Before a Feb. 27 packed house at the Holland Performing Arts Center a woman strode on stage to introduce playwright-poet-performance artist Daniel Beaty.
Schalisha Walker, 25, was unknown to all but a few in the audience. She was there to not only introduce Beaty but to deliver a personal message about the hundreds of foster care youth who age or drop out of the system each year in Nebraska. These young people, she noted, can find themselves adrift without a helping hand. She knows because she was one of them, Walker was at the Holland representing Project Everlast, a statewide, youth-led initiative that assists current and former foster care youth to smooth their transition into adulthood.
This former ward of the state has successfully transitioned from life on the edge to the picture of achievement. Her story of perseverance is not unlike Beaty's own saga. In his work he often refers to the crazy things his drug addict, in-and-out-of-prison father exposed him to. The performing arts saved Beaty by giving him a vehicle for his angst and a platform for expressing his credo that one can rise above anything.
Walker's risen above a whole lot of chaos.
She says, "My mother was extremely young (15) when she had me and she was unable to care for me properly. I was about 2 when I went in the (foster care) system and I was 4 when I was adopted."
Separated from her six siblings, things happened within her adoptive family that prompted her to leave and go off on her own at 17. She finally found a safe haven at Everlast, where she got the support she never had before. She served on the youth council that helps formulate the organization's programs and policies and she shared her story with the public in speaking appearances.
She now works as a youth advisor with Everlast, a Nebraska Children and Families Foundation program. Introducing Beaty wasn't the first time she's been the face and voice of Everlast and the foster care community. She appeared in a documentary about the project and she's been featured on its website.
"This is truly an organization with people committed to the work," she says. "Our job doesn't stop when we leave the office. It's like a family, I really mean that."
This fall she's starting school at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, where she hopes to earn a social work degree.
"I've always wanted to help children in need. It's really natural for me. I was fortunate to get a job here (Everlast). I love what I do and I do it with my heart."
That night at the Holland she stood tall, black and beautiful invoking Beaty's poetic testimony to share her own overcoming journey and the role she plays today as a mentor for otherwise forgotten young people.
Reading from Beaty's poem "Knock, Knock" she exhorted, "'We are our fathers' sons and daughters but we are not their choices. For despite their absences we are still here, still alive, still breathing with the power to change this world one little boy and girl at a time.' The words struck me to the core. They convey the passion I have for using my experience to help young people with a foster care background struggling and feeling alone as I did…
"For many years I let my past keep me from my future but now I use my past to help others. Let me be the voice for those that have not found theirs yet."
Having walked in the shoes of the young people she engages, she understands the challenges they face and the needs they express. It's almost like looking in the mirror and seeing herself five-six years ago.
"It's a powerful identification. Struggling with unhealthy relationships, a feeling of being alone or having no one to turn to or looking for a job and not knowing what's the best decision to make – I see that on a regular basis. I see myself in a lot of these young girls, especially when it comes to the unhealthy relationships. I see so many young people who just want to be loved and accepted. Unfortunately, a lot of times what happens is they get in the wrong crowd. Looking back, I was in some very scary situations.
"I'm glad I'm at a point now where I can offer advice from having been there and making the wrong decisions and now making better decisions. Now I can use my life experiences to say, 'Hey, this is what happened to me, I don't want this to happen to you, I want to help you.' I feel I'm like an older sister or a mother to them."
Just as she's a mother to the kids she serves, Everlast associate vice president Jason Feldhaus is a father to her.
"He's very much like a dad to me," Walker says of him. "You might as well say he is my dad. I talk to him a lot. That's a relationship that was built. He was in my position when I was in youth council – he was my youth advisor."
Feldhaus says there "was just something different about Schalisha from the very beginning." He explains, "She was very organized, very committed, very mature. Even early on she just always seemed dedicated to something bigger to help make things better for people. The young people she works with bond to her and so no matter where their life is in flux they still keep coming back to Project Everlast and I think a lot of that has to do with her ability to connect to them."
Walker says the disruptions that can attend life in and out of foster care, such as moving from family to family or being separated from siblings, "can be very traumatic" and adversely affect one's education and socialization. The more links to stability that are missing or broken, she says, "the more difficult it is to keep your life together."
Everlast grew out of an Omaha Independent Living Plan initiated by Nebraska Children and Families Foundation to address resource needs and service gaps faced by foster youth. Foundation director of strategic relationships, Judy Dierkhising, who oversaw Everlast during a recent transition, estimates that of the 200 youth aging out of foster care in Douglas and Sarpy Counties each year 40 percent don't have an adequate plan or support system in place. That's not counting individuals who get lost in the system as Schalisha did. In Neb. youth age-out of the system at 19.
Until Everlast, Dierkhising says, "there were not a lot of services or programs dedicated to that transitional living piece that helped young folks look for housing, job and education opportunities." The project bridges that gap by connecting young people to partner agencies, such as Youth Emergency Services, that offer needed resources.
"We provide young people access to those services they need to live independently, to grow into adulthood, to have engagement with the community, to be successful educationally, to be connected to health care, et cetera. A number of young people we work with don't have anybody else there for them. We help them to help themselves and hopefully to find some permanence in their life. We're here to empower them, with whatever it takes, to know they can have an impact on the world and that the world isn't doing it to them.
