Helping the Invisibles: Teens in Foster Care

In honor of National Foster Care Month, we invited Sam Bracken, author of My Orange Duffel Bag, to share his inspiring story of overcoming a childhood of abuse and homelessness through the help of mentors and sports. 

Most people make all kinds of wrong assumptions about the almost 600,000 kids currently in foster care in the United States – if they think about them at all. The kids most likely to be forgotten are the teenagers in foster care. Many of us give up on kids once they hit their teens. We assume that their futures have already been determined.

I know firsthand many of the barriers homeless kids and youth from foster care face. I was one of those invisible kids – sexually abused by a friend’s older brother and randomly beaten by my parents and stepsiblings. My role models were mobsters and motorcycle gang members in Las Vegas. I suffered every kind of abuse imaginable at the hands of those charged with keeping me safe. At age nine, I started drinking and doing drugs. I was wrongly placed in special education classes until a caring teacher figured out, when I was 13, that I just needed glasses.

That was also the year I made the decision to change my life. I didn’t want to wind up like the rest of my family.

By age 15, I was homeless. Worried about losing my spot on the football team, I kept my homelessness secret from my high school and couch surfed. I managed to graduate No. 11 out of a class of 700 students.

Then a miracle happened. I earned a full-ride football scholarship to Georgia Institute of Technology where Coach Bill Curry was in his first year as head coach. When I flew from Las Vegas to Atlanta, everything I owned fit in an orange duffel bag. Georgia Tech officials had no idea they were getting a homeless teen. Lucky for me, the university had instituted its “total person program,” which meant that athletes got training on every aspect of being a well-rounded individual. When I hit an emotional wall my junior year stemming from my traumatic past, the coaching staff made sure I got professional help. Thanks to the academic tutoring, I was on academic scholarships my last two years at Georgia Tech.

Each year more than 30,000 young people age out of the foster care system, usually at age 18 – although a handful of states now allow them to remain in care until 21. Most of them experience homelessness within the first year of aging out. And the number of youth who leave the system without one single caring adult in their lives has skyrocketed over the last decade by 48 percent. Fewer than half of all kids in foster care achieve their high school diplomas. More than 70 percent of inmates in our prisons report having spent time in foster care or homeless shelters as children.

I am living proof that there is hope when adults choose to reach out and get involved. I owe my transformation to many people who offered me kindness and encouragement. I was never adopted, but I credit many mentors with helping me break the cycle of poverty and abuse.

You can make a difference in a kid’s life. As cofounder and national spokesperson of the Orange Duffel Bag Foundation, a nonprofit that does professional coaching on life plans with at-risk kids ages 12 to 24, I’ve seen miracles unfold once caring adults choose to open their hearts to young people others have written off.

We cannot afford as a nation to overlook the needs of our most vulnerable young people.

Be that one to help just one.

To learn more about Bracken’s story, watch this video: 

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