Stephanie Wooten learned a lot as a foster kid. She learned to pack light. She learned to keep her mouth shut. She learned that some foster parents are only in it for the money. But mostly, Stephanie learned that she couldn't count on anyone but herself. Her own mother made that reality abundantly clear.
The Adams County Department of Human Services took Stephanie from her drug-addicted mother and placed her in foster care at just eight months. By her eighteenth birthday, she had been moved more than twenty times, through foster homes, group homes, residential treatment centers, several scary trips back to mom and even a failed adoption. She was done letting a bureaucracy tell her where to live and what to do. So she left her last placement without a job or a high-school diploma, and when her living arrangement fell apart, Stephanie became homeless. She bounced between shelters, friends' couches and the 16th Street Mall. She started popping pills and drinking, then doing meth and coke. Selling it usually guaranteed her a sofa to sleep on.
Last October, the eighteen-year-old took a pregnancy test after coming off a five-day meth high. Actually, she took four pregnancy tests. They all came back positive. She didn't want to be a single mom without a high-school diploma, and she certainly wasn't going to poison her baby with drugs. There were things she'd always planned to do, like go to college and become a child psychologist. Maybe she still could; she'd just have to work harder than ever.
She restarted high school and then heard about AmeriCorps, a national network that connects volunteers with intensive service projects. It seemed like a good fit, since she could earn a stipend and money for college through volunteer work that would also give her experience for the career she wanted.
Kippi Clausen was aware of Stephanie's situation, because the girl had come to her organization, Bridging the Gap, several months earlier to open a savings account. So when Stephanie signed up to be an AmeriCorps member, Clausen wanted her assigned to BTG and working as a mentor.
"You're going to have a homeless youth work with you with all these issues?" people asked her skeptically.
Kippi Clausen is a big advocate of giving youth a voice. "Who best to help guide what needs to change, what might need to be different for foster youth, than a foster youth?" asks Clausen. "Who better to be an ally and advocate for youth than one who knows and has been there?"
These days, Clausen is focused on giving voice to one group of foster youth in particular, those who "age out" of the foster-care system, those kids who grow up in group and foster homes and who leave the system without returning to their families or being adopted into a new one.
Each year, as many as 25,000 kids across the country age out. They go directly from foster care to independence when a court closes the cases that put them into protective custody to begin with, usually because they've turned eighteen. When they step into the world on their own, they don't have the family supports most people take for granted. Of those kids who age out in Colorado, about 40 percent will be homeless within six months, Clausen says. Many are parents, and the majority have served time in the Division of Youth Corrections.
Bridging the Gap, which is under the auspices of Mile High United Way, is funded by the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative, a national foundation devoted solely to helping youth in foster care transition successfully into adulthood. Clausen started designing the program two and a half years ago, taking the Casey Initiative's community partnership grant and working with the Colorado Department of Human Services, the metro counties, nonprofits serving homeless teens and the foster youth themselves to create an organization that focuses on their unique needs. After only a year in operation, there are 145 participants, all of whom had to have been in foster care for at least one day on or after their fourteenth birthday. Bridging the Gap gives them twelve hours of financial literacy training, after which they can open a bank account, and every dollar they deposit is matched. They get a debit account with a $100 limit, and they can access an emergency fund, something Clausen believes is very important. "Think of any young person who calls Mom and says, 'I'm short of money, I don't have enough to make bills,'" she says. "These kids don't have that access."
Participants also create a life plan, and BTG tries to funnel the support to help them realize those goals. As Clausen works on building resources, she tries to make people understand how simple it can be to help a kid: "We had this one young man who had trouble with his car. He didn't understand what needed to be fixed. It was as simple as us being able to get an adult who understood car stuff that he could just get on the phone with.
"We had this one young woman on our leadership board doing some work with an agency," she continues. "She ended up getting very ill, and she was at the hospital, and she told the story of calling a woman who was on staff at this agency and saying, 'I have a really funny question to ask you, but I'm in the hospital and they won't release me unless I can find somebody who will come pick me up and drive me home. Do you mind doing that for me?' And this woman picked her up, drove her to her house, bought some groceries, came back, cooked her a meal and kind of tucked her in. And when you think about that, if each one of these kids had someone they could call... That's what needs to change."
