experiences, unpleasant events or trauma that have left indelible marks on our lives. And fortunately, most of us have not lived a life like Kim’s.
When Kim was just 14, her mother was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. With a father who was also incarcerated, Kim suddenly found herself alone in the dependency system – without her parents and separated from her siblings. Adding insult to injury, because her mother’s case was a high-profile situation covered by the media, Kim found that she was no longer welcome in the community in which she was raised or in the school she’d attended. Luckily, Kim found a home with her grandparents, and with a stroke of fate, was welcomed into a school in a nearby community.
One would fully expect that a young girl suffering that type of loss and trauma would have difficulty settling into a new high school. Not Kim. She embraced this new life. She ran track, took part in school clubs and went to prom. All these things, which I imagine you and I took for granted, were new to Kim. But she dove in and made her way in a school and a community that weren’t hers. Along the way she fell in love with learning, developed a passion for cross country running and discovered a desire to go into law enforcement. And while the dependency system wasn’t a place she chose to be, Kim took advantage of everything that placement offered.
Following high school she enrolled in community college and set her sites on becoming a police officer, all the while continuing to play a critical role in her younger sister’s life. At 20, Kim got pregnant. And while many of us may have taken that as a pass on college, Kim remained focused on her goals. She continued with school until her baby was born, and resumed classes the following semester.
Now a 21-year-old full-time student, Kim has aged out of the foster care system … but her foster care story doesn’t end there. On my most recent encounter with Kim, we were standing together as she petitioned the court to become the guardian for her 11-year-old sister.
I have to stop here and say that if I was still reading Kim’s story on paper, I would be shaking my head at that prospect. She’s just 21, she’s going to college and she has a baby of her own – how in the world can she be prepared to take on the care of a soon-to-be teenager? But (try as I might here), paper just doesn’t do Kim justice.
Yeah, when I tell you that a 21-year-old, unemployed, single mother is my role model, you might shake your head too. But what those labels don’t tell you is how she breaks all the rules of expectation. How this tiny, soft-spoken girl didn’t let crime, poverty or pregnancy stand in her way. How this resilient and focused woman didn’t let fear or difficulty change her path. And how this happy, kind and caring person didn’t let sadness or tragedy break her spirit.
And talk about saying yes and figuring it out later!
So no, I can’t think of a more appropriate person to care for her sister … and last week, the court agreed with me. Today, my CASA kid is at home with her sister … and for the first time in seven years, a piece of their family is back together. That’s all because of Kim.
Mine and Kim’s lives couldn’t be more different; and by all traditional accounts, I probably should have been the one inspiring her. But something about Kim’s wisdom, tenacity and open heart spoke to me, and left me in awe – amazed by her, proud of her and rooting for her.
In the days since our last encounter, as I’ve gone back to my daily routine, I’ve found myself thinking of Kim often. And when I’ve found myself whining about my own circumstance, I’ve stopped … and I’ve thought “if she can do that, then I can do this.” And isn’t that what a role model is all about?