The first time CASA Volunteer Ineke Ligtenberg set eyes on the 9-year-old foster child she had chosen to work with, she was reminded of a scared little bird.
“She was sitting on the sofa, hiding behind her older sister in their new foster home, not knowing what to expect,” Ineke remembers.
The child’s name was Donna. She was in 5th grade, had been in the dependency system for approximately four months and had just been placed in her second foster home. Donna, her twin brother and her older sister were removed from their single mother’s care after Donna told authorities about the abuse the children were suffering at home. To this day, Donna’s mother still blames her for breaking up the family.
Donna did not immediately warm up to Ineke, a retired school teacher who was volunteering her time as a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA). In fact, Donna’s first thought upon meeting Ineke was, “oh great, another person.”
Not a surprising reaction considering how unstable Donna’s life had become after being uprooted from her home, school, family and friends. To Donna, Ineke was just another adult passing through her life. Little did Donna know that Ineke would be in her life for the next six years, becoming someone Donna talked to “like a mom,” remaining by her side through three home placements, run-ins with authorities over a shoplifting habit, academic struggles, and transfers to three different high schools.
It took Donna several years to open up to Ineke. It wasn’t until Ineke came to watch Donna perform with the choir during her freshman year in high school that Donna began to warm up – more than three years after their first meeting! Donna wasn’t used to anyone paying attention to her accomplishments, so she was touched that Ineke showed up to watch her performance.
Slowly, she began to trust and confide in Ineke – and listen to Ineke’s advice, particularly concerning school. “When Ineke came into my life, I saw that I needed to change,” says Donna, “to care more about my education and to figure out what to do after I finish school." Considering the dismal outcomes faced by foster youth, Donna and Ineke were right to be concerned about Donna’s future.
Studies show that:
- 46% of foster youth drop out before obtaining a high school diploma
- Only 10% enroll in college
- Fewer than 1% earn a four year college degree
Within the first two years after leaving the system:
- Nearly 33% become homeless
- 50% become unemployed
- 25% are incarcerated
Thanks to a lot of hard work and Ineke’s support, Donna beat the odds. She brought up her grades, became a member of her high school’s choir, the Vietnamese Student Union and Filipino Club.
In between school work and clubs, she worked at a restaurant on the weekends. Not only did Donna grow academically, Ineke watched her become an intelligent, compassionate and generous young woman.
Ineke recalls that when Donna got her first paycheck, she took her brother and mother out to lunch. And, Ineke watched as Donna gave her just-purchased lunch to a homeless person.
Donna graduated from high school six months early and joined the U.S. Marine Corps, her lifelong dream. With Ineke’s consistency and support, Donna has overcome many challenges in her life and she is determined to keep working hard to achieve her goals. “I will not let foster care statistics define me. I want a better life."