Cabrini Carrillo bursts through the front door of Lori McKinney's Westminster house. "It's so hot out there," she moans. Lori's daughter, Kelly, is in the kitchen, home from the University of Colorado to do laundry.
"Is that my Kellbell?" Cabrini asks.
The 21-year-old whose name is tattooed in long cursive letters across the right side of her neck takes a seat at a dining-room table covered in bills and junk mail. "I love this room," Cabrini sighs. The furniture is different, but this is the same room where she had her first birthday party, and those are the same stairs she walked down to find it filled with balloons and guests. She turned ten that day.
Lori was in the midst of describing what an enormous drama queen her former foster daughter can be when Cabrini made her grand entrance, and now she's on to her rude, stubborn attitude as a teen. "She was horrible," Lori says emphatically before chuckling. They laugh a lot now, even though much of what Cabrini has to tell isn't very funny.
Cabrini's parents did not want her. Her father tried to kill her by pushing her mother down the stairs when she was pregnant. Then he left, and Cabrini's mother never forgave her daughter for being born. She'd hit Cabrini, tell her she was fat and ugly. And when nine-year-old Cabrini told her mom that her stepdad sexually abused her, the woman told her little girl it was her fault -- for telling. Her mother dropped her off at a relative's house and never came back.
Worried for her siblings, Cabrini told police about the abuse and the drugs at home. The Jefferson County Department of Human Services put Cabrini, her five- and one-year-old brothers and their nine-month-old sister into foster care. Within three months, she and her five-year-old brother were separated from the babies.
They were moved twice before winding up at Lori McKinney's house. Cabrini was aggressive then, and as stubborn as ever. Lori put her in a time-out for acting up one day, and Cabrini stayed there for hours, refusing to come out and apologize. "So finally, Mrs. McKinney pulled me aside," she says. "She sat me on her lap, and I just started crying because I don't know what that's like. She just hugs me, and she's like, 'Everything's going to be okay. Nobody's here to hurt you guys.' And she just sat there and took the time, no matter what kind of attitude I was giving her, and she just hugged me, and it changed my life forever."
For three years after that, Cabrini felt like she was part of a real family. She and her brother shared rooms with Lori's kids and went on vacations with them. "If they got clothes, we got clothes," Cabrini says. "We all ate at the same time. When they were part of swimming lessons, we were a part of swimming lessons. If we needed something for school, she was there. We were allowed to be a part of sports. We were never treated different."
But the McKinneys had already adopted a son, and they decided they couldn't adopt any more children. Cabrini would have gladly stayed their foster child through adolescence, and Lori would have let her, but the goal of county human-services departments is to get foster kids out of the system and into permanent homes. When they succeeded at finding Cabrini and her brother an adoptive family that seemed like a good fit -- a distant cousin whom they'd never met -- Cabrini was still set against it. She swears this family only wanted her brother, but she also admits that she wouldn't have been happy moving anywhere. The McKinneys had become her family, and she was devastated to leave. "Why can't you just adopt me?" she'd cried to Lori.
"It was horrible, just horrible," Lori remembers. "It's very difficult to take a child at that age and say, 'There you go -- bond. That's your new mommy and daddy -- and in this case, it didn't work. Cabrini was determined it was not going to work, and the caseworker at the time made it very clear, because she knew Cabrini was sabotaging this placement, that if Cabrini made it fail, that she could not come back here to live, which kind of made us all a little bit mad."
The adoption was a success for her brother, but Cabrini was gone in four months. She told her caseworker she'd rather be back in foster care, partly hoping she'd be allowed to go back to Lori's. She was sent to a group home in Littleton instead. She hated it. There were so many rules. Fifteen minutes of phone time per day. One hour of TV. Every chance she got, she went to visit the McKinneys.
