Monday, July 02, 2007

Photo from http://www.studentsrisingabove.org/klass/student/lily_dorman_colby
Former foster-care child ready to change system
Snapp, Martin. Contra Costa Times, June 30, 2007.

NIETZSCHE SAID, "Whatever does not destroy me, makes me stronger."

Nobody embodies that maxim more than Lily Dorman-Colby of Berkeley. She was dealt a hand you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy -- in and out of foster homes since she was 12.

At one point she was in five different homes in just two years, and one of those foster "mothers" made Cruella De Vil look like Mary Poppins.

She forced Lily to make appointments to use the bathroom and refused to sign her tests to show that she'd seen them.

When Lily was 14 she persuaded the authorities to let her take care of herself. She wore hand-me-down clothes from her friends and learned to feed herself on only $100 a month.

Despite these obstacles, she graduated from Berkeley High in 2005 with a straight-A average and a perfect 800 on her math SAT. But she was much prouder of the 690 she got on the verbal section, because she's dyslexic.

She was also a star on the wrestling team and was named the sixth-best female wrestler in the country.


You'd think the other students would be jealous, but Lily is so sweet and down-to-earth, they just rooted for her instead. They elected her to represent them as the student member of the Berkeley School Board.

The adults on the board fell in love with her.

"State law forbade us from counting her vote," said board member Nancy Riddle. "But we had such respect for Lily's judgment, we listened very carefully to everything she said."

She got scholarship offers from the top schools in the country, including Harvard and Princeton. But she turned them down to go to Yale because the students there reminded her of her friends in Berkeley.

So how did she do it? Lily would say she had a lot of help along the way, including a loving woman named Zada Flowers, who runs a small church in East Oakland; a wise and generous foster mom named Melia Bosworth; and a kindly math teacher named Mr. Dozier, who offered to sign her tests when the bad foster mother wouldn't.

"Just call me Uncle Dozier," he said.

But the truth is that the person who rescued Lily was Lily herself. In fifth grade she was in danger of flunking out after missing 52 days of school. But during the summer she realized it was either sink or swim. So she decided to swim.

The next year she missed only two days and won an award for most improved student.

Now that she's finished her sophomore year at Yale, she's going to take a leave of absence for a year to help other youths in her situation. This summer, she's setting up a pilot project and writing a handbook to teach children in foster care how to apply to college. Only 3 percent of foster children ever go to college, and Lily intends to change that.

Then she'll return to Berkeley for a year to mentor disadvantaged students at Berkeley High. Only 600 of the 900 students in her high school class actually graduated, and she intends to change that, too.

She calls her foster-children project Children in Placement, under the aegis of an umbrella group called the City Wide Youth Coalition. If you'd like to help, tax-deductible donations can be sent to City Wide Youth Coalition, P.O. Box 354, New Haven, CT 06513. You can find out more by visiting http://www.cwyc.org.

Typically, Lily doesn't want any money for herself. Like Franklin D. Roosevelt, she's one of those rare people whose own suffering has made them more sympathetic to the suffering of others.

The comparison is apt. Like FDR, she's a natural leader. After graduation, she intends to change the foster care system -- first in California and then throughout the county. And I wouldn't bet against her.

But the haunting question is: How many other Lilys are out there in foster care, falling through the cracks in the meantime?

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