“It’s never too late to have a happy childhood,” novelist Tom Robbins wrote in “Still Life with Woodpecker.”
And so when Kayla Lopez was a scared eight-year-old child living in Winooski, she made a decision.
“I just said, ‘Take me,’” Kayla Lopez, now 22, recalls. “I picked up the phone and called a neighbor and asked them to call the police for me. And I said, ‘Take me.’ I put myself in foster care.” She wasn’t crying wolf: She was indeed placed in foster care.
In a perfect world, this would be the end of the story. A child this resourceful would be settled in a home with loving foster parents. Perhaps she would be adopted. Not this time. Over the next four years, Kayla would be sent to ten different foster homes, including one in central Vermont where she says her foster mother would lock her outside on frigid winter days and tell her to play. When her guardian ad litem – her court-appointed advocate – saw what she was enduring, her foster mother lost her license, according to Kayla.
At the age of 12, Kayla was dropped into a group home with older teens, a world where the kids would fight and run away, and she was constantly frightened.
This story sounds like a recipe for disaster. One would think that even a kid as gifted as Kayla would wind up in trouble as an adult: Emotionally scarred at best, but likely on a slippery slope toward drug abuse and jail.
What saved her? At 14, she moved in with her aunt and became a part of that loving family in Richmond. At 15, she began working with a Spectrum Youth and Family Services case manager named Amanda Churchill, and started taking advantage of Vermont’s Youth Development Program (managed by Spectrum in Burlington and St. Albans). Amanda became Kayla’s mentor and guide through the universalities of adolescence and the sometimes labyrinthine specifics of social services.
“Spectrum was life-changing for me. No exaggeration,” Kayla told me. “I wouldn’t have successfully gotten through high school or learned to live independently. I wouldn’t have learned how to apply for a job or a scholarship or a grant. Amanda taught me how to write a resume, to speak publicly, and to network. She made sure I had health insurance. She was doing college prep work with me and SAT practice with me. I felt like I had a family away from my family. Everyone cared about my well-being so much.”
This May, Kayla will graduate from the Community College of Vermont with her Associate Degree. Her plan is to then start at the University of Vermont and major in social work.
“My experience with the foster care system was horrible. I think I can use my experience to help other kids. I think I can use my experience to help fix the system,” she said.
Churchill, now the statewide director for the Youth Development Program, would agree: “Kayla was so shy and quiet and nervous when we met. She was just trying to survive. But she is such a remarkable young woman. She’s incredibly resilient. She has developed tremendously over the last few years. I am in awe of her – especially her positive attitude and her desire to give back to others. She really wants to improve the child welfare system going forward.”
It has never been easy to be a teenager, but these days it might be tougher than ever. And so once more I want to say thank you to the team at Spectrum for being there for a kid like Kayla. Today that once frightened eight-year-old has a future, at least in part because there are adults out there who see the promise in our kids – even the ones who, once upon a time, felt they had no one to call but the police.
(This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on December 15, 2013. Chris’s most recent novel, “The Light in the Ruins,” was published in July.)