PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Oregon has long struggled to manage a foster care system responsible for more than 8,000 children. But the power of a dedicated foster parent and a foster care charity in Portland has helped turn one life around.
“It goes all the way back to being taken away from my family at the age of seven,” said Anthony Preston of McMinnville.
He and his siblings were removed from their home by the Department of Human Services. At that young age, he didn’t understand why.
“I was confused, angry. Why am I not with my family? Why am I not with my parents?” Preston recalled.
He later learned that drugs and alcohol were the reason he was placed in the foster care system. That’s where he spent the next 14 years until he aged out at 21. He spent those first several years going from house, to house, to house.
“I honestly can’t even count how many different homes I was in,” he said.
Taken away from everything he knew, as a child he felt like he was living among strangers.
“Most of them do their best to try and make you feel comfortable, but that’s really hard when you have no idea how long you’re going to stay there,” he said. “You’re always walking on pins and needles.”
The instability, chronic stress, and trauma took its toll on him.
“In the beginning, I got in a lot of trouble,” Preston said. “I acted out a lot in class because I was angry and I was confused. I didn’t know what was going on. I didn’t know why I was different than all the other kids, so I decided to act differently than all the other kids.”
Most of the time that bad behavior had its consequences. But from 7th grade to senior year, Preston got to stay in the same foster home. That’s where he met his closest foster brother, Shilo Hampton.
“We were like best friends and we did everything together,” Preston said. “Having Shilo with me gave me a sense of family—it gave me a sense of being able to be a big brother, which I felt was stripped from me when I was taken out of my home and places in the foster care system.”
But, starved for acceptance, Preston and Hampton fell into the wrong crowd.
“He ended up going to Lloyd Center and hanging out at Holladay Park right across the street,” Preston said. “He was hanging with a group of friends that weren’t always the best influence on him and he ended up getting caught up in a gang-involved shooting.”
Hampton was the only one hit and killed.
“After that, I realized I have to turn it around,” Preston said. “He can’t turn his life around, so I have to do it for him. And I have to live my life in the best way that I can so that I can make him proud.”
In high school, Preston decided to find healthier ways to cope with the trauma.
“I got involved in communities that gave me that sense of family that I didn’t necessarily get at home,” he said.
The foster mother who kept him in line all those years was one strict woman—Mrs. Washington. Her structure and unconditional love helped propel him in the right direction.
“She’s a special lady. She showed me consistent love,” he said. “Raised me to be the man that I am today. I would not be anywhere close to where I’m at without her.”
His newfound drive and perseverance brought him into an elite group. Preston became part of the 35% of foster youth who graduate from high school and went on to become part of the 2% who graduate from college. He received his degree in criminal justice from Western Oregon University.
He is now putting that degree to use.
“Spoiler alert: I’m a police officer for the City of McMinnville,” Preston said as he spoke on stage at a foster care fundraiser.
He picked up his story with how a Portland foster care organization also helped change his life.
“The reason I’m telling my story isn’t to make you feel bad for me. It isn’t so you’ll feel sad and guilty,” Preston told the crowd. “I wanted to tell you my story so you could see where I started from, to where I’m at today and how the amazing organization that is Project Lemonade has gotten me to this point.”
Project Lemonade provides foster youth with a free shopping event so they can begin their school year with new clothing, shoes, and confidence. Overall, it creates hope for foster youth.
“I think everybody knows that all you want to do as a kid is fit in, and a lot of times that’s by having cool, new clothes,” Preston said. “You want to be stylish. As a foster youth, you don’t get those opportunities very often.”
But Project Lemonade was more than just clothes for Preston. The founders behind it, like Rhonda Meadows, provided jobs, resume building, college supplies and even a place to stay. Meadows was there for him when times got tough.
“He was able to jump over all the hurdles put in front of him,” said Meadows. “He has perseverance. He’s such a strong leader.”
“It wasn’t just me,” said Preston. “It took a village of people to rally around me in all different aspects of my life. I don’t think it’s ever just one person. It’s just a combination of the community that they have and I was just lucky.”
Lucky indeed, because Preston often says that futures don’t look as bright for thousands of other foster kids.
“Unfortunately, a lot of times it ends in incarceration, homelessness, struggling to keep a simple job—a lot of them don’t even graduate high school because you don’t have a support system around you to help you out in the ways that you need,” Preston said.
Because of that, Preston said there’s a negative stigma that follows kids in foster care. He wants foster youth instead to be thought of as fighters.
“Because we go through a lot to get wherever we’re at in life,” said Preston. “Sometimes we face a lot more adversity than the average kid.”
Preston said he would love to see more people step up to become foster parents, like Mrs. Washington.
“There’s something special when you see a kid that’s been through so much make it out the other side. It takes a lot to be society’s definition of successful when you come from the foster care system,” said Preston.
And, successful he is.
Preston is newly married. He and his wife hope to be foster parents one day. He’s also the first African-American officer at the McMinnville Police Department. Later, Preston wants to be a school resource officer so he can work for and support kids.
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