Monday, December 01, 2014

At the Podium: An Old Alumnus of Foster Care Speaks to Young Foster Care Alumni

My four younger siblings and I spent our entire childhoods in foster care. But now here I was, above, at the podium in the spacious, beautiful Hogan Ballroom on the Holy Cross campus before a packed gathering of alumni of foster care.

The speaker, me, a former foster kid? The audience mostly all former foster kids? It was a scene that I could never have imagined way back when I was growing up without family and as a ward of the state of Massachusetts.

I had been invited to speak by Grace Hilliard-Koshinsky, a foster alum herself and Project Director of the Massachusetts Network of Foster Care Alumni.

The audience was young, from 20 to 24, and just starting out. My four younger siblings and I were once where they are today. We all went on to build successful lives surrounded by family. At the podium, I was determined to help these young people do the same.

The schedule was tight and I had limited time. So I had to choose my words carefully if I wanted to avoid getting the hook from Grace, shown on the left, standing a few feet away behind the curtain.

In my hand was a speech full of all kinds of stories of our foster experiences. But, right there at the podium, I boiled my talk down to absolute essentials for these young people to build successful, happy lives.

"I'm not going to tell the story of our lives," I said. For that, I suggested they check out my e-book, Last Laughs, the cover of which shows the five of us laughing our fool heads off.

I pointed at a front table. "My two younger sisters, Marion and Ruby, are here today," I said. "They are very young." That got chuckles.

I then told how both found themselves alone on the street at 18, no family, no money, and worried sick about finding a safe place to sleep.

I told how Marion graduated from the Malden School of Nursing and Salem State University, and got a graduate degree in hospital administration at Boston University, going on to become Director of Nursing at Malden Hospital.

I told how Ruby graduated from Worcester State University, earned a graduate degree, and became a licensed social worker. And today she is still at it, as an administrator at a large rest home, responsible for the well-being of all the many residents.

The audience gave them a rousing round of applause.

Brothers Vic and Reggie were not at Holy Cross and I did not have the time to tell their stories. But like Marion and Ruby, both have built remarkably successful and happy lives. Both joined the U.S. Marines at 18.

Vic spent 23 years in the Marines and was seriously wounded in Vietnam. His life was saved by a miracle intestinal operation at the VA. Vic earned both a college degree and graduate degree after 14 years of evening college courses.

Reggie, the only non-college graduate, is a genius working with metal and is just as successful and satisfied with life as the rest of us. He lives with his wonderful wife Jeanette in a beautiful-- and paid for -- house in New Hampshire.

Now, how about a round of applause for Vic and Reggie? Thank you. I know they heard it.

Three days after my talk at Holy Cross, all five of us got together, along with extended family -- real family -- for a fabulous Thanksgiving dinner at nephew Glen's house in Oxford, Mass. Here we were above, from left to right: Ruby, Reggie, Vic, Marion, and me.

Now for the nitty-gritty of my talk, with telling examples from my own life. At the podium, I said: "Many years have now passed since the five of us were in foster care. I'm now 76 and at the far end of the life cycle. All of you out there have practically your whole lives and working careers ahead of you. I have four suggestions for you."

1. Turn adversity into strength.

"As foster care alumni," I said, "we have a stark choice. We can let a sad, hard, unfair experience hold us back or we can rise, rise, rise above it."

In my foster homes, I was nothing more than a boarder. I got so little attention and eye contact that I felt invisible. But I didn't buy it. I knew I deserved better. Instead of getting down on myself, I grew into one strong, independent young man.

The summer I graduated from high school and had just turned 17, I walked away. In a few weeks, I had a good-paying job in construction, an apartment, a car, and money in my pocket.

I picked up my four younger siblings from their foster homes and drove us all into Boston. I paid their way into a movie at the old RKO across from the Boston Common and bought them all the candy and popcorn they could eat. (This story also didn't make it in my Holy Cross talk.)

It was a wonderful, unforgettable day. We all remember the day like it was yesterday. We were together, as family!

2. Find out what you are good at, enjoy, and can make a living at.

In my early years in foster care, I was painfully shy, almost afraid to speak. Although physically strong and good at sports, I had no idea why I was on this earth until the 7th grade at St. Patrick's grammar school in Stoneham, Mass.

There Sister Francis Helen praised a composition of mine and had me read it aloud in class. And then she had me read my compositions regularly, holding them up as an example of good grammar, sentence structure, and continuity of thought.

Thanks to the good Sister, I found something I was good at and on which I could -- and did -- build a wonderful life.

3. Make Connections.

"Look around this auditorium," I said.  "Everybody here is a connection. Foster Care Alumni is a connection. I'm a connection. Connections are absolutely necessary in building a life. If I can help you in any way, let me know."

