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This Life with Gracie: Honoring those who give hope, direction to foster kids

At any given time, there are more than 13,000 Georgia children in foster care because they have been abused, neglected or abandoned. That number spiked recently to over 15,000, the most the state has ever seen.

If you have to ask why, you’ve somehow missed the fact that we’re in the midst of a deadly opioid epidemic that’s leaving children without someone to care for them.

But that’s a whole other story. This one is about the huge numbers of kids who never find a forever home and age out of the system. Kids like Riheem Jefferson.

That’s the bad news. The good news is with care and support, even those kids can and will do well.

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Against some almost insurmountable odds, they persevere. They graduate from high school and even go on to college. Like Riheem.

That’s enough reason to celebrate, but come Saturday, the National Council of Negro Women Atlanta Section will honor some of those who help make such happy endings possible.

RELATED | Nathaniel Brown’s journey from foster care to Ph.D. candidate

The celebration, the NCNW’s second annual Triple Crown Derby Affair, will recognize Fox 5’s “Wednesday’s Child” segment, which airs every Wednesday in partnership with the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services; Roberta Shields, president of the Ludacris Foundation that works with foster care children at the Carrie Steele-Pitts Home; and Darrell Mays, founder and CEO of the nsoro Foundation, which assists foster care students who have aged out of the system with college tuition.

Foster care and sex trafficking have been the focus of the Atlanta section since it received its charter two years ago.

“Honoring some of the hardworking men and women who are passionate about helping foster care and adoptive young people is something we feel they deserve, and we are excited about recognizing them,” said Diane Larché, president of the section, which includes Fulton, Gwinnett and Cobb counties.

According to Evelyn Lavizzo, executive director of the Carrie Steele-Pitts Home, only about 15 percent of kids in foster care graduate from high school. Of that 15 percent, only about 10 percent go to college, and of those only 2 percent graduate.

This year, Riheem, who has been in foster care nearly half his life, will be among them, graduating with an accounting degree from Savannah State University.

He was just 14 when he arrived at the Carrie Steele-Pitts Home in 2009.

RELATED | Foster care inspiring for both parents and kids

That year, after years of struggling to make ends meet, his mother drove him here from Louisiana to live with his grandmother.

Things only got worse, though, for Riheem.

His grandmother, he said, could not provide for him. When he passed out one day from the stress he was feeling, school officials called DFCS, and the teen was eventually taken to Carrie Steele-Pitts.

By then, Riheem was so angry, it was difficult for him to settle a grievance without a fight. Two years later, he left the home but returned in 2014.

He was attending Harper-Archer Middle School that year when he met Don Chapman, a retired U.S. Navy and Delta Air Lines pilot.

Chapman was there for the school’s career day. Riheem was his official guide.

Riheem Jefferson, 23, will graduate from Savannah State University in December after spending nearly half his life in foster care at the Carrie Steele-Pitts Home in Atlanta. CONTRIBUTED (Contributed/Contributed)

From the start, he was drawn to the pilot. He was funny. He called on the seventh-grader to answer questions. And he flew planes, the one thing Riheem dreamed of doing someday.

Riheem invited him to Carrie Steele-Pitts for dinner.

Chapman accepted but Riheem didn’t believe he’d come. People were always making promises to him they didn’t keep.

But five minutes before dinner was scheduled to begin the next day, Chapman arrived. They ate and talked like old friends, trading stories about their lives.

“I was blown away,” Riheem said.

Chapman assured him he was better than his situation and shared with him his 10 rules for success. Riheem hid them in his heart and applied them to his life.

These three, he said, he referred to often:

Rule #7 — You get no choice in what happens to you but you get 100 percent choice of how you respond.

Rule #5 — Deal with the world the way it is, not the way you want it to be.

And Rule #3 — If you want something different, do something different.

Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays. (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Three times a week, Chapman drove from his home in Newnan to Carrie Steele-Pitts to see Riheem, for their chats. As the two grew closer, Riheem realized he could depend on him and he embraced two other truths Chapman had drilled into him: It wasn’t his fault he was in foster care, and it wasn’t his responsibility.

RELATED | What happens to kids when they age out of foster care?

Riheem would go on to graduate from Therrell High School and then enroll in Savannah State. Instead of seeking his pilot’s license, though, he decided to major in business but soon switched to accounting.

He was in his sophomore year when he heard about the nsoro Foundation and its work on behalf of foster care students at DFCS’ annual Celebration of Excellence.

Riheem called the foundation the next day. He told him his story and let them know if he didn’t get $2,000, he might have to withdraw from Savannah State. Within days of the conversation, he said, his account was paid in full.

Riheem called and thanked the organization. They told him to stay in touch and wished him the best.

He followed up with a visit to the foundation office that summer, and they raised his scholarship from $1,000 to $10,000 and offered Riheem an internship that began last week when we met at Carrie Steele-Pitts.

Riheem was feeling good. Chapman was all smiles.

Things had happened just as Chapman and Lavizzo assured him: “If you just halfway do right, God would take care of the rest.”

Riheem Jefferson has tried to do right, but he said none of this would’ve happened without his mentor Don Chapman, the folks at Carrie Steele-Pitts and nsoro.

“They are the heroes of my story,” he said.

Find Gracie on Facebook (www.facebook.com/graciestaplesajc/) and Twitter (@GStaples_AJC) or email her at gstaples@ajc.com. 

EVENT PREVIEW

Triple Crown Derby Affair

Noon-3 p.m. June 9. $75. The Georgian Terrace, 659 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 404-273-3227, greateratlantancnw.org.

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