It was the last overdose that prompted Kelsey’s grandparents to say “Enough!” Realizing they could no longer handle her, the couple contacted the Kansas Department for Children and Families, and Kelsey entered state custody 10 days after her 17th birthday.
Her most recent overdose wasn’t even the most severe, yet it had become clear that Kelsey was not in control of her life, and she was in need of the kind of help the Liberal, Kansas, couple could not provide. Her entry into care was the beginning of a long and painful road to healing that began with a foster family placement.
Kelsey thinks she lasted about a week in that home. At the time, she didn’t believe she had a problem. She knows now that she was in fact “really depressed and not in a good headspace.” That foster home placement was both her first and her last. After that, she spent time in a succession of group homes, “too many to count.”
“I was a huge flight risk,” she says, “and one of the rules of a group home is that if you run for more than 24 hours, you automatically get kicked out. So, if I didn’t like a placement, I thought running would be an easy way to get out.”
Kelsey’s father left his family when she was just a few months old. Her grandparents raised her the first 13 years of her life, but then she moved to Salina to live with her mother. She recalls she was in the 8th grade when she started using substances, mostly alcohol and marijuana. Then she tried other others … and there was also some minor trouble with the law.
“It wasn’t a good living arrangement,” she says. “I started doing whatever I pleased, and the substance abuse got out of hand. After my mom kicked me out, I moved back to Liberal to live with my grandparents again. For a while, it got better, but then I started messing up really bad.”
Eventually, the overdose that prompted her entry into custody occurred.
In her heart, Kelsey suspected that this was not how people should live. She was afraid. She feared her actions would keep her in state custody indefinitely. She also worried that if she messed up just one more time, she would lose irrevocably any chance of a happy, fulfilling future. Then one day, while receiving substance use treatment in a group home in Olathe, she discovered a lifeline, a path to hope.
“I felt like my whole life was going downhill,” she says. “Then one of the staff said that I was never going to just change; I had to actually put in some work. I would never fix anything by just sitting here.”
It sounds simple enough, yet for Kelsey it was illuminating. She discovered that her path to healing lies within her.
By the time Kelsey aged out of foster care, she was sober and hopeful. Her Saint Francis Ministries Independent Living (IL) team helped her find a place to stay, and she now shares a house with six other young women, each working on her newfound sobriety. They support each other. Kelsey also attends weekly AA meetings while she looks for a job. To help them transition to living on their own, the state provides temporary financial, medical, and educational assistance for foster children who have aged out of the system. They also receive ongoing guidance and monitoring from Saint Francis and DCF. To remain eligible for the Independent Living program, Kelsey must be employed full-time if she’s not attending school. If in school, she must maintain at least a “C” average and work part-time. Kelsey plans to both work and further her education.
“Since the time I was really young, I’ve always wanted to go to tech school and become an EMT,” she says. She’s been accepted and will begin her classes next year. In the meantime, she’s going to job interviews. A couple have already asked her back for a second visit.
For the first time in a long while, Kelsey is optimistic. She’s catching glimpses of a future bright enough to call her own, and she’s motivated to stay sober.
“I don’t want to go through the same pain and the same struggles as before,” she says. “I genuinely want to make myself proud.”
Her grandparents are proud; she speaks with them daily. They even paid her first month’s rent. In fact, her whole family is rooting for her and hoping for her success. That, she says, is important – because for things to get better, young people like her need to believe that they can. That’s what she would tell them.
“I know that it might not seem now like it will get better, but it will. I promise that. Just keep your head facing the sun, because that’s what sunflowers do.”