When Reuel first applied for an internship in our animal department, she wore a dressy blazer and sported long red fingernails. Deborah Ramirez, our animal caretaker, set her straight right away.
“She wasn’t sugar-coating anything,” Reuel now recalls. “She told me not to bother to wear anything nice, that I’d be working around bugs, dirt and poop.” Reuel was nervous; she says she prayed we’d choose her.
What we didn’t know at the time is that we’d be able to make such a big difference in her life.
Reuel came to us from an organization called Beyond Emancipation, which is Alameda County’s primary provider of services for former foster youth. Their mission is to support current and former foster and probation youth to make successful transitions to adulthood and independent living. The group now serves more than 1,000 youth ages 16 to 24 annually. Reuel has been in the foster system, in many different homes, for most of her life. As a child, she never knew her mother. Her father was in jail. She now knows she has 11 siblings.
What does she consider the hardest part of her past life? “Being told you’re not going to be nothing,” she says. She was told she’d never graduate from high school, and when she accomplished that she realized, “I can do anything.”
It was at a booth on campus at Laney College, where she was taking a few courses, that Reuel came across the Extended Opportunity Program and Services (EOPS) booth.
EOPS was established in 1969 as a social reform program of the California Community Colleges; it develops programs and services to meet the unique educational needs of students challenged by language, social and economic disadvantages, and it provides programs and services over, above and in addition to the regular educational courses of the college. EOPS collaborates with Beyond Emancipation to support former foster youth, and help them be successful at Laney and beyond.
Reuel says EOPS changes her life. “They took a big load off my back,” she says.
First, EOPS helped her move in with her cousin. Then the program worked with her to plan a year of classes, took her on tours of schools like UC Davis, offered tutoring and guest speakers, and even provided food and other services when she needed them.
But the most important service EOPS offered was Friday sessions that allowed Reuel to meet other young people who shared her history of foster care. “They became like family to me and kept me moving forward,” she says. “I never really trusted people, but now I can.”
Reuel started working at Fairyland as a paid intern, then earned a promotion to ride operator. She also checks our summer campers in and out and works as a cashier at our ticket counter. She always arrives early, with a great attitude and a willingness to learn new work skills.
It was in our animal department that Reuel began to learn about herself. “It helped me overcome so many things—not being afraid of animals, knowing how to interact with them and making them feel safe in their living environment,” she says. She developed a special bond with Deborah, whom she describes as “not just any boss, but a great one.”
She adds: “It touches me that there are people who are still out there that would like to give us [foster kids] another chance to make things right.”
Reuel also participates in our outreach program for children who have experienced trauma or have social and emotional issues, in which we bring them together with our gentle animals. There’s one little girl in particular who adores and looks up to her, and Reuel loves that.
“The way some of them act, having social anxiety—I used to be the same,” she says. “I didn’t break out of that until college.” And now?
“I can sit in the front of the class.”
I had to ask Reuel about the tattoo on her right forearm. In lovely script, it says “Unique,” a nickname given to her by her cousin.
“Everything I do is unique,” she says. “The way I dress and carry myself. I like to stand out, to be a leader. I don’t want to be like everyone else.”
Because of our positive experience with Reuel, we recently brought on four other paid interns from Beyond Emancipation to work in our horticulture, animal and theater departments.
We don’t know them well just yet, but we’re absolutely sure that each one is unique.
To learn more about Beyond Emancipation and how you can help some great kids get a second chance, go to beyondemancipation.org.