Sunday, November 05, 2006

Like Vince, foster youth often find it hard to vocalize what they need

Words they've lived by: For children at the Optimist Home, the glass-half-full message of the organization's Creed has been an inspiration through the decades.
Jocelyn Y. Stewart. Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles, Calif.:Oct 21, 2006. p. A.1

Promise yourself ... to be so strong that nothing can disturb your peace of mind.

As boys they saw it hanging from the walls of the dining hall, recited it in unison with other boys, heard it intoned at every special event like a prayer:

Promise yourself ... to think only of the best, to work only for the best and to expect only the best.

At the 100-year-old Optimist Home in Highland Park, the Optimist Creed has been passed down to generations of wayward kids even if they didn't understand it right then, even if it seemed corny.

The 106-word Creed sums up the worldview of Optimists International, a nonreligious service organization with chapters worldwide. Former President Ford is an Optimist. So was former Vice President Hubert Humphrey. Mostly, the members share the view that the glass is half full, that dark clouds have silver linings and that serving community is of value.

Long before there was Aid to Families with Dependent Children or other public assistance, Optimist clubs in Southern California put the force of their beliefs -- and their finances -- behind the boys' home started by Jacob Strickland and his wife on a five-acre chicken farm in 1906.

In advertisements published in this paper early in the last century, the Stricklands proudly offered "Consistent Home Training." After the home opened, writer Christian D. Larson composed the Creed, and it soon became a part of life at the home.

Today the home, the only one of its kind in the U.S. still operated by the Optimists, cares for about 550 youths, including girls, through Optimist Youth Homes & Family Services.

About 100 boys -- referred and paid for by county probation departments -- live on the site of the original home, which now includes a high school. There are six group homes off campus -- including two for girls -- and foster care and adoption services.

Each generation raised at the Optimist Home faced different problems. Their memories vary of who helped them and what impressed them, except for one constant: Even decades later, they remember the Creed.

'The Sunny Side'
Promise yourself ... to look at the sunny side of everything and make your optimism come true.
When 12-year-old Abe Cooke showed up at the home in 1952, the only thing the farm raised was boys. Gone were the days when founder Strickland -- known as "Pa" or "Uncle Strickland" -- had the boys tending chickens, berries and vegetables.

The home's neighborhood was more urban by the time Cooke arrived, but the family atmosphere had survived. And a family was what he needed. His mother died giving birth to him; his father was a U.S. serviceman who walked away.

He spent his childhood in youth homes and with foster families -- including one in which the mother forced him to hang his head in a toilet for taking a carrot slice from the refrigerator. The Optimist Home was the last stop on that journey.

Cooke recited the Creed and sang "Ave Maria" during the annual Christmas plays held in the barn. He met Optimists who would take him home for Thanksgiving.

He was the only Jewish boy in the home of 60 children. Saul and Sadie Cohen, a Jewish couple who owned a fabric store in the neighborhood and belonged to the Optimists, found a rabbi who gave Cooke a copy of the Torah, recordings for practicing Hebrew and weekly tutorials. Every day for four months, the boy raced home from school and studied, thinking he was headed for a bar mitzvah.

But three weeks before the ceremony, a judge determined that Cooke, a ward of the court, could not go forward with his bar mitzvah plans. It was unprecedented, the judge said, and he was not willing to set a precedent by allowing it.

Even today when he tells the story, it is not with the bitterness of a disappointed 13-year- old denied his heritage, his gifts. He remembers the pride of learning Hebrew -- "I can recite some of it to this day" -- and the kindness of people such as the Cohens, who wanted to give him that gift.

The Optimist Home was the place where life seemed to make amends "for all I had to deal with as a child," he said. "I lived there for five years. 'Most all the kids I grew up with, the ones still alive, we had good times there."

Like every other boy, he learned the Optimist Creed by heart. In 1984 he took the creed -- think only of the best -- to heart.

