Years Later, You'd Never Know from Where I Came...
Ashley, Journee, and Ashley's mentor Mary Pat
Chatting one day at the Ready for Life office with Ashley, you would never know she is the same young lady who several years earlier had gotten out of jail, arrested for petty theft, was homeless, hungry and had no plan. She was a young lady with great potential, who had taken a wrong turn and couldn't find her way forward.
On this occasion, she had stolen a white shirt that she was required to wear under her gown in three days at her high school graduation. Because she'd only spent four months--instead of six months--in foster care before turning 18, the law at that time provided her with no financial stipend for personal items. So she did the only thing she knew to do: she took it.
In fact, she had developed a pattern of stealing to obtain those personal items she needed, like tampons, underwear, etc.; but this time she got caught and she went to jail. Being arrested made it much harder to get a job, which in turn made it even harder to survive each day. It was one of four arrests for her for theft, all for personal items she needed but couldn't afford.
“The crazy thing is, drugs were not the reason I stole…I was stealing to survive so I wouldn’t end up in the streets again, and I wanted to walk in my graduation with the right clothing underneath my gown.” She remembers crying and telling the police and the store owners why she was stealing, but they still took her to jail.
One day, a Ready for Life Youth Specialist visited her group home, and Ashley asked if she qualified for their program. Because she had not "officially aged out” of the foster care system, she was not eligible for RFL's services either. But that didn’t stop her from getting involved, and RFL learned through Ashley that the experiences of former foster youth were often very similar to those who had aged out.
Ashley says she was the reason RFL expanded their mission to include anyone who was in the foster care system at all.
Ashley smiles as she speaks about getting involved at RFL.
“I started to come to the events. I just wanted to be involved. It was very intimate, and I felt like they all became family. All the youth accepted me even though I didn’t age out of the system. The people at RFL accepted me, too. The people involved with RFL--volunteers, staff, board members --all taught me many things. I just wanted a family, and I found it here."
She learned she could receive grants that would allow her to go to college. She didn’t qualify for the tuition waiver, but learned about and applied for financial aid. She started college studying psychology, and then found out RFL was hiring and another youth encouraged her to apply. She was hired in 2013 and worked as an intern with RFL, funded by a grant to teach job skills to former foster youth. "I worked hard and learned a lot," Ashley says. Eventually she took charge of the RFL Newsletter, and then started helping homeless youth until they became stabilized.
“Sometimes I think situations like what I experienced are why I am who I am. When I got out of jail, I started working hard so I would never go back again, and that became kind of like a magnet effect. People started gravitating toward me and helped me succeed in my life. I’m proud of those moments, even though I maybe shouldn’t be. If I didn’t go through any of that I wouldn’t have met anyone to mentor me. So now it’s a thing I went through and a hurdle I overcame that turned into a part of my success.”
Enter the mentor. In Ashley's case, it was Mary Pat McLain, a long-time mentor, volunteer and Board member for Ready for Life.
I just wanted a family, and I found it here."
"And then, Mary Pat came into my life and my whole world began to come together, She became my RFL Mentor when I was 21. I didn’t like her… at first,” Ashley chuckled.
It’s just the truth. But she wouldn’t go away. She kept calling me and coming in and seeing me at RFL, and kept inviting me to weekly dinners. I feel so bad looking back; I did not make our Mentor/Mentee relationship easy. She would say one wrong thing and I would just get up and leave. Word to the new Mentors out there: hang in there, it’s worth it!
We were complete opposites. I was into junk food and soda, and she was into exercising, being fit and being healthy. If I’m being honest, when I first stepped onto a scale, the first person I thought of when I stepped on that scale was Mary Pat. That was a big turning point in our relationship. and I said to myself "I have to get healthy."
Everyone at RFL was an inspiration to me as I started to care about myself. Michelle with healthy eating, would bring in different fruits and vegetables for all of us to try. All of us kids went from having ice cream and pizza parties to picking finger foods, healthier snacks. I see it in our photos now. I remember Ms. Kathy meeting us at the gym for our workout classes. We worked out hard together! RFL provides YMCA Memberships, and holds yoga classes, and teaches us healthy recipes to cook at home.
Mary Pat was my coach and cheered me on through all of this. She made me feel good about myself. Every week I would go to dinner at her house, hoping she would notice I had lost some more weight. I ended up losing 80 lbs. A few years ago at a Christmas Party, we took pictures and everybody looked so much smaller! We all lost all this weight and kept it off.
At RFL they say often that they don’t learn about what we former foster kids need to know until we’re in the middle of it together. I had that happen too. I was 24, working, going to school and got my first car through connections at RFL. I had a car accident at one point, and fortunately had learned to carry insurance. Miss Kathy came out to the accident site where my car was totaled, and now tells the story of how confused I was about how insurance worked.
We were on the side of the road, with my car up on the tow truck. I guess I said something like, So I was making my payments, so I guess they give me a new car now. Kathy said, “Oh no, sweet pea, that is your car up there on the tow truck. Now we must work with insurance to get the coverage.”
At the time I didn’t know that low end insurance handles accident claims in a different way than more credible companies. This claim became very complex and Mary Pat and RFL helped me understand. Mary Pat sat with me in the insurance interviews I had to go through to get the coverage paid after my accident. When I got my next car, I got different insurance.
I’ve accomplished so much with Ready for Life. They helped me with all kinds of things like:
Education – Graduated with my Bachelor’s Degree, and they celebrated all my successes along the way
Employment – They prepared me for the work world
Mentor Program – I have a life-long friendship with my Mom-like mentor Mary Pat whom I hope will always help me see the red flags in my life.
Phone Bills – RFL helped keep me in touch with the world on many occasions
Life Learning (like Insurance) – I can’t tell you all the lessons I’ve learned, but one thing I know is true is that I value myself now in more ways than I knew how to when I was younger
Life Skills – Too many to count
Budgeting & Financial Literacy – I LOVE to save the money I earn
Ready for Work – I learned how to compete in the work world, how to present myself in interviews and how to answer some of the tough questions in my interviews.
Work Readiness Boot Camp
Tutoring help and studying for School
Transportation Bus Passes, help buying a car and insurance
Financial Support when needed
Food whenever needed
Hygiene Item whenever needed (I never had to steal again)
Where I am today:
I am the Director of the Angels Visitation Center
I have a bachelor’s degree in Health Services Administration and Human Services from SPC
I live in a beautiful condo in Countryside
I own a 2021 Kia Forte GT car
I have my own beautiful family in addition to RFL, my beautiful daughter Journee, who is 19 months old, and two beautiful stepchildren, and their father, Curtis who is an electrician. We have the perfect little family now. You would never know where I came from.
For the past 5 years I have had a savings account of over $1,000.00
I have $30,000 in credit and my balance is 0. ( I hate debt)
I have a credit score over 700
I plan to pursue my master’s degree.
I’m looking forward to spending Christmas with my beautiful little family this year. All the little kiddos are going to be so happy.
Now I volunteer at Ready for Life
One day I’ll be a Mentor like Mary Pat was to me
Curtis is running the Daddy and Me program and I’m running Mommy and Me at RFL now. We are doing that as a family.
My life goal (if I end up surpassing it, that’s fine) is to make $75,000.00 a year. The quote goes, you can never be happier by making more than $75,000. It not a lot, but it’s enough to be comfortable and happy. If I got a job offer that made over $75,000 the only way, I’ll take it is if it fulfills my heart.