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The TRAIL to Independence
by Russ Dilday

Amanda,* who had recently left the care of Child Protective Services of Texas, became pregnant and had a child. Single and unemployed, she had run out of options for her and her baby and called Buckner Children and Family Services of Southeast Texas for help.

Kevin Garriga, the voice on the Buckner end of the line, offered her an opportunity: “We want you to go to college,” he told her.

“She had gotten her GED and wanted to go to college,” he said. “We took her to Lamar Institute of Technology, got everything set up, got her Pell Grant money. All she had to do was register and show up for classes. We feel like the most important thing is to get these kids an education at this point in time.”

Amanda’s situation represents one of the thorniest issues that has faced children’s care services for decades: After providing a quality environment for children through foster or institutional care, how to continue that guidance after they leave? Many former residents or foster children, once removed from the structured environment of care, often are ill-equipped to handle situations faced in adult life and have no support system on which to fall back.

But Buckner may have the answer through an innovative pilot program that helps young adults who have left the care of Texas Child Protective Services and are struggling to make it on their own. TRAIL, Transitioning to Responsible Adult Independent Living, was initiated by Buckner and the Texas Department of Protective and Regulatory Services in January, 2000 to answer the critical needs of these young adults in Southeast Texas, including Lufkin.

“There’s not another program like it in the state,” said Garriga, case manager for TRAIL. “Last fall (1999), many agencies met and discussed the problem. They knew that kids were leaving care and that there was nothing for them, there was nowhere for them to go. We wished them good luck and ran them out the door.”

The group expressed the need for TRAIL, but Buckner was the only agency that bid on it, he said. Not “just for Buckner kids,” he added, “It’s for any kid who was in care, in this region in Texas, Region 5, when they are 16 years of age or after. So they could be in a CPS foster home or at another agency or whatever, as long as they were in care as a ward of the state.”

“The purpose of the program is to help the kids become self-sufficient,” he said. “We try to teach them responsibility so that they can move into adulthood. The program is not designed to be a continuation of care. We’re only here to assist these kids.”

“When they need something, they call me,” he explained, “b a lot of times I’m just a shoulder to cry on, or someone they need to talk to. I have them from 17 to 21 years of age right now and all ethnic backgrounds -- Anglos, Hispanics, African-Americans. There’s no discrimination. We want to serve anybody and everybody we can. I’m a lot of mommas and daddies to a lot of kids right now.”

Velleader Watts, 20, who was in foster care for 10 years, is one of those enrolled in TRAIL. A sophomore deaf education and occupational therapy double major at Lamar University, she described the program is “awesome. When I first met Kevin…I was trying to figure out how I was going to be able to go to summer school and pay for it. I didn’t have any money and I didn’t have a place to live either.”

She said TRAIL is what it says. “What they do is help us financially when we need it. They help us look for jobs. Kevin has helped us deal with financial aid difficulties.

“He’s like a support system,” she added. “I see him as my mentor, because around here you don’t have any parents close to you and you don’t know anybody and you need someone sometimes. When I met him I was real down on my luck and he and his assistant, Keisha, helped me.”

That help is not solely financial, Watts said. “He and Keisha took me around looking for jobs. I had put in about 30 or 40 applications before one person called me. It was just hot outside and they paid for bus passes so I could learn to ride the city bus system. Just anything trying to help me become independent and doing things for myself. That’s what Kevin does.”

Watts said that Buckner keeps the relationships informal. “We just pick up the phone and say, ‘Kevin, we need you,’ and he’s there.”

Garriga said the state is “looking at measuring this for 18 months to two years” before considering moving it to all the other regions in Texas. Even in that quick time window, he said the TRAIL team has learned some “surprising things.”

“Probably the biggest thing that surprised me about the program was, no. 1, the eagerness of the kids to participate and want it,” said Garriga. “We were afraid at first because a lot of the kids had been in care for so long that all they are thinking of is, I don’t want any part of this. But the kids, once you explain to them that they are not in care…are very willing. I have kids calling me now that want to be in the program, instead of us calling the kids.”

“Without TRAIL,” said participant Eugene Grant, 19, who is attending Lamar Institute of Technology in Beaumont and studying process operation, “I would not be in college. I would be back at my mom’s house in Orange, which isn’t a very good living predicament. I would have no way to and from school.
There’s no telling what I would be doing, but I know I wouldn’t be in school. It would be the last thing on my mind.”

Grant, who said he comes “from a very impoverished family,” noted that he’s “been in and out of foster care since I was 2 years old. Mom didn’t have any money and dad left really before I was born. That was a lot of stress on her with seven kids. So she turned to drugs and alcohol and all of that and of course abused us and stuff like that.”

He said a single event changed his life – a change that continues with TRAIL’s help through today. “I was bad all the way up to eighth grade. I was into stealing and stuff like that. And then I made the honor role in eighth grade and it kind of like shocked the heck out of me. Ever since then I’ve been going uphill.

“TRAIL has helped me realize that, yes, you can overcome troubles in your life,” Grant said. “That it’s not the end of the world just because you don’t have parents and stuff.

It’s Kevin caring for us and him wanting to be there for us that makes us want to do good. He’s a pretty good person. You know if hadn’t been for TRAIL, there ain’t no telling….”

That’s the point, agreed Garriga. “We want them to know that there is someone out there who wants to help them be a success with their life and they can do it with a lot of determination and some support -- but they’re going to have be the ones to really get the fire burning to get out there and get it done.”

* Not her real name.