Every so often, I run into people whose life stories are an example of human perseverance over the most challenging circumstances. And while many such examples are told from a lifetime of an adult experience, there are young people who are living proof that they also have things to say that can be inspiring to others. I'm talking about foster youth.
They are young people who for the most part wound up born into dysfunctional families and the odds were already stacked against them. I recently met two young women who shared their experiences as foster youth. Be forewarned: it's not a pretty picture, yet it is motivating.
Ashley Fuhrmann was 6 years old the first time she wound up in foster care. As a child she lived with her mother, grandparents and eight other family members for a total of 12 people in a three-bedroom house. Fuhrmann and her older brother were sexually molested by a relative, she said, prompting Child Protective Services to place a total of seven children in different foster homes. But Fuhrmann could not figure out why she would wet her bed and wake up screaming at night.
"I thought it was perfectly normal," said the now 22-year-old.
Fuhrmann, her brother and the other children were eventually reunited with their mother and grandmother. The relative who Fuhrmann said molested her had been removed from the home, but things didn't improve much. Others in the home were physically and verbally abusive. One would strike her on parts of the body where bruises were not easily detectible, such as on her head and buttocks -- and would then coach the kids on what to say and do when the social worker would visit the home.
"I was so brain-washed as a kid. I was told I was loved, but I wasn't," said Fuhrmann.
Things would get worse before getting better. She was sexually abused again, this time by another family member. When Fuhrmann told a trusted adult about the sexual abuse, she was not believed. Fuhrmann finally threatened to report the perpetrator to the police. And for that, she earned a beating at home.
But the threat of calling police apparently worked and the sexual abuse stopped.
"It was a very toxic environment in which no child should have to live," said Fuhrmann. "I was such an angry child I would lash out."
The angry child wound up in a foster home again before the system that is supposed to protect children deemed it safe to return her to her biological mother after four months. The family sold its home and rented a three-bedroom home in northwest Bakersfield. But the landlord apparently was never told that 11 people would be living there. The family was evicted, and having blown the money from selling its house, was out on the street and homeless.
Fuhrmann ended up living in hotels and motels along Union Avenue, where the pattern of family strife continued. They moved from site to site. She would be in school periodically, sometimes missing six to seven months in a single school year.
When she was 15, Fuhrmann's mother left the family one day with a man she had met at the motel and never returned. Fuhrmann's life would soon make a dramatic change.
The other young woman who also grew up as a foster youth is 18-year-old Journi Burton, who was born into a situation that unfortunately is all too familiar to many children in Kern County.
"Both my parents were on really bad drugs. They couldn't help me so they sort of gave up on me," said Burton.
She entered foster care when she was 8 years old. While in high school she learned both her parents had moved out of state, but never told her. And like her parents, Burton started doing drugs at a young age. By her own admission, she said she was a horrible child and school was not a priority.
"I didn't do any school work. I was a zombie in the back of the classroom," she said.
But miracles can happen, thanks to the intervention of people who care. The lives of both Fuhrmann and Burton were dramatically turned around when loving foster families took them into their homes even though they carried baggage filled with physical and psychological trauma from years of abuse and neglect.
Educators also stepped in and helped them get back on track. A year after her mother abandoned Fuhrmann, she was placed with an older couple, Fran and Dave Patterson. Shown love and respect, Fuhrmann got to celebrate her first real birthday and matured in numerous ways.
Drastically behind in her studies, she hit the books to catch up to her high school peers. In 2011, she graduated with a 3.5 grade point average from North High School. Today she is a sophomore at Cal State Bakersfield with a major in psychology and is living on her own. She believes God placed Fran and Dave Patterson in her life to help her.
"I credit them for all of my accomplishments," said Fuhrmann.
Burton has also become independent. Finally placed with foster mother Heather Has, Burton also found the family that helped her overcome years of adversity. Has pushed and encouraged Burton to go to college, and now the 18 year old is completing her first year at CSUB. She plans to major in sociology and be a social worker.
"I want to make an impact on foster youth," said Burton. She can certainly speak from experience.
May is Foster Youth Awareness Month. I'd like to tell you that success stories like these two are the norm among foster youth, but the statistics don't confirm that. Young people who age out of foster care are at greater risk of ending up either homeless, in jail, living in poverty or becoming young parents. The college-bound rate is dismal. But it can and does happen -- with help from places such as the Dream Center and Coffee House.
Located at 1212 18th St. and run by the Kern County Network for Children, this center is a safe haven for current and former foster youth. It offers a number of social and educational services to help foster youth transition to independence and self-sufficiency. The Guardian Scholars program at CSUB is another vital resource that helps foster youth enroll in college and complete their education.
But the Dream Center needs help. You can volunteer your time, donate simple things such as toiletries or organize a clothing drive, said Ian Anderson, foster youth prevention services facilitator at the Dream Center. Anderson speaks with passion about the need to help and the potential he sees in foster youth. It confounds him when people stereotype them as somehow being unacceptable because of the mere fact they are foster youth.
"We as a community need to break the label of foster youth as being bad," said Anderson. "They're not bad kids. They're somebody's child."
Contributing columnist Jose Gaspar is a reporter for KBAK/KBFX Eyewitness News. Email him at email@example.com. His work appears here every third Monday; the views expressed are his own.