by: Leslie Postal|Orlando Sentinel
November 4, 2015
James Turner has the wiry build of someone who ran the 400-meter dash in high school. But these days, the business major at FSU is reciting his own poetry and hanging with an a cappella group, not the track team.
He likes watching Florida State football, is already tired of dining-hall food and talks animatedly about an English class discussion on whether fiction writers can accurately portray cultures other than their own. He doesn’t think so.
Turner, who graduated from Orlando’s Boone High School in May, is like a lot of first-year college students, with one exception: He has no family.
Turner spent almost his entire childhood in foster care, living in more than a dozen places after being taken from his parents when he was just 18 months old.
Nationally, foster-children education statistics are grim: About 70 percent leave high school without a diploma, 10 percent attend college, and only 3 percent earn a college degree by age 25.
Low expectations, Turner said, fueled his desire to be something more. “It’s kind of cliché, but I wanted to prove them wrong.”
Now he hopes an FSU business degree will help him reach a bigger ambition: “Become the change to help the foster world.”
That world still intrudes, even on FSU’s tree-lined campus. Though he has a cadre of people eager to help him navigate college life, Turner, 19, doesn’t have a place to return during the holidays. Now that he’s in college, he no longer has a spot in the Orlando group home where he spent the past two years.
“There’s no safety net when you’re a foster kid,” said Betsey Bell, executive director of the Foundation for Foster Children, an Orlando nonprofit that helps foster children and those exiting the system.
The foundation still counts Turner as a client, and Bell and other staff who’ve gotten to know him continue to help out. They’re working to make sure he has a place to go when FSU closes its dorms for breaks — he has several invitations for both Thanksgiving and Christmas — and they’re still offering advice to the teenager who gave a funny and poignant speech at their fundraising event in May.
“He wants to change foster care, run DCF, change the world,” Bell said. “And he just might.”
Sitting by a fountain not far from his dorm recently, Turner recited a poem he’d written describing the life he knew in care. He was to perform it this week at a campus pageant and talent show.
“Judge us by what we are, not what caused it,” he wrote.
He has several ideas for foster-care reforms, from changing laws to creating a traveling team of mentors who would visit group homes to provide encouragement to kids who too often feel like victims.
Turner said he doesn’t know precisely why he was removed from his parents’ care. He requested his foster-care file and found most of the entries had been blacked out. He recently met his mother but hasn’t seen his father.
When he was 8, a foster family wanted to adopt him, he said, but the family was moving back to its native Jamaica, and that scared him. He told his caseworker he didn’t want to go. In another foster family, he was smacked and punched, and in yet another mostly ignored.
At 12, he entered a group home, and he spent the rest of his childhood in such facilities in Brevard and Orange counties. Some staff members were cruel, belittling the children in their care, he said.
He became a leader wherever he was placed, the teenager other boys admired and turned to for help, the one who spoke up to staff.
“He was always the big brother,” Bell said.
As often happens, residential moves meant switching schools, then lost class time and a struggle to catch up. He had to repeat sixth grade.
By ninth grade, he was living in a “bottom-of-the-barrel place” where most of the other boys seemed to already have probation officers. He remembers thinking, “This is a hole. I can’t be here.”
He requested a move, which was granted, and then enrolled at Boone for his junior year. He ran track and earned all A’s that year.
At the start of his senior year, he visited Boone’s college counselor and told her he wanted to apply to FSU. Turner knew nothing about applying to colleges, and no one at the group home had any advice to give — nor thought FSU was a realistic place for him.
Boone’s counselor, Weeze Cullen, knew the young man who returned to her office again and again for advice didn’t fit typical foster-kid statistics.
“James was so unique. He impressed everybody,” she said.
She steered him to FSU’s Center for Retention and Enhancement, which is set up to admit and then help students who are the first in their family to attend college and who face economic and social hardships, including time in foster care.
Cullen helped him with his application, and she and others at Boone celebrated when he was accepted, his college costs largely covered. The state pays tuition and fees for those who’ve been in foster care, and he has an FSU scholarship as well. Bell and her co-workers celebrated, too. And they all worked to make sure he had luggage, a ride to Tallahassee and whatever else he needed.
He started college in CARE’s summer-transition program. The move to Tallahassee didn’t make him nervous — he was used to moving — but he found college “rough” at first, as he worried about keeping up with classes and fitting in, the responsibility of it all.
But his grades were good during the summer, and he liked that the program provided an easy way to meet others who had faced similar challenges.
“We all lived through crap,” he said.
He thinks about foster care a lot, but not always with regret because it made him who he is.
“I think,” he said, “I’m a pretty strong person.”
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