Posts Tagged ‘Foster Care’

The best stories are unpredictable.

It was the evening of December 8, 2011 and I was in a risk-taking mood. Just a week and a half earlier, on the morning of November 27, 2011, while teaching an adult Bible class, I invited my Church family to assist with serving the orphans of our society. I told them of my social work case load of 16 youth ranging in age from 15 to 21, all removed from their homes and biological families. Young people who never exited the State’s system of foster care through reunification with their families or by adoption to new families. As thirteen of my 16 youth were over 18 years old at the time, there weren’t too many people lining up to help with providing Christmas gifts, instead preferring to donate to the cause of younger children in foster care. As Thanksgiving had just passed and Christmas would rapidly be approaching,  I mentioned that if I could raise enough money, say $400, I could purchase each of my kids at least a $25 gift card. Not enough to make a significant purchase, but enough perhaps to let them know that someone cares about them and that they are not alone.

The brothers and sisters at the Ward Street church of Christ immediately responded to this call and two weeks to the day of my request had already donated over $1,000 toward gifts for my teens. Folks were willing to give more and made sure I knew they were ready to give whatever was needed. People were so eager to help, I had to make an announcement to stop having funds donated. I would have a hard enough time wisely spending the money that had already come in.

Enlisting the help of my wife, gift cards were obtained from Ulta for makeup for my lone female client, from Chili’s for one of my college students, from Game Stop for a couple of my high school guys, from Target, the mall and so on. $100 was reserved for a young man trying to save up for a computer and when his foster mother was told of how the money came to be obtained, she said she “smiled for three days straight” reasoning that if someone was willing to ask church folk for money on behalf of foster kids that they “must have at least a little bit of church in ‘em.”

But there was one young man, whose case had recently been assigned to me, for whom I wanted to do something a little more extravagant. 17 years old, he had a decision to make prior to his 18th birthday in early January of whether to continue receiving services from the State and remain in his foster home, or to forego any further relationship with the bureaucracy and take his chances on the streets. He is the type of kid you can’t help but like due to his authenticity. For example, he informed me he was having a hard time making a decision about what to do at 18 as he feels he can only plan one day at a time and did not simply want to sign paperwork indicating an agreement he was not prepared to keep.

In looking for ways to build a relationship with this young man we came to talking about his favorite sport, basketball, and lamented the NBA lockout which was threatening the cancellation of the entire season. I asked him what team he followed and he confidently stated he was a Lakers fan, a rarity here in the Celtics’ backyard, and that his favorite player was Kobe Bryant. I chuckled in surprise and told him that I have been a life-long Lakers fan and that my favorite current player is Derek Fisher, who was acquired by the Lakers in the first round of the 1996 NBA draft along with Kobe. I asked him if he had ever been to a game and he laughed as he said no. I admitted I had never been to a game either, even though I lived in L.A. for a couple years, and teased that maybe we should go together some time.

Now here I was, sitting in front of my laptop on this early December evening, looking at tickets on StubHub for a prime-time Lakers-Knicks matchup at Madison Square Garden slated for February. The NBA lockout had finally ended and I was thinking, “Why not?” One answer was the insane ticket price of $175 a seat, close to an even $200 after fees. But I figured with All-Star point guard Chris Paul looking for a trade to the Knicks to form their own three-headed monster of CP3, Melo and Amare, and the Lakers coming to town I couldn’t really expect tickets to be less expensive in an arena that seats only 19,763. I informed Jaime I was thinking of buying two tickets, one for my foster youth with donated funds and that my seat would be financed in large part by gift subsidies from my mother who normally sends $150 my way between Christmas and my own early January birthday. I theorized this could be a once in a lifetime opportunity for both myself and my client and my supportive and amazing wife mirrored my excitement encouraging me to purchase the tickets.

