The Unexpected Role Model

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.


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.

blog56_2One 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?




  1. Cheryl Ballard Chadwick, MD

    Thanks so much for the inspiring post about Kim and her tenacity. Unfortunately working in the healthcare field I have encountered many similar families such as Kim’s but rarely with such wonderful results. For the first 13 years of my career as a Family Practice physician I worked for a nonprofit federally qualified community health center in rural south Louisiana serving their indigent population. I will admit that I took the position purely for selfish reasons as my state was offering loan repayment of my student loans from medical school in exchange for 3 years of service in this medically underserved area. Well, 3 years turned into 13 years and the emotional rewards far out weighed the financial reward. One of the most rewarding but also sometimes troubling experiences was during my time in the local school based health centers. These clinics were funded by state/federal grants to provide health care to the students. This school system is one of the poorest in the nation with well over 90% of the children receiving some type of governmental assistance. These kids were both a joy and a source of many sleepless nights while working at the clinic. I have seen high school girls riding the same bus with their elementary age children, young middle school girls that think it is acceptable to have sex with adult men in exchange for “a candy bar and a Coke” and young boys that admire the local drug dealers with their fast cars and gold jewelry. Many students would look down on us professionals because they thought we were foolish to spend so much time in school and not have the expensive possessions that the drug dealers seemed to so easily obtain. Despite these troubling experiences, the joy of seeing a child achieve one of their goals even though it may be small was all the reward that was needed to continue the work. We not only cared for their medical needs but we also addressed their psychological, emotional, nutritional and social needs. One of the things that I came away from this experience is the need for parenting classes. Most of these parents are basically just surviving and not really living so their children suffer because they are never taught basic life skills. I have seen so many families such as Kim’s be destroyed because of crime, drugs and abuse. Unfortunately I have had to report many suspected cases of abuse to child protective services and then spend the night worrying if the child was in a better or worse place from which they were removed.

    All in all it was a great experience and one I will cherish forever. After my divorce, I had to make the hard decision to leave this position for financial reasons. I have two sons and we needed extra income since I no longer had the added income from their father. Unfortunately government jobs do not pay at the same rate as the private sector.

    I want to thank and applaud both you, Mary Beth and Mandy, for being CASA volunteers. This organization is truly wonderful and often the only “voice” that these children have in the world. Hopefully one day once my boys are grown I will have the time to also be a volunteer.

    Mary Beth, I have truly enjoyed your blog and look forward to it weekly. I have been a fan since my college days and although I missed many years of viewing while in medical school/residency/practice I’m back on board watching DOOL thanks to my nurses and rad techs. I’m the “cool” doc since I join in and know all the old history of the characters. Lol! Keep up the good work!

  2. Kim is clearly an amazing girl. I’m sure she’s going to inspire so many people in her lifetime. This is just the tip of the iceberg for her. Thank you for sharing her incredible, selfless story.

  3. Stacey (BraveWidowMama)

    What an inspirational story. Thanks for sharing! It’s amazing what can happen if you just don’t give up.

  4. Traci Whiting

    Wow!! Amazing story, thanks for sharing Mandy and MB. My story is somewhat similar. I was a single mother with a one year old baby girl when I adopted my now oldest daughter, when she was 4. She had been a part of my life since birth so when her birth mother was unable to care for her I did. I couldn’t see her going into the system or foster care. I now have an amazing husband and was blessed with two more (twin boys)! So I went from being a single mother of one, then 2 girls to being a happy family of 6!! I hope my story can inspire people too!

  5. I have so many words and not enough time or paper or what have you on this subject. I know these story’s all to well. I am glad you found inspiration here and glad you could help be the best Casa you can be. These children need people to fight for them. They need people to look at “best interest of child” as individually as possible. That may be keeping siblings together or family’s together. Its is sooo important to look at the whole picture. My family and I have fought to keep my nephew’s and niece’s together. It has been very emotional and continues to be. I could write a book on it and the system that has worked for us and not worked. So I beg for people to come forward and be a Casa and advocate for these kids. Our children are our future. They will intertwine into our community. If we do whats right for them it will make a difference for everyone. My sister who is a working single mom and has six children and took in my baby niece so that makes 7 kids now. Not because she is wealthy because we love this baby and because we cant see her hurt. I took on her older sister. Raised her as my own. Blessed to have her. I worry about her everyday because i share custody with her father. That is not the best situation but it is what we are given. We thank the Casa that stand up for these children and that do make a difference and we pray for more good Casa workers out there. So we can have these young girls be an inspiration to others but mostly to have the best life that anyone else has been given.

