Former Marine gives hope to scarred foster youths
By Fred Dickey
Feb 20, 2017
Last Monday, we introduced you to academic counselor Jaymie Gonzaga.
Jaymie Gonzaga grew tired of running from his past, so he turned around and stared it down.
Jaymie is an academic counselor at three local colleges — Miramar, Palomar and MiraCosta. He teaches classes and counsels students trying to make the move from foster care to the mysterious realm of higher education. That’s like changing clothes from a thrift shop to Neiman Marcus: They fit, but just don’t “seem like me.”
He knows. He spent his youth until age 18 stashed away by the system, first in a family home where they was only abuse, then in a group home where there was no care.
He’s a small, wiry man who walks with the muscle tension he learned as a career Marine non-com. There is a toughness about him that comes from having to fight for fair treatment his whole life.
But not with these kids. He doesn’t fight with them. They are as one with who he once was, and he can see their scars and knows the wounds concealed beneath the psychic skin.
Jaymie makes it clear that even if a child has been in a textbook foster home, he or she may still have been deprived of parental love — and have to live with that dark space.
He doesn’t have to ponder long to think of an example of love not given.
A social worked referred a young, ex-foster care woman to Jaymie a year ago. The woman wanted to go to college. However, she had some problems. She was living in her car and had been coaxed into drug use by a boyfriend, from grass to crystal meth.
Jaymie put it to her straight: The drugs and boyfriend would have to go. She was willing, and she did it. However, the boyfriend followed her to school and the campus police had to get involved.
I ask Jaymie: Why would a young homeless woman, a drug user with a bum for a boyfriend decide she wanted to go to college?
“She wanted a life.”
What were her chances?
“The way it was, I knew she wouldn’t make it.”
What did you do for her?
“I have resources to share. First thing, I immediately gave her a couple of $50 gift cards. ‘Here, this will get you something to eat.’
“I gave her a to-do list. I could see she had hope. Someone had actually taken an interest in her. She’d been crying, and that stopped. She goes, ‘OK, I know what I have to do.’"
That doesn’t get her out of that car at night.
“There are housing programs specifically for former foster youth. I made a phone call and then the housing people got her into an apartment.”
“The boyfriend is gone. He’s history. There’s a police report in there for campus police in case this guy ever shows up.
Is she off drugs?
“She still does her marijuana. It just relaxes her. It’s just the marijuana, she says. It relaxes her at night.”
That doesn’t bother you?
“You know, I’m not going to say. ...
We were able to get her a part-time job as a dental assistant. For the first time, the system is working for her. She's doing quite well. She’s not your ‘A’ student, but she’s passing her classes.
The foster care system achieves a lot of good by giving shelter and the semblance of a natural home to unfortunate children, and even a loving home to some. But there’s a hard truth about it also.
The shortcomings and abuses are well documented. Perhaps it’s inevitable. Barely trained adults are paid to care for the scarred children of strangers who, frankly, can be brats. It’s a business for some. The profit motive is anything but cuddly.
Over the years, Jaymie has mentored several hundred students, and he currently has about 35. The young people directed to him are often wary — even skittish — because they commonly have little experience with anyone who cares whether they get educated or not.
The kids show up on a campus with stately buildings and manicured lawns. They enter classes that hold many of the type of students who in high school ignored or scorned them, and they’re halfway out the door before they even open it.
Jaymie says, “Foster care inevitably results in a feeling of rejection, which then leads to unworthiness. Their self-worth is out the window.
“A lot of anger, a lot of inferiority and very low self-esteem. They’re drained of feelings. They have no vision of life. Typically, there’s been nobody to sit down with them and get involved with their education — no one to mentor them, whether they’re in a group home or a foster home.
“Learning disability is huge. They test very low in math and English. They have to start off with remedial classes.”
At some point, when he feels the time is right, he tells them own his story about being in foster care.
“I tell students my childhood was crappy, and I share my background. I see the instant connection. Instant. I say, ‘Hey, I don't want you to feel overwhelmed. Just keep this in mind, I was in the system, too, and I made it out.’”
These are kids who come to Jaymie with more pressing needs than learning when courses start or what English class to take.