I was still hesitant to click the orange “Checkout” button, when I read that Chris Paul had just been traded. To the Lakers. And just like that, the tickets were ours. When I thanked the church the following Sunday for affording me the opportunity to serve in such fashion and explained the idea behind the purchase, there were many a teary eye among the congregation. Then it was my turn to feel the waterworks coming on when 9 year old Steven Pawloski approached me after services with a big smile and insisted I take his recently earned $20 bill so that my client and I could “buy snacks at the Lakers game.”

I couldn’t wait to tell the young man about the tickets. When I was finally able to track him down a few days later and I told him we would be going to see Kobe play live as a Christmas/Birthday gift, he laughed in disbelief the way I imagine Sarah may have when she heard through the tent flap she was to have a son in her old age. He didn’t have much to say, but it was the first look of joy I had seen on his face in the two months I had known him. His foster mother later told me he had reported the news to her with a mixture of happiness and sheer confusion, asking “Why would he do this for me? He doesn’t even know me.” To which she replied, “People don’t have to know you to want to do something nice for you.”

But in the days leading up to the game, the Paul trade to the Lakers was vetoed by the league, the Lakers would find the condensed scheduling of a lockout-shortened season especially tough on their veteran legs leading to a woeful road record, Knicks superstar Carmelo Anthony was injured and it was announced fellow New York All-Star Amare Stoudemire would not be playing in the game after the tragic loss of his brother in a car accident. However, good spirits prevailed as we would still be able to see Kobe and D-Fish. Plus, with all of the Knicks’ firepower disabled, it appeared a lock we would see a L.A. win in our first NBA game.

I didn’t know who Jeremy Lin was until the night before the event. I was discussing the upcoming game and the opportunity it was going to build a stronger relationship with my client, when a co-worker mentioned the Knicks had some undrafted guard who went to Harvard and had been buried deep on their bench who had apparently found his way into the starting lineup and led the Knicks to a three game “Lin-ning” streak. New Yorkers and their losing team were finding love in a hopeless place as the California-born Lin, whose parents are from Taiwan, became the first Asian-American player to start an NBA game and lit up the Nets, Jazz and Wizards in a five day span averaging over 20 points a game. With the help of the New York City hype machine, suddenly Friday night’s matchup against the Lakers was again being billed as a marquee show, only this time due to a player who wasn’t even on the Knicks roster on Christmas day and was reportedly sleeping on his teammate’s couch.

The drive down to Manhattan provided ample time to hear my client’s own story from his perspective and our night was off to a good start as we walked through a lit up Times Square on Friday evening en route to the game. It appeared we were in good company as we approached “The World’s Most Famous Arena” with many fans dressed in Los Angeles Purple and Gold. There were also scattered Blue #17 jerseys fresh off the press that had already begun to circulate especially among the Asian-American fans in attendance. The souvenir stand on the lower concourse sold out of Lin jerseys before the game even started.

The sold out crowd was buzzing prior to the opening tip as we all looked forward to finding out if “Lin-sanity” could be sustained through a visit from Bryant, the league’s leading scorer, or if the novelty act was up. I was confident of the latter and leaned over to ask my client, ‘How much do you think we’ll win by?” He smiled as he shrugged his shoulders and declined to give his pick.

It did not take long to realize the young man had been wise in not counting Lin or the Knicks out. A couple minutes into the game, Lin knocked down a three from the corner over 7”1’ Center Andrew Bynum putting the Knicks up 3-2, and he didn’t look back. Lin set up Tyson Chandler for a bucket that put the Knicks up 5-4. They would not trail again. A jumper, a second assist to Chandler, another jumper, followed by a Lin steal and layup forced a Lakers timeout five minutes in with the score 13-4. Jeremy Lin was outscoring the Lakers himself by five points. My client and I looked at each other shaking our heads in disbelief and remarking that the Lakers looked tired after last night’s overtime win in Boston.