"She just really wanted to be in our family," Lori says. "So my mother who lives in Seattle and who always loved Cabrini came forward and said she'd like to have Cabrini come live with her." It was like a dream come true, Cabrini says now. She was an only child with her own room, her own phone line and N' Sync posters all over her walls. But at the time, she was also a fourteen-year-old girl giving her new guardian a hard time.
After six months, Grandma Lou took Cabrini and met Lori and the kids in South Dakota for a vacation. "Cabrini was just impossible," Lori says. "Absolutely impossible. Terrible to my mom, and to me, too. It was that teenage attitude, and I was like, 'My mom's too old for this. Mom, you can't do this.' My mom did not throw the towel in. I threw it in for her."
Cabrini was in five more homes after that, two of which she ran away from. She never went far, always letting her caseworker know exactly where she was and asking her to please not make her go back to that home. By her junior year, Cabrini had been moved to Pueblo. A family there was interested in adopting her, but the parents treated Cabrini like their housemaid. She didn't have to fight this adoption, though: The family lost their state foster-home license, required by law in order to take in children, after their adult son got caught messing around with a fourteen-year-old foster girl. By the time Cabrini graduated from high school in Pueblo and turned eighteen, two foster homes later, she'd decided she was done. "I just want out," she told her caseworker. "I don't care about you guys helping me. I just want out. I just want to be on my own."
Sharen Ford hurries to eat a microwaved lunch in her small office between appointments. This corner of the Colorado Department of Human Services is a cramped maze of overstuffed cubicles. Ford is the manager of the department's "permanency unit," which works toward getting kids out of foster care. With 13,715 out-of-home cases currently open in Colorado -- some involving more than one child -- she has her work cut out for her.
Out-of-home placement is a last resort for counties. They receive and investigate reports of children being neglected or abused, and if they find the accusations to have merit, a dependency-and-neglect case is filed in juvenile court. A judge then decides if a child should be removed from a home because it is unsafe. While these children are in foster care, the county works toward reunifying them with their parents, who may be in need of drug or alcohol treatment or other counseling. On average, the cost of out-of-home placement is $64.24 per child, per day. Sometimes the process takes years, with a county repeatedly placing a child back with their family and then having to remove the child as a parent relapses or struggles with some other problem. When it's clear that a child can't be safely reunified, the court terminates the parental rights and seeks an adoptive home. The case stays open as long as the child is in limbo.
Reunification or a successful adoption is always the goal. "When that does not occur, then we try to find youth a permanent connection," Ford explains. "Hopefully, more than one adult who says, 'Come hard times, here I am. You can do Christmas with us, the major birthdays and holidays, things you want to celebrate. We're here to stay connected to your life, and not just for a moment.' Unfortunately, there are times our youth are leaving us and they're going back to nothing, and that's hard."
Part of working toward permanency is preparing young people for life on their own, and historically, states have had independent-living programs that administered training on budgeting and resumé-writing for foster kids approaching eighteen. In 1999, the national Foster Care Independence Act expanded the scope and eligibility of such programs with the John H. Chafee Foster Care Independence Program, and Congress doubled federal funding to $140 million annually.
Colorado now writes and submits its own Chafee plans, and the counties administer the program, which is open to foster kids over sixteen and some former foster kids up to 21. Youth who want to participate get a Chafee worker, who helps them with everything from financial literacy and budgeting to college applications and job placement. Chafee administers education and training vouchers and can pay directly for things such as bus passes, car insurance, work clothes and school supplies. In some cases, the program can assist with housing costs, such as a first month's rent and furniture.
In addition to Chafee, Colorado has found a way to use federal Section 8 housing dollars to help former foster kids.
Family Unification Program (FUP) vouchers provide rental subsidies to families with children who have been placed, or are at risk of placement, in foster care primarily because the family lacks adequate housing. In 2001, Colorado received 100 FUP vouchers specifically for foster youth who became homeless. The non-profit organizations Family Tree, Volunteers of America and Urban Peak administer the eighteen-month vouchers and provide case management for the youth that receive them. "But you have to be homeless to access a FUP voucher," Ford says. "We would prefer that our kids not be in a homeless situation, but sometimes they are."