Rather than dwell on the family he never had, that year he symbolically created one for himself. In court, Cooke changed his name to Abe Schemmer -- after Art and Mary Schemmer, "house parents" who supervised youths in his dorm and showed him kindness he never forgot.

The name change occurred on the Schemmers' wedding anniversary in 1984. For the couple, who had no children of their own, the gesture was a kindness returned.

"We were like a family, the three of us," Schemmer said.

Today he is 65 and retired from a career at Thrifty Drug Stores. The Creed is still with him.
"I have it here on a plaque, right here on a shelf," he said, from his home in Cathedral City. "It's the Ten Commandments."

'Forget the Mistakes'
Promise yourself ... to forget the mistakes of the past and press on to the greater achievements of the future.

In the 1960s, divorce was on the rise, and more boys from broken homes were arriving.

Vince was one of them. He had been abandoned by his biological father, beaten by his stepfather and raised by a young, distracted and single mother. He called himself "Little Elvis," so good at impersonating his idol that he could almost forget about discovering himself.

"If I wasn't Little Elvis, who was I?" he said years later.

When he and his mother moved into a one-bedroom apartment in Silver Lake, Vince ran into trouble. A Christmas Eve joy ride in a car he thought belonged to an older boy landed him in juvenile hall.

Vince is Mexican American, and in juvie, he said, he had to act the way the tough Chicano gang boys expected him to act, speak the way they expected him to speak. From juvenile hall, the court sent him to a Catholic boys' home to finish serving his time. When he ran away, a judge decided he might do better at the Optimist Home.

The Optimist Home was a safe place, where the world made sense and nobody expected Vince to be someone he was not. Life had a regimen and an internal logic: up at 6 a.m., in bed early at night, with school, chores and study in between. Recite the Creed. Vince slept in his own bed for the first time -- at home he slept on the couch -- and ate in a dining hall with tablecloths.

There were no racial battles between Mexican boys and African American boys like the ones he saw at juvenile hall, and "nobody was preaching at you, hollering at you," he recalled.

Optimists, men and women, talked to the boys about their lives and plans. There were trips to Dodgers games, camping adventures at Laguna Beach and bus rides full of music.

Even so, he ran away. A few days later, he called the superintendent, Mr. Kroeger, early one morning asking for help.

Driving his trademark brown-and-beige Ford station wagon and looking sleepy, Mr. Kroeger picked him up from Brooklyn and Soto streets. Back in his office, the two sat in silence until Mr. Kroeger began to speak.

Mr. Kroeger took the Creed off the wall and read a line: To forget the mistakes of the past and press on to the greater achievements of the future.

You know what that means? Mr. Kroeger asked.

Sort of, Vince said.

Just make me one promise. Promise me that you won't run away again.

Vince opened his mouth to promise; instead he started to cry, a 13-year-old's confused tears. Then he made the promise.

But he did run away again, ending up in the California Youth Authority -- the beginning of a lifetime of being raised by the prison system.

He has been out for 16 years now, working as a substance abuse counselor. He is now writing a book about his life. Only by looking back can he explain why he left the home he loved. The home's goal was to reunite him with his family. He couldn't face that, so he ran away, willing to give up one family to escape another.

Now he speaks at high schools and colleges about avoiding the life he has led: "I start by telling them I went in a young guy, just like you, and came out looking like this. I grew old in prison."
It's as if, decades later, he has finally allowed himself to put the Creed's words into action. For Vince, forgetting the mistakes of the past also means leaving behind the surname he used in his youth. That name brings back a violent past he does not want to meet again. For this article, he asked to be identified only as Vince.

Promise yourself ... to give so much time to the improvement of yourself that you have no time to criticize others.

By the 1980s, the children in the home faced problems that "Pa" Strickland never could have imagined.

"We're getting more and more kids that are involved in substance abuse ... and more and more kids involved in gangs," said Silvio Orlando, executive director of Optimist Youth Homes & Family Services.

The Optimist Home responded by hiring substance abuse counselors and establishing a foster family agency to find homes. In 1999 it was licensed to provide adoption services. That year it also contracted with the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health to provide rehab services to youths.