The electric New York crowd became more energized with each Lin basket and assist as the Garden’s Jumbotron incited cheers of Je-Re-My! Je-Re-My! Nearing the end of the first half, Lin blew past Derek Fisher on a fast break spin move and his following acrobatic lay-in gave him 18 points, gave his team a 9 point lead and won the hearts of all frustrated Knicks fans for life. The Knicks have this elaborate alumni program and kept announcing “Once a Knick, Always a Knick!” before announcing the attendance of Larry Johnson, Anthony Mason, John Starks and Walt Frazier at various points throughout the game. I found myself thinking that even if Jeremy Lin’s overnight sensation story doesn’t last another week, he already had earned himself an alumni pass based on the crowd’s admiration.

There wasn’t much to be pleased about as a Lakers fan as Kobe started the game 1-of-11 from the field and Metta World Peace (formerly Ron Artest) had three more personal fouls than he had points (zero) shortly into the second half. Kobe appeared jealous of Lin by the mid-third quarter and awoke his Black Mamba alter ego as he began splashing ridiculous fade away jumpers over the backboard while double teamed and even awed the New York crowd with a laser pass to himself off the glass before tip passing to Pau Gasol for his only assist of the game. Kobe’s gunning brought the Lakers within 6 on a couple of occasions, but the basketball Linja could not be stopped.

Lin hit a three pointer in the face of 7”1’ Pau Gasol, then pump faked another Laker before connecting on a 20 foot jump shot, before splashing yet another three from the corner sending the crowd into a frenzy. Lin invoked memories of the NBA Jam announcer exclaiming “He’s on fire!” and “Is it the shoes?!?” While the originator of the latter phrase, Spike Lee, looked so enamored standing courtside I thought he might immediately switch out his #2 Landry Fields jersey for Lin’s #17. Not that Fields would have even minded, as he owns the couch Lin is sleeping on, and despite only scoring only six points in the game he tweeted afterward “Most fun I’ve ever had playing ball. Plain and simple. God is great! Congrats to @JLin7.”

Jeremy Lin, the Balling LINJA, Energizes the Knicks and Provides Inspiration Beyond Basketball

It sure looked like Lin and his teammates were genuinely having fun out there. Jumping and shouting and laughing with joy while playing the game. And while Kobe had laughed Lin off as a nobody the previous night when asked about him, it was Lin who had the last laugh metaphorically on Friday. He put the nail in the coffin when he called for a clear out with two minutes left in the game, causing the fans to rise to their feet in anticipation. He drove past Matt Barnes and split the Lakers’ seven footers once again finishing off a circus shot and the chants of “Je-Re-My!” morphed into “M-V-P!” Spike Lee and Justin Tuck of the Super Bowl Champion Giants (it pains me to write that) were bowing to him from their courtside seats, which I’m sure if Lin even noticed among the celebratory chaos, would have made him uncomfortable given his strong Christian faith and humble personality. After the game he praised his teammates with a few sports clichés, but was never self-congratulatory and thanked God for allowing him to live his dream. Certainly his performance was worthy of accolades as after Friday night’s game, Lin had scored more points in his first three NBA starts than any player in the modern history of the league. To borrow a line from Ron Burgundy, I wasn’t mad, I was impressed.

As we walked out of Madison Square Garden amidst drunken New York fans, the young man I took to the game came away with a similar impression of Lin, noting “I have to respect him.” People who have attended events at the Garden for years and covered professional sports in New York noted it was “one of the coolest nights” in the history of a landmark arena that has seen so many unforgettable events and “one for the ages”. I would have to agree. Neither I nor the young man will ever forget Friday night. The night Jeremy Lin cemented his status as a star and provided hope that all things are indeed possible, even for the overlooked and underrated. Sometimes all you need is an opportunity and to know that someone believes in you. Despite our team’s loss, I hope my client and I can both hold onto this lesson we witnessed firsthand.

It seems things don’t always go as planned. Sometimes they turn out better.

Last Friday evening, the Department of Children and Families honored Adolescent Social Work visionary Ralph Zona for his 36 years of service to the State of Connecticut and his work with over 600 youth from the city of New Haven. The Department has made many well publicized mistakes over the years, but Ralph’s life of dedication and sacrifice for our teens and their resulting success is an example of the work that is done far more often but rarely appreciated.  Ralph has always been outspoken about the flaws and failures of the bureaucratic system, but never let that system interfere with his tireless advocacy for his kids. For that he deserves to be recognized.