Kayla Figueroa looks younger than her eighteen years. She has dark brown, neatly curled hair and flawless skin, wears heavy eye makeup, chews gum and shows off adorable dimples when she smiles. She slouches low on her sofa, sliding lower and lower, until she's literally on her back, digging through her purse for lip gloss as she talks, fast. This teenager who should have just finished high school is chatting excitedly about starting her second year of college, about her two-year-old son, Adam, and about the apartment they share thanks to a FUP voucher and Chafee. "The thing I like about the Chafee program is they help me be stable," she says. "It's amazing, after all I've been through, that my life is settled."
Kayla went to her first foster home when she was nine. There were eight girls there, all older. One day, Kayla walked into the bathroom to find one of those girls unconscious on the floor, a pool of red flowing from her slit wrist. "I had nightmares every single night after that happened," Kayla says. "To this day, I cannot see blood."
Over the next six years, Kayla was repeatedly bounced from foster homes to her mom's home, then back to new foster homes as the court tried to reunify her with a mother who often seemed more unwilling than incapable of caring for her daughter. Most of the foster homes Kayla stayed in were with parents who had their own children -- and not everyone was treated equally. She lived in a house in Arvada where the parents took their own kids shopping at Abercrombie & Fitch and the foster kids to Wal-Mart. "We would all go to the same school and the kids that were their kids would have these nice clothes and get to do all of these things, and we didn't. When you're in foster care, you can't drive. You can't spend the night at anybody's house unless they get a background check."
At twelve, Kayla started getting into fights, stealing, smoking pot. By thirteen, she had a probation officer. "I remember, she told me, 'You think this is fun now, but in ten years your life is going to be destroyed. Imagine in ten years where you want to be. You could have so much in your future.'" When Kayla was fifteen, the court decided she was safe with her mom and reunified the family permanently, closing her child-welfare case. A month later, her mom sent her to a Christian group home in Longmont. Though Kayla wasn't crazy about the chores she had to do on the farm there, she liked the fact that the work earned her privileges. During one weekend when she'd earned a pass to leave the home, she got pregnant.
"That's when I thought about what the probation officer had said to me. 'There goes the plans for the rest of my life,'" she thought. 'There goes my future. There it goes.'" The group home wouldn't let her stay, but its director invited Kayla to live with his family so she wouldn't have to go back into foster care.
The arrangement quickly became a nightmare for Kayla. The director announced to his entire congregation that he was taking her in because she was pregnant. "The church looked down on me like I was this horrible teenager," she says. "I had all these people coming up to me, asking, 'Can I take your baby?' It was the worst thing I'd ever been through in my entire life, worse than foster care."
Everyone was telling her she couldn't keep the baby. It would have a dysfunctional life with one parent. Although Kayla's mother was upset about the pregnancy, when Kayla called crying for help, her mom found Bridgeway, a home for pregnant teens in Lakewood. The private non-profit agency, funded through donations and grants, charges pregnant teens just $100 per month to live there, teaches them parenting skills and encourages them to pursue educational goals.
"Bridgeway was so great. All these people opening their arms to you, saying we support you in keeping this baby and we're going to help you," Kayla remembers. "Every Monday we would have support groups on fears. Every Tuesday, classes on breast feeding, on changing your baby, because none of us knew. I really grew up at Bridgeway."
Kayla had moved there when she was four months pregnant, and she'd immediately applied for a FUP voucher through Volunteers of America. It took a year for her to be approved, and when she was seventeen, she moved into her own apartment with her baby.
But it wasn't exactly a happy ending. The staff at Bridgeway had prevented Adam's father from visiting, but now he came back into Kayla's life -- violently. She called the police on him, but he turned the accusations back on her, and Kayla was arrested on domestic-violence charges. Adam was put into foster care two days later.