"What we're getting is more and more difficult kids," Orlando said. "Counties don't want to have to send kids to residential institutions. They'll try other kinds of services first, and by the time they get here, they're more damaged."

Roger DeArmond, who showed up at the home in 2000, had attended 15 schools by the time he was in 11th grade.

He never had much good to say about anything or anybody, including himself. He was also a self-proclaimed "pothead," with no one to guide him. When he was 7, his father killed himself while playing Russian roulette. His mother, he said, had other interests.

"My mom -- she uses heroin," DeArmond said. "I ran away from her, basically.... I was basically homeless and I asked my probation officer to put me in a group home, and then she sent me to Optimist."

At the home, he got into fights and twice ran away. The staff told him he had anger issues, problems with women, problems taking orders and problems with substance abuse.

Where fresh air and farm work once sufficed, the home now is a "therapeutic community," where tough youths sit down with music or art therapists.

The Creed is still recited, but five part-time psychiatrists are on staff at the main campus.
Today it costs about $7,000 a month to house a child in the Optimist Home. The state pays $5,600 a month and "as a result we rely on private fundraising to make up that difference," Orlando said.

Nonresidential services are paid for with government contracts and donations from Optimists and others.

"Some might say ... you didn't have art therapy, movement therapy, music therapy before, you didn't have it for 90 years, why have you needed it for the last 10?" Orlando said. "Every kid is different. I think you really need to tailor your program to meet the needs of kids and families, and the more you can offer, the better."

In the past, the home served the child. Now the family -- often part of a child's problems -- is expected to participate.

"Our feeling is you can't just take the kid out of the family ... patch him up and send him to the same environment he came from," Orlando said. "So we tell the families, 'You need to be involved.' "

DeArmond's mother sometimes showed up for the therapy sessions, and for a time she stopped using. Then she relapsed, he said, and stopped attending.

But this time, when she failed him, it was different. It did not crush him. It pushed him. He had to get his own life in order: "I got tired of wanting her attention."

Previously, he attended therapy because he had to. Now DeArmond liked it, embraced it -- and the staff.

"They were like family.... They knew, and I knew, that my mom wasn't coming back."

What hasn't changed about the home, even as it has expanded, Orlando said, is its family atmosphere.

The staff took interest in what interested DeArmond: music -- rock and heavy metal. They encouraged him to play his guitar.

Like every other boy at the home, DeArmond ate in front of the Creed, spoke it at the appropriate times. But he never "got into it," he said. It sounded like "some goofy stuff, like on television."

But for the first time in his life, he was getting straight A's. He went long stretches without being disciplined for cursing or fighting or not doing chores.

After two years at the Optimist Home, DeArmond became a youth advocate for the city of Pasadena, helping youths moving from foster care. Now he works for Los Angeles County's procurement office.

He still visits the Optimist Home. "I can go over there and eat and do my laundry," he said. "Everybody knows me. They're really happy for me and everything."

His mother once again tried to return to his life, but DeArmond made a decision. "I eventually told her to leave me alone. Let me do my thing."

This time, his thing was a good thing -- give so much time to the improvement of yourself....

This time his outlook was optimistic.

The Optimist Creed
Promise Yourself --
To be so strong that nothing can disturb your peace of mind.
To talk health, happiness and prosperity to every person you meet.
To make all your friends feel that there is something in them.
To look at the sunny side of everything and make your optimism come true.
To think only of the best, to work only for the best and to expect only the best.
To be just as enthusiastic about the success of others as you are about your own.
To forget the mistakes of the past and press on to the greater achievements of the future.
To wear a cheerful countenance at all times and give every living creature you meet a smile.
To give so much time to the improvement of yourself that you have no time to criticize others.

To be too large for worry, too noble for anger, too strong for fear and too happy to permit the presence of trouble.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a great blog...I worked as a Los Angeles County DCFS worker for 3 years and a Probaiton Office for antoher 3. Worker with Foster Youth was one of the most rewarding times of my life.

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