Born and raised in the Greater New Haven area, Ralph began his social work career in 1975 at what was then the Department of Children and Youth Services in New Haven. He was promptly assigned a now unthinkable 122 cases of foster care children over the age of 12 who were placed in foster homes and group homes across the state. Ralph recognized that many of the adolescent youth in foster care were not being adequately prepared for their transition into independent living and in 1978 decided to create the first Life Skills classes for the teens out of the New Haven office. The program evolved into Community Based Life Skills, a statewide service that has become a cornerstone of the DCF Independent Living program and the DCF Adolescent Policy. A policy that Ralph actually had a large hand in creating and that was originally drafted with adolescent youth present. This was to ensure that the real experts, the kids themselves, were involved in the process and able to provide a clue to those of us who only work in the world they live in.

Ralph noted that much of his success can be contributed to thinking outside of the box or at times in his words “outside of the planet.” Ralph’s good friend and Adolescent Services co-conspirator Bill Pinto noted that Ralph was “never afraid to send 7 billion letters to anyone who would open them” to seek support for their unconventional ideas. Among those who did consistently respond to Ralph’s letters over the years to serve the orphans of our society were UConn men’s basketball coach Jim Calhoun and NFL Hall-of-Famer Joe Namath. Ralph’s “crazy’ ideas manifested in his long time coordination of the ConnectiKids Golf Tournament which raises money for kids in foster care. He created Big Brother and Big Sister programs which matched young men and women in congregate care settings to mentors from the Yale University football team and Albertus Magnus College. In the early 1980s, Ralph began organizing Holiday parties for foster children and helped arrange Statewide Youth Conferences into the 1990s.

But above all else, Ralph’s legacy will be the Department’s emphasis on post secondary education for our youth. While other adolescent workers were just trying to survive along with their kids, Ralph was a trailblazer that preached the importance of higher education to his teens as a ticket to a better life and the end of generational poverty. Ralph ran statewide college fairs and advocated that his kids dream big and work hard. With Ralph’s help, kids on his case load graduated from Yale, Harvard, the Berkeley School of Music and nearly every public university in the state of Connecticut.

The highlight of Ralph’s retirement celebration was the return of one of his former foster care youth, Crystal Astrachan, who spoke about Ralph’s substantial influence in her life and offered some words of advice to the rest of the social workers in the room. Crystal is herself a 2004 graduate of Yale University and currently a Manager of Business Development at Connecticut-based TicketNetwork, one of the fastest growing companies in the nation. As Crystal began to tell her story and of her appreciation for Ralph, her eyes welled up with tears and she could only continue with a hug of strength and support from a friend and fellow ex-DCF youth who also formerly worked with Ralph and who is now a domestic violence victim advocate.

Crystal collected herself and spoke about how she was hesitant to get to know Ralph after being let down by so many adults in the past, but that she slowly learned to trust him when it became evident that Ralph actually cared about her well-being and that his involvement in her life was more than just a job. Ralph was there to see her graduate from Yale in 2004 and as a token of her appreciation Crystal shared the secrets of Ralph’s incredible success as a social worker, which serve as a lesson for us all.

I’d like to thank Crystal for sharing the text of her speech with me and for her permission to use her words here. Here’s what she believes set Ralph apart:

Ralph was there for us. He was not interested in using us to advance his career or get recognition for his work.  He genuinely cared about our development and success. Our happiness and achievements were his profits.  I’ve learned that this quality in people is rare.

Ralph was happy. Because Ralph was fulfilled in the act of his work, he did not expect to receive any personal benefits from his clients. This was comforting, since I had grown up seeing adults use their children for their own benefits and also had been a victim to this type of treatment myself.

Ralph was professional while still being human. He did not lean on us for emotional support or treat us like his friends or colleagues. He let me see that he was a real person with a life outside of work. He always told me about his wife and children and what they were up to.  His openness made me feel as if he were just a regular person – not just a DCF employee.