"We're not trying to save them, we're assisting them to be successful, just like Schalisha. She is a tremendous role model and advocate for how there is a way to survive this and to thrive."
In the immediate years following the break from her adoptive family Walker had no one to formally guide or mentor her, which meant she had to figure out most things for herself.
"The experience with being adopted was very difficult and I ended up being on my own. It was very difficult, very lonely. I hadn't even graduated high school yet. I had to drop out of school to work to support myself. I was working four jobs at one time. I had no choice because I didn't have the support of a family like I should have. I didn't have the support of friends because all my friends were still in high school.
"I ended up staying with some friends until I was able to have an apartment on my own."
She says unstable housing is a major problem for foster youth once they leave the system.
"Homelessness is not uncommon. It is an ongoing issue. There's a young man I work with who ever since he aged out was couch surfing. He now has a steady job and a safe place to live in. It's very scary not having a safety net or a stable place to call home and that is a reality for many of these young people. It was a reality for me as well. In my case, I couldn't go back to the home I was at. Just having a place to call your own where you feel safe and that you can go to every night can make a huge difference."
She says Everlast introduced her to youth and adults she could trust and count on to help her navigate life. Through its Opportunity Passport program she built her financial management skills, The dollars youth save are matched by donors. The program enabled her to retire the beater of a car she drove to buy a newer model vehicle.
"What I found was people that really cared about your success, people who really listened and wanted to be a support for you. It was like a relief finding people who had been through what I'd been through and I could share my story with. That was very powerful."
Having that safety net is much healthier than going it alone, she says.
"That feeling of being alone and not being wanted can tear you apart. Having to make some of the decisions I did is something no child should have to go through. The experiences I had and some of the difficulties and struggles I dealt with is why I'm so passionate about making sure no other young person feels alone or feels they have no support and no one to turn to."
She says the young people she works with all have different stories but they're all trying to improve their life, whether going back to school or landing a job or finding a secure place to live or leaving an abusive relationship or getting treatment for drug or alcohol addiction.
"Any step forward is a success and makes my job worthwhile. That's why it's really important for me to be here doing this work."
After dropping out of South High she earned her diploma through independent studies and lattended Metropolitan Community College.
Drawing on her own experience of never having her birthdays celebrated as a kid, which she says is common among foster youth, she created the No Youth Without a Birthday Treat initiative.
"What I like to focus on is giving them normal experiences they might not have had. It's to make sure they have a cake or a pie or cookies or muffins, whatever they'd like, for their birthday because it's a special day for them and I want them to feel special. To give that young person their first birthday cake and to see their joy is amazing.
"At Thanksgiving and Christmas we have a big event with a dinner and presents."
She also makes sure young people experience arts and cultural events they may not otherwise get to enjoy. Until she was asked to introduce Daniel Beaty, Walker herself had never been to the Holland. Judy Dierkhising took her there a few days before the program and Walker was awed by the space. Though Schalisha had spoken to groups before, she'd never addressed an audience the size of the gathering that night for Beaty's one-man show, Emergency. It was different, too, because this time she was communing with someone she regards as a kindred soul and whom she also considers "amazing."
"Daniel Beaty is such a talent. His poetry is electrifying – it gives me chills to hear him speak and to watch him perform," Walker says. "I'd never seen him in person, so to see him live was a whole other experience. I'd never seen anything like that before. It blew my mind. I'll never forget that performance. It was such an honor to introduce him. It was so exciting and I was really nervous."
Reiterating what she told the audience that evening, she says Beaty's poem "Knock, Knock" deeply resonated with her.
"When I first heard that poem I cried. A lot of my passion comes from my experience. The reason I'm in the field I'm in and do the work I do is because of the experiences I had. His words that we are not our parents' choices really touched me, really spoke to me. So did his story and the things he overcame and the struggles he went through.
"It made me believe that no matter what you come from you make your future. You don't have to be a product of what you came from, you don't have to be what people expect you to be, you can be so much greater. That is what is so amazing to me about him."
Topping it all off, she says, "He was so nice to me. He's so cool and laid-back and down-to-earth. He has this presence about him that screams awesomeness without him being cocky."
One of the things she admires about Beaty – his resilience overcoming steep odds – is what she admires in the young people she serves.
"The resilience they have to overcome is amazing. They didn't want to be in these difficult situations and they're motivated to do what they need to in order to get out. So many of these young people are talented and smart. They have dreams and goals and aspirations."
She recognizes the same drive in herself pushed her to excel.
"I wanted to show that despite the circumstances around me that I still could succeed. I just have a real fire and passion to not fail and to not become a statistic and to show other young people they can make it.
It's been a lot of work."
When she takes stock of her journey, she says she sees "someone who's overcome a lot," adding, "I see someone I'm proud very, very proud of, but even now I still struggle accepting that and saying that because some of the emotional scars are still there."
She's motivated to pay forward what was given her, she says. "because young people are counting on me to be there for them."
Read more of Leo Adam Biga's work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.