The first and most important connection in life is family. As an alumnus of foster care, a fractured family or no family is a huge hurdle to be overcome -- but it must be.

In my own case, connections literally saved my life. At an early age, around eight, my whole life was outside the foster home. My friends and their parents became my family and my connections. Some told me that their refrigerators were open to me any time.

I was an ice hockey player in an avid ice hockey town. In my senior year, I was captain of the Stoneham High hockey team and the parents of teammates were amazed that no family ever came to see me play. It was one of the parents who pulled strings and got me that high-paying, union construction job at age 17, a few weeks after graduation.

4. Set big, long-term goals and do whatever it takes to achieve them.

At the end of that first summer on my own, I got laid off from my construction job. My job went to somebody with a better connection at the company. Paying college tuition not an option, not wanting to take a dead-end job, not knowing what else to do, I joined the U.S. Army. On the day I joined, I promised myself that when I got out in two years, I was going to college no matter what.

A couple of months before I got out, I applied to Merrimack College in North Andover, Mass. and was accepted. I had no idea how I was going to pay the tuition, not to mention living expenses. But I WAS going and I WAS going to graduate and I WAS going to go up from there.

Wouldn't you know, but the National Defense Education Act of 1958 -- passed a few months after I got out of the army -- provided no-interest, no-payments-until graduation loans for veterans. As a veteran, I got a $3,000 federal loan (which I paid off after graduation in ten annual payments of $300). Plus I made the varsity ice hockey team as a freshman and got a full, 4-year athletic scholarship to Merrimack.

After graduation, my history professor recommended me to his alma mater, UMass Amherst, for a Research Associateship. I received free tuition in return for doing research for an expert on Africa, Dr. Gwendolyn Carter. Africa! After finishing courses for my Master's Degree, I decided to go to the Dark Continent.

Dr. Carter told me about Teachers for East Africa (TEA), a program at Columbia Teacher's College that trained and sent teachers to Kenya in East Africa. Having done practice teaching as an undergrad, I was a qualified high school teacher of English and Social Studies.

I applied, was accepted, did the training at Columbia, and went off with my new bride to teach in Kenya. It was an eye-opener. After two years teaching in Kenya, I wanted more of Africa. So, taking our new baby (Greg, born in Kenya), we went off to Nigeria, sponsored by the Hershey Chocolate Corp.

I taught in Maiduguri in northern Nigeria, just below the Sahara. It is the place where Bako Haram was born, the Muslim extremist group that is now terrorizing and killing throughout the area. My students were all Muslims. Another eye-opener!

Soon to be leaving Nigeria, I needed a job in the U.S. Thinking of myself as a writer ever since Sister Francis Helen praised my compositions in the 7th grade, I wrote a story about everyday life in Nigeria and sent it to American Education Publications in Middletown, CT.

A major educational publisher -- Weekly Reader, Current Events, Read Magazine, and paperbacks for social studies classrooms -- AEP published my story. It was read in classrooms across the U.S. and AEP offered me a job as a staff writer.  I worked there for 26 years and have been happily making a living writing and publishing ever since.

With that, I shut up.

Not only did I avoid the hook  from Grace, but she surprised me with a big smile and a warm hug. I took my seat to applause,  also a nice surprise.

To foster alumni, let me say this: I was once where you are today. I know exactly how you feel and there is certainly no easy road ahead. YOU CAN DO IT. My four siblings and I did  and you can too. Go for it!

P.S. To see my Holy Cross talk, click here.

NOTE:  I have a new short novel, Something Tells Her. Jane is abandoned at birth and then placed in ever-changing, uncaring, and often abusive foster homes. At age 12, her latest foster father makes a sexual advance on her and, with something telling her this is not right, she runs out the door. On the street, alone, no family, nobody, not even a last name, how is she going to survive?  The E-book is  available on Barnes and Noble and  Amazon. 

Other E-Books by George Pollock

"State Kid: Hero of Literacy" is fiction based on his real-life experiences growing up in foster homes; "Last Laughs," is the true story of how five foster kids (he and four younger siblings) found their way in life and each other. "Killers: Surprises in a Maximum Security Prison," is the story of his being locked up for 23 hours with killers in a maximum security prison; "I, Cadaver" is about his postmortem adventures and mischief in the anatomy lab at UMass Medical School. “A Beautiful Story” demonstrates the art and process of creative writing as a 16-year-old boy goes all out to write a story that literally saves his life. "Unlove Story," is the true story of a husband -- writing anonymously as "Elvis" -- who is dumped after 38 years of marriage and lets it all out on love, marriage, life, everything. A guy doing this? It's unheard of.

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