Ralph works with integrity. He is honest, reliable, consistent, and never made a promise that he did not keep.  Through Ralph’s actions, I learned that he was someone I could trust.

My dreams were always within reach with Ralph. During high school, I realized that I had an adventurous side and sought opportunities to combine travel with education and service. Ralph never made me feel that I was asking for too much. It would have been really easy to tell me that he could not get me the funding or approval to go to Mexico to study Spanish or to go to Honduras to volunteer. But Ralph knew that my passions for international travel, service, and education were important to me and he supported my goals.

Ralph did not sweat the small stuff. As an adolescent, I did some stupid stuff, but he kept perspective and knew that hiccups here and there are normal parts of development.

Ralph fostered independence. He was able to see that I made good decisions for myself and was there to guide, rather than tell me exactly what I was supposed to do.

Crystal continued by saying, “I believe that every foster care child has the potential to make their life better while in (care). Like all other children, they need support, guidance, and encouragement.  I consulted with my friends who lived with me (in foster care) and others who were in foster care. We are all in our late 20s and early 30s today. We got in touch with our adolescent selves, and, in our teenage voices, we wanted to tell you what we need from our social workers.” She then presented a list of seven needs of youth in foster care which could easily serve as the defacto “Manual for Working with Teens.” Again I express my gratitude to Crystal for sharing, here’s what the former foster youth collectively advised:

1.       Give to us without expecting anything in return, we may be too hurt and angry to express appreciation when you are helping us, but trust that one day we will remember that we had someone who gave to us this way.

2.       Help us feel that your job as a social worker is more than just a job for you.  Call us just to say hello.  Return our calls so that we don’t feel forgotten.  Be happy to see us. Be proud of us.  Make us laugh.   

3.       Never tell us how to feel about our situations today or how we should deal with the pain from our past. Let us be sad sometimes. Understand when we withdraw or act out.

4.       Give us room to mess up and make mistakes, for our mistakes are simply opportunities to learn and grow. Teach us how to forgive by forgiving us.

5.       Don’t make us feel as if we are a burden.  Show us that our presence is a gift.  Teach us that we, like all other children, deserve to be cared about and treated well. Before we (came into foster care), we may have learned through the actions, lack of action, or words of other adults that we are not worthy of attention, love, and caring – and that our needs should never be made a priority. Show us that this is not true through your actions, which will help us to make good decisions about the people we choose to have in our lives.

6.       Challenge us.  Ask us these questions: “What are your dreams? What is your purpose? What are your talents? How can you utilize your talents to help others?” Let us know that you are there to help us reach our goals and we will feel empowered.

 7.       Don’t just help us with our “self-esteem”. Help us with our “other-esteem,” which is how we feel about and relate to others. Help us understand how we are needed in our communities and our worlds to make a difference and how purposeful our gifts can be. This will help us to heal and fulfill our desires for interconnectedness and community that we long for. You, social workers, have this gift. Share it with us.

After Crystal finished her speech, it was now us social workers with the tears welling up in our eyes. I hope her words will be taken to heart and wanted to share them here to inspire all of us in social services, in teaching, in childcare, and those of us who are parents as we try to encourage the kids in our lives to find success, happiness and community.

Ralph addressed us as well after Crystal’s speech and humbly attempted to summarize his career in social work. He noted that in his nearly four decades of experience, it seemed 40 percent of kids in care will not find success in the system not matter how good their social worker is, the trauma they have experienced is simply too great. He also reported that it seems 40 percent of the kids will find success no matter how bad their social workers attempt to screw them up or get in their way, they are just too resilient. Which leaves 20 percent on the fence that we have a chance to make a difference with. Ralph said he believes that if over half of this 20 percent can also find success, then a social worker can be confident they did well and hoped his overall success rate was over 50 percent. If Ralph was in need of any validation of a job well done, he only had to look out on the sea of appreciative faces including family, co-workers and former youth, all of us inspired to follow in his footsteps. Thank you Ralph and best wishes as you begin a new Chapter.