  6. Deidre Hall

    Dearest friend,
    Your writings, thoughts and ideas enrich my life and fill my thoughts for days and days. They are, like you, wise and unique.

  7. Your heart is as beautiful as you are! I hope you’ll share with her how you feel. I bet she will be awestruck and so so proud.

  8. This is a beautiful story that deserves to be told. Thank you Mandy and Mary Beth for sharing it. I do believe Kim has inspired us all today. For a young girl to have such wisdom and tenacity in a world that can sometimes tend to feed on one’s unfortunate circumstances, is extraordinary. I see great things in her future and in the future of her young sister who now gets to live her life surrounded by this determined and encouraging role model. Perhaps Kim was touched by her own role model as well…in the form of an altruistic young woman who showed her that she and her sister are worth fighting for.

  9. Being strong, especially in foster youth is so often misjudged as “bad behavior”. So many take for granted what it would be like to grow up having your family not all together. Not being able to place siblings together is always a huge heart breaker. I always think of that gut wrenching scene in Color Purple where the two sisters are being separated. That is a huge reality and why we need more placements willing to keep siblings together. Thank you Mandy for looking beyond the paper trail and cherishing the treasures found in sometimes the most hopeless of places. “Kim”-Congrats on all you have accomplished and for showing us how beautiful life can be.

  10. Mandy,
    Thank you for sharing this story with us, it was very touching!
    It is always surprising to me, the people that come into our lives, and how those that we wouldn’t expect to, end up making a large impact on our lives. Just from reading this, I admire “Kim” for all that she has gone through, and how far she has come from her troubled past.

  11. Susan Nolen (Suzzy1969)

    Mandy, I could hardly read this for the tears in my eyes….This is truly such an inspirational story! What a wonderful and inspiring young woman that Kim is and I was so happy to read that she got custody of her sister! Just want to say thank you to both you and Mary Beth for sharing this story! My thoughts will be with “Kim” & her sister today wishing them much happiness! Once again Mandy, thank you for sharing this story!
    Susan Nolen

  12. What a beautifully inspiring story!! Mandy, I never knew (or if I did I had completely forgotten) you also worked with CASA. How exciting! We need to talk! 🙂

    Thank you both for sharing <3

  13. Thank you both for sharing this wonderful story, Mandy and Mary Beth. You are right, role models come in all shapes, sizes, and ages. Role models aren’t just people you read about in magazines or watch on TV, they are people that have taken what life has to offer them and not given up. They have chosen to make their life better and in turn helped make the lives of others better as well. It doesn’t matter that this young woman is only 21. What she has done with her life thus far is amazing, and she is ONLY 21. She is definitely an inspiration and a wonderful role model to us all.

  14. A very moving and inspiring story. Thank you Mandy and MaryBeth for sharing. We all have role models in our life who can change the course of it. I was a young and insecure nurse at the start of my career when a physician inspired me. He was always encouraging and supportive throughout giving me confidence. When I had to leave due to medical reasons 28 years later I sent him a card telling him how important he was to me. He said it brought him to tears. I always think it is important to let others know how important they are to you and how they made a difference.

  15. Wow! It is so easy sometimes to allow yourself to lose hope and with hope goes drive. What a special person to dig down inside herself and find the determination to make her life different!

  16. Hi Mandy,

    What a beautiful story of a beautiful strong smart inspirational young woman.
    Thank you for sharing!!

  17. Thank you for sharing Mandy. I continue to be inspired by the stories of hope and dignity in the world of CASA. I congratulate you on taking the next step to help and I applaud people like “Kim”who make the hard choices day in and day out to improve their situations on their own terms. It would be so easy to just give up and go with the flow. Please keep us updated on these sisters and I hope they achieve many more dreams in their lives. They deserve to.

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