Merlene Davis: Non-profit that helps foster kids transition to adults could use our help at holidays

Adrian Oliver, vice president of the board for Fostering Goodwill, spent 12½  years in foster care.
Adrian Oliver, vice president of the board for Fostering Goodwill, spent 12½ years in foster care.

After he turned 18 and aged out of state custody, Adrian Lee Oliver discovered he had been misspelling his name for most of his life.

"When I got my birth certificate I noticed my name was spelled A-D-R-A-I-N," Oliver said. "I had been spelling it wrong for all those years."

He chose to continue to spell it the way he always had.

Oliver, 25, spent 12½ years in Kentucky's foster care system. He and three older siblings were taken from their home when he was 6 years old, and he never returned.

"I never got told the conditions of my stay in foster care," Oliver said. "No one seemed to think it was relevant."

He and his two brothers were reunited in a group home a year later and then separated again, he said. The closest he came to living with his brothers after that was at age 10 when they lived in separate dormitories at a group home. He never was reunited with his sister while in state custody.

Oliver lived in 35 or 40 group homes and foster homes while in state custody, he said. His longest stay was about one year.

Since aging out of the system at 18, he decided to remain in state custody by continuing his education at Bluegrass Community and Technical College. He took a class in Chinese culture and got an opportunity to teach English in China for two years. Now that he has returned, he is hoping to return to school to study sociology.

It's been a struggle for Oliver, but his story is not that different from others who have aged out of foster care without a family to support them.

That's why he joined Fostering Goodwill, a program that reaches out to former foster care youth who must learn to navigate life alone. The non-profit can tell them about tuition waivers that will pay college tuition, about getting rent and utilities paid, and gift cards for food twice a month as long as they opt to continue their education under state care.

Oliver serves as vice president of the board at Fostering Goodwill.

Social workers Jeff Culver and Earl Washington started the program about five years ago and have watched it grow into the program they dreamed it would.

During the Christmas holidays, the program tries to give each of the young people a gift card, which sometimes is the only present they get. This year the cards will be given out during a celebration at Gattitown on Dec. 20.

There will be door prizes as well as four awards to the young people who exemplify good qualities and character, Culver said. Those awards are in honor of Nick Carter, a young man who committed suicide before his 21st birthday in 2008 just as he was about to age out of the system.

"We had a great turnout last year of more than 100 kids," Culver said.

Fostering Goodwill is "overdue and more than necessary," Oliver said. "It is trying to provide that network for when you are one of the people who age out. You are not educated on how to survive on your own. That is what it was for me."

After turning 18, Oliver "wallowed in alcohol" and bounced around for a few years trying to find himself, he said.

"We try to pick up where state custody leaves off," he said. "We help to put them on the right track."

Oliver occasionally sees his brothers and sister, but their relationships, their bonds have been damaged.

"In our particular situation, because we never got picked up by a family, we just don't know anything about each other," Oliver said. "It's more like friends that bump into each other."

Still, he refuses to use his experiences as a crutch. Instead, he wants to use them to help others.

"I'm trying to get in the position to advocate for people who have the same unfortunate experiences as I do," he said.

It seems donating a gift card for youth in similar situations is a very small sacrifice on our part.