In the meantime, Jefferson County Human Services reopened Kayla's child-welfare case since she was still only seventeen and her living situation had not been safe. After a week in jail, she was placed in the same foster home as her son. Her caseworker told her she could be eligible to move to an apartment again through an Independent Living Arrangement, a statewide program funded and administered by the county human-services departments. ILA allows some foster kids to live on their own but still be supervised by a caseworker so they have support. Kayla prepared an application with a budget and bank statements and went before an ILA committee, which approved her request and awarded her a $525 monthly stipend, in place of what a foster home would have received for her care.
Kayla moved to an apartment, Adam's child-welfare case was closed, and the domestic-violence charges against her were dropped. Adam's father will have to petition the court if he wants to see his son.
Now that Kayla is eighteen, she's aged out of the foster care system and no longer gets the stipend, but she was able to get a six-month extension on her eighteen-month FUP voucher and will receive that until May. She's going to Red Rocks Community College, planning to work in juvenile probation, and started this month as an AmeriCorps volunteer tracking kids who aren't showing up for school. She talks to her Chafee worker every other week, usually to get help with her budget, and the program still helps her out with expenses like car insurance.
There's a banging in the next room. "Are you up?" Kayla calls to Adam as she heads into his room. He comes into the living room pulling a wagon full of toy cars, then cuddles shyly next to his mom on the couch. When he jumps up to get his toys, Kayla looks at him with a furrowed brow. He just got a haircut, and she thinks it's too short. He doesn't look like a baby anymore, she says sadly, as if noticing this for the first time.
Colene Robinson doesn't often hear stories like Kayla Figueroa's. For most of the kids she knows coming out of foster care, stability isn't something they can even imagine. "These are invisible kids," says the clinical professor at the University of Colorado's law school. "These kids are homeless every night. These are the kids sleeping anywhere they can. Just talking to some kids who are going to be aging out soon in Boulder County, they know what their options are going to be -- which field, park, bridge. They know what that is. But they don't know how to envision themselves in an apartment with a job."
Take Dannie Goff, for example. Starting when he was seven, he was bounced around among foster homes, group homes, shelters and residential treatment centers. When he was fifteen, he was sentenced to two years in the Division of Youth Corrections. At seventeen, he went through a three-month independent-living program through the DYC and then was released and sent off on his own. He was homeless within weeks. Today, at nineteen, he sleeps on the heating grates of the Denver City and County Building.
The kind of help that social services and the Chafee program provide to young people like Kayla mean nothing to Dannie. He's not eligible for them. He's one of many former foster kids who slip through the cracks because of when and how they left the state foster-care system. In fact, the only reason Kayla is eligible for the help she receives from Chafee is because Jefferson County reopened her child-welfare case when she was seventeen, after Adam had been taken from her. It was a rare decision, and one the judge didn't have to make.
In Colorado, counties are only obligated to provide services to young people who have open dependency-and-neglect cases. A child's case remains open as long as they are in out-of-home placement. Cases close when children are reunified with parents or adopted. Otherwise, dependency-and-neglect cases can close when a child "ages out" -- meaning he or she turns eighteen, runs away or refuses services. Judges can choose to keep a case open until a youth turns 21, but that's rare. When a kid enters the DYC, his or her child-welfare case is automatically closed.
The federal Chafee program provides a way for foster kids whose cases have been closed to still access some services until they turn 21. In Colorado, however, not every former foster youth is eligible. The state has interpreted the Chafee Act to mean that only those whose cases were closed on or after their eighteenth birthdays are eligible for services post-foster care, an interpretation with which Kippi Clausen takes issue. That means, for example, that if a teen runs away before he turns eighteen and a judge closes his case, he won't be able to access services later. Similarly, when a young person leaves the Division of Youth Corrections, he isn't eligible for any Chafee services unless a judge decides to reopen his case.
"If the child was in the county's custody and ran away at their seventeenth birthday, then [the county] could have gone and asked the court to dismiss the dependency-and-neglect action," says Sharen Ford of the Colorado Department of Human Services. "The court doesn't have to. The court can say, 'This case is going to stay open. Find the kid.' So when they find the kid, they can pick up services again and they continue on. If the court closed the case, then the county doesn't have a legal responsibility to provide any services."