“A number of students I meet for the first time have been or are homeless. If they are fortunate to have a car, they are living in their car. They are living behind department stores, or they are staying in a shelter.”
Jaymie will give students $50 gift cards, pay for a monthly bus pass. If they drive, he’ll provide a monthly gas card. Additionally, he’ll help pay for their textbooks, school supplies and student I.D.
He says, “It’s not just a point of just giving them these goodies every month. This is my way to keep them in the program.”
In his catalog of resources are several nonprofits that offer help in housing. Most of the offerings come from donations to RAFFY (Resources & Assistance for Former Foster Youth).
Jaymie has no shortage of life stories. Each represents a life in despair, a young person trying to climb out of the pit of broken spirits.
Which leads us to a woman whom Jaymie says is 20 or 21 and was in foster care in Riverside. When the system aged her out, she got hooked up with the wrong crowd. She turned to drugs, prostitution and crime.
“She came to me with felonies hanging over her head. … She was homeless, and we got her housing. That didn’t work out, and she went back to her pimp boyfriend and back into drugs. She dropped out of school, but then came back to school. We got her into housing again.”
Jaymie always leaves the door ajar. And this young woman returned. She just showed up, no questions asked.
So, how’s she doing now?
He smiles at this small victory. “She’s passing with Cs and Ds. However, just seeing her try is a victory. She’s like attention deficit (disorder), really hyper. She always looks like she’s on drugs. She has a part-time fast-food job. But now she's got stable housing. She’s a full-time student. She’s trying to clear her felonies. We’re helping her go to the courts.”
The tone of your voice says you like her.
“Yeah. I have a soft spot for her. She’s been through a lot. She has a shot at making it. She wants to get into something like child development.”
I know you’re not naive, but it’s easy to turn an occasional trick or two.
Jaymie looks at me as though: Who’s naïve now?
“Yeah, I don’t know if she’s still doing that. Sometimes there’s terminology she uses and I act dumb and ask her what she means.
“She might say things like, ‘You know, when a john calls you and you got to go over there and do this and do your thing and you get your money and you give it to your pimp. Sometimes my pimp would beat me up.’”
Was she sexually abused in foster care?
“You know, she didn’t disclose that to me. I never ask those questions. I don’t.”
Of the students who come straight out of foster care and enroll, what percent make it?
“I would probably say about 40 percent. The number one (dropout) reason is the lack of resources that are available once they emancipate from foster care.”
It’s kind of like getting out of prison.
“Yeah. Absolutely. Once you’re done, you’re done. It doesn’t matter if you have family or a place to go or not.
“You don’t even get a bus ticket.”
One of Jaymie’s most traumatic — no, heartbreaking — experiences was a student who came to him out of foster care a couple of years ago.
He was 18, an African-American kid who had just graduated from high school, gotten out of foster care and wanted an education. Jaymie helped him get started and placed in housing with a roommate.
“He always had a smile on his face. Really nice guy.”
“About the second week into the summer semester, he came into my office and said, ‘I just want to let you know that I have to drop out of school because I’m going to be working full-time.’ I said, ‘Oh, OK. I understand.
“For some reason, he looked at me and he stuck out his hand. I shook it and he hugged me. That was the last time I saw him. Two weeks later, there was a shooting in Oceanside where one ex-foster youth was killed and another seriously wounded.”
The shooter’s name was Calvin Glass Jr. He was the same youth with the big smile who had come to Jaymie because he wanted to go to college.
He had killed his roommate over an inability to get along. He was convicted of manslaughter and attempted murder and is now in prison.
There’s more to it than that, of course, but no matter his grievances, something went off the rails. We can’t say that foster care was the cause of his crime, but would anyone like to suggest it wasn’t a factor?
Jaymie has won the battle with his past, but the mopping-up operation goes on. The enemy corpses trapped in his memory still show signs of life.
When asked about this, he looks at me, and beyond. “The people that were supposed to be there for me never were. The people that were supposed to love me never loved me. To this day, it still affects me emotionally. But I can block that out. I keep pushing forward.”
Is that why you work with these kids?
“I see them as me.”
Fred Dickey’s home page is freddickey.net
He believes every life is an adventure and welcomes ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org