The earliest picture Elbert Belcher has of himself shows him in his mother's arms as a newborn with a social worker in the background.
It was the beginning of 12 years of foster care, followed by four years in an abusive adoptive home and a return to foster care. His sister and two other younger siblings followed a similar path.
"I was born into the state's care," Belcher said. "But God has blessed me with where I am and what he has brought me through."
Those are the last words I would have expected from someone who lived through so many difficulties.
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"I've always had this survival mentality," he said. "I've always had a positive outlook on life. I use where I came from or the homes I've lived in to develop my character."
That attitude and his desire to help other youth in foster care played a role in his being named a Foster Club All-Star, the first from Kentucky. FosterClub is a national network for young people in foster care. Each year, a nine-week summer internship in Seaside, Ore., is offered to youth, ages 18 to 24, who are trained to plan and facilitate various foster care and child welfare events nationwide.
"It will allow him to learn the skills it takes to advocate for himself and the rest of the foster youth," said Jeff Culver, a social service clinician with Fayette County Juvenile Services and co-founder of Fostering Goodwill, which assists aging-out foster youth as they transition to independent living. "For a 21-year-old to want to do that, that shows a lot. He is one of my most successful kids."
There were no guarantees Belcher's life would be so positive. He was adopted at age 12 along with his younger sister and two younger brothers, he said. All of the children were removed from that placement in Clay County about four years later.
"We all were placed back in state care," he said.
He later was accepted into Necco, a private agency that partners with government entities to provide safe environments for foster children through a variety of services.
"I came to Lexington without a high school education," Belcher said. "I had dropped out to join the program. I came here without transportation and got around on the buses."
Belcher earned his GED two months after coming here. He also found a job, bought a car and enrolled in Bluegrass Community and Technical College. He hopes to become a social worker.
He found time to join Fostering Goodwill and the Kentucky Organization for Foster Youth, or KOFFY, Leadership Council, which gives voice to youth in foster care throughout the state of Kentucky.
Friday, Belcher boarded a plane for the first time and has been immersed in workshops to learn how to become a more effective advocate.
"I hope to bring back to Kentucky everything I've learned here," he said.
Fortunately, there are programs that are helping more foster youth to have more positive outcomes like Belcher's.
A statewide KOFFY Youth Conference will be held at the University of Kentucky to give foster youth ages 16 to 23 information about life skills, budgeting and relationships, Culver said.
"It allows the youth to meet kids from other parts of the state and to stay in a UK dorm," he said. "It is a good thing for our kids to do."
Plus, he said, many of them will attend the Run for Independence, a 5K race on June 2 in Coldstream Park that serves as a fund-raiser for Fostering Goodwill and its efforts to help aging-out youth with moving expenses, security deposits for housing, assistance with utilities and other costs.
"It will be a good time for the public to meet some of these kids," Culver said. "Some of them might be their neighbors."
The money also will be used for a Second Chance Scholarship for former foster youth who want to go back to college and need assistance with delinquent accounts. Any help we can provide can lead to more youth like Belcher.
"Their past doesn't dictate their future," he said of young people like himself. "The things they are going through should not affect what they are going to do.
"This is not my story.This is not my voice. God has blessed me with the opportunity to share it."
"He is just the best kid," he said.
Definitely. We need more like him.