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Aaron overcomes childhood spent in foster care with help from Youth Villages’ transitional living program

May 2, 2013


Aaron speaks confidently, with a sense of humor that belies the hardships that have marked most of his 22 years. In fact, whenever this self-possessed young man tells his life story – as he recently did at a gathering of Youth Villages Georgia supporters and volunteers – it is the listeners who struggle to maintain their composure. Although Aaron’s demeanor is optimistic, his past reveals a deeply troubling reality faced by abused and neglected children, many of whom spend most of their youth as Aaron did, bouncing among foster homes.

“I came up with something I call ‘The Scavenger Method,’” Aaron says when describing the two-year period from age 18-20 when he was homeless. “I didn’t just scavenge for food but also to learn the things I needed to know. If I overheard a father giving advice to his son on the bus, I’d listen and pretend he was talking to me.”

You can help support youth aging out of foster care
Research overwhelmingly shows former foster children face a high risk of falling into a life of substance abuse, prison and poverty. Youth Villages’ transitional living specialists work with young people to help them find safe housing, achieve stable employment, reunite with family when possible and build healthy adult support systems. The TL program depends on private support. Your tax-deductible gift can help young people like Aaron carve out a successful, independent adult life.

Born to a mother who spent much of her own childhood in the state welfare system, Aaron is the middle of five children. The Southwest Atlanta neighborhood where his family lived is marked by high crime and deep poverty; the children who grow up there are harshly buffeted by these prevailing forces. Aaron’s mother worked as an exotic dancer and developed a drug addiction. At the age of 9, his oldest brother was left to care for his siblings, with intermittent supervision from his grandmother. Aaron received severe beatings and abuse from both his mother and his brother.

When Aaron and his brothers broke into a seemingly abandoned house on their street, the police and the Department of Family and Child Services intervened, taking the children to a group foster home. Although he was only 6, Aaron remembers that day in detail.

“When the cops arrived, it was horrific. We were very small at the time, between the ages of 3 and 9. My brother told us to play hide and seek,” Aaron recounts. “My baby sisters hid in a tiny space behind the couch, and my other brother and I hid in a very small cabinet and put some videotapes in front of us. The police didn’t find us for hours.”

After a night in an emergency shelter, Aaron and his siblings landed in a supportive group home, where they lived for three years, often seeing their mother for visits. But just as that environment stabilized, it became evident that one of his younger sisters was being abused by a staff member. The siblings were then split up, with his oldest brother being sent to a state-run mental health institution due to aggressive behavior – something Aaron believes was brought on by the medication he was forced to take while in the group home. His brother would spend the next seven years there until Aaron was able to convince staff he needed individual help.

Aaron spent the years in a second group home that was much harsher than his first. By the time he was 18, he saw little reason for hope and signed himself out of the state care system. “No one else would accept me,” he says and he struck out on his own. A student at Georgia Perimeter College at the time, he became depressed and suicidal. He couldn’t figure out how to find a home, work and maintain his studies, so he dropped out, becoming homeless.

About two years later, a state social worker referred Aaron to Youth Villages’ transitional living program. He was assigned to Transitional Living Specialist Jewell Gooding at Youth Villages Georgia. Together, they worked on securing housing, getting back in school and finding a stable job.

“In the past I thought that I had to do everything myself,” Aaron says. “But then I realized that God placed people in my life to help me. Ms. Jewell was one of those people. I was surprised that she didn’t walk away and never gave up on me. She and Youth Villages gave me the necessary tools to be a functioning adult. With her help, I started to learn to let go of the past and what had hurt me. I knew I had to survive to be an example.

“I think what helped me most was that Ms. Jewell and Youth Villages were something constant that I could depend on. She kept me moving forward and motivated me. For Ms. Jewell, it wasn’t just a job. She wasn’t there for the check—it was a 24-hour thing. Today, I am a full-time student and have a job as a manager at a smoothie shop. Other employees look up to me, and the business depends on me. I don’t think about what was unfair in my life now. What I have learned is that we are all here to be of service to others. I survived and now I want to inspire others.”

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