Judges like Chris Melonakis in Adams County are aware of how important it is for youth to be able to access services and thus intentionally keeps cases open until a child is 21, whenever possible. "The entire [federal] funding stream ends when they're out of the system," he says. "It really changes the dynamic and willingness of social services to work with them. Once the case is gone and a kid is over eighteen, you've lost jurisdiction. That's why you have to make an impact before they get out. A couple of things you can do as a court is to bring the young person in and talk to them, treat them like a human being, try to give them some counseling and guidance. It's amazing how often they will listen to you. A lot of times what young people want is just to be heard. They want to have their dignity preserved and the feeling that they matter, especially for these young people that have been in foster care for years and years. It's a really hard way to live."
Ford says caseworkers do the same thing, by telling kids the truth about what they'll lose if they run away. "Just like any good parent, you share that information and our youth make choices just like my birth kid did. They make choices and you live with them. And when they come back, they might not say, 'I was wrong.' It's just, 'I'm back.' And you help them pick up from where you left off. You scrape them off and you don't have to do the 'I told you so,' but you look at 'Where are we going from here?'"
Except, of course, for the kids whose cases were closed. They don't get to come back.
When Cabrini Carrillo left foster care three years ago, she got her own place in Pueblo. Three months later, she bought a house with a boyfriend, who hit her. When he left her for another girl, Cabrini lost it. "I tried to hang myself," she says. "I'd just lay on my couch all day. I couldn't go to work. Couldn't get out of bed. I drank for sixteen days straight and ended up in the hospital for alcohol poisoning."
Cabrini couldn't make the payments and lost the house. She got back together with her ex, and he rented an apartment for them to share. When they broke up again, she lost yet another place to live. Cabrini stayed with a cousin, friends, at shelters. Then she met another man, who gave her a job and a place to live; he asked her to marry him after two months. "I guess it was somebody who loved me, and he had a big family and I could be a part of that," she says. It wasn't long before she found out he was cheating on her. With nowhere to go, Cabrini felt trapped. After a year of being on her own, she called her former foster mother, Lori McKinney.
"I don't know what I'm going to do," the nineteen-year-old told her. "I need help so bad. I'm not going to make it here."
Lori asked if she was serious. She explained that Cabrini would have to get a job and get her life together immediately. She refused to bring her to Denver if she was just going to run back to Pueblo.
"I'm so serious," Cabrini responded. "Please help me."
When the girl told her fiancé that she was leaving, he locked her in a room, busted her cell phone and pushed her so hard she thought he'd broken her rib. He put a gun to her head and told her he'd find her and kill her if she left him, or he'd kill himself. He didn't let her out of his sight that night, but the next day she left for work and never came back. She ran away to a friend's house, where she stayed until Lori could get there.
Back at Lori's, Cabrini got a job right away at King Soopers. She contacted her Chafee case worker, who told her about Family Tree and the FUP voucher. But before Cabrini's name could work its way to the top of the waiting list, Lori caught Cabrini drinking and told her she had to leave.
She went to her grandmother's house, but being there stirred up memories of sexual abuse. Cabrini realized it was a pattern in her family, one her grandma had refused to stop or even acknowledge when it was happening to her daughters. Cabrini confronted her grandmother, and the woman kicked her out. Having no where else to go, she went back to her biological mother. Nothing there had changed. "They took all my money. My [older] brother almost killed me. One day, my brother was hitting me, and my mom was like, 'Just kill her and put her in the back alley. Nobody cares.'"
Cabrini left her mom's house last summer and bounced between other relatives' homes -- including one two-bedroom apartment where twelve people were living and Cabrini slept in the closet. Finally, just after Christmas, Cabrini's caseworker at Family Tree called with good news: She was approved for a housing voucher, and the money would be available in January. "I've held it strong since," she says. "Not that I could screw this up. How can I not make it?"
In June, Cabrini heard about Bridging the Gap and opened up an account. By August, she was one of two youth from the Denver site invited to attend a Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative leadership conference in San Diego. Cabrini fell to her knees when she entered her own suite in a five-star hotel. "I'm sorry, but that is the most beautiful thing I've ever seen in my whole entire life," she says. They had crystal water glasses at their workshops and ate elaborate poolside dinners. "These people don't even know me, but they take me very seriously," she says. "Everyone I met told me I'm going to be successful. That's what Jim Casey does -- they make you feel important. I'm going to be important someday. I'm going to change so many lives. I'm excited about life. I love my life. I do."
Cabrini started this month as a mentor with Bridging the Gap. The past year has been the most "permanent" she's ever known, with school, work and not a single move in nine months. "I have a year left on my [housing voucher], and in that year, my goals are to continue saving, to get stabilized so that when I do leave this program I'm not going to have to go back to my real family or to feel like I have to be with a man. I started my mom's patterns. I had to be with this dude even though he hit me. I had to tell myself a year ago, I don't want to date. I don't want to be involved emotionally or physically with a man until I'm able to find myself. I really have found myself. I'm ready to date, but I love my single life so much right now that I'm not willing to give it up."
And Cabrini has a constant reminder of why she shouldn't have to give that up. When she was eighteen, she went to get a man's name tattooed on her wrist. At the last minute, she decided she wanted her own name instead, and the tattoo artist suggested she put it on her neck. She thought it would be "itty bitty." It's not. "Cabrini is on my neck because I stand for Cabrini. If anybody is going to make anything for Cabrini, it's Cabrini. Cabrini dies alone and gets judged alone. Nobody's ever going to take my dignity or my self pride again from me. Nobody's ever going to belittle me or make me feel worthless again. And every day I look in the mirror and I see that name Cabrini, and it reminds me every day: Don't forget to be yourself, because that's what life's about."
A photo of Stephanie Wooten's four-month-old daughter, Riley, hangs on a bulletin board at a Starbucks where Stephanie is a regular customer. The shop is not far from where she and the baby live with Mary, whom Stephanie calls her grandmother. Mary is the woman who adopted Stephanie's younger sister Stacey and who just happened to go looking for Stephanie the same day the teen found out she was pregnant last October.
Mary would have been there for Stephanie earlier, but she didn't know where she was or how desperate she'd become. Stephanie was not in the habit of asking for help, though her Chafee worker had been trying -- even physically taking Stephanie to Urban Peak once against her will to get her off the street.
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After learning Stephanie was pregnant, Mary didn't ask her to come live with her immediately, but the invitation came within days. "I was a little hesitant, because I didn't know what she'd be like," Mary says. "I'd adopted her sister when she was already eighteen, and I couldn't adopt her, and I didn't want anything to go wrong with her sister because I had her going okay, but this one just added wonderful joy to our family. And not just with the baby, either."
Stephanie got pregnant, restarted high school for the second time at the charter Academy of Urban Learning, became a mentor at Bridging the Gap, and moved in with her grandma all at once. Throughout her pregnancy, she went to school, worked at Bridging the Gap, and then two evenings a week supervised at a call center in Adams County. She'd be at the bus stop at 7 a.m., transfer three times to get to school, and after school take another four buses to get to Mile High United Way. "She did that right until the day she had the baby," Mary says. "I picked her up from work, and we went to the hospital and she had the baby. I think she did awesome. She went from being kind of a mess to being an awesome person."
Stephanie had been racing to try to graduate before Riley was born. Two days after giving birth, she received her diploma. She'd made it. "I just needed someone who would support me, and that was my grandmother and my sister and my Chafee worker. I saw that I had that support, and it helped me, made me feel like I was something instead of nothing. I didn't feel so low, like I was a lost cause.
"If you want to be out on your own, you just have to know the connections so that you're safe," she continues. "You don't have to go through all this other stuff. That's kind of what Bridging the Gap is doing. It builds relationships with other adults, so that way they're not so alone. They can go to their Chafee worker and say, 'I'm struggling. How can you help me?' Or come to us."