Changing the system
a social work student with an inside view
By: Kristi Spurgeon
Jeff Lawson, grew up in the foster care system. Or perhaps more accurately, Jeff Lawson grew up despite the foster care system. Now the Walla Walla College senior social work and religion major is determined to keep what happened to him from happening to other children.
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As a step in that direction, Lawson recently joined Republican Congressman Tom DeLay and other notable politicians at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a one-of-a-kind foster care community in Texas called Oaks of Rio Bend, spearheaded by DeLay. “I have personally seen the good, the bad, and the ugly in this system, and can say I would have given my right arm for a place like Rio Bend,” Lawson said to standing ovation from the crowd gathered for the grand opening held in August.
Lawson spent his first six years with an abusive mother before being placed into the foster care system where he spent the next 12 years shuttling between 40 to 50 different group homes. When he was released from the system at 18, Lawson describes himself as “ill-prepared for adult life.”
How did he get from the streets of Tennessee to rubbing shoulders with the House Majority Leader? “A couple years ago I was browsing the Internet and came across a speech on foster care written by Mr. DeLay entitled ‘Help is on the Way’. I was so touched that a politician had the guts to stand up for foster children that I e-mailed him and to my great surprise his office contacted me the next day!” exclaims Lawson.
To make a long story short, DeLay, his wife, Christine, and his senior policy advisor Cassie Bevan (who has since become Lawson’s godmother) became closely involved with Lawson, helping obtain his foster care records from the state of Tennessee. Which, as Lawson says, “literally took an act of Congress.”
Those records would have been helpful a few years earlier when Lawson had tried to enroll at Walla Walla College. Shortly after being released from the foster care system Lawson was able to get his GED and join the Job Corps in Kentucky. “It was there that I became acquainted with Seventh-day Adventists,” he says. Becoming convinced he should attend an Adventist college, Lawson chose WWC, but while getting settled he found that his financial aid had fallen through because he needed the foster care records to prove he was a ward of the state, thus qualifying for more financial aid money. A few years later, after graduating from Walla Walla Community College and trying unsuccessfully to enlist in the army, he was finally able to enroll at WWC.
Now Lawson hopes to use his personal experience, WWC education, and political contacts to change the foster care system. “I’d like to work the policy end,” he says. “It makes better sense for me to try changing the system than to work within it.” Lawson hopes to intern with DeLay, inspired by DeLay’s commitment to foster children.
The DeLays have been foster parents for many years and the opening of the Rio Bend community is the fulfillment of a dream for the couple. “The foster care system is flawed and needs a lot of help,” says DeLay. “Rio Bend sends a message of permanency to foster children.” The community, built and maintained by money raised by the DeLay Foundation for Kids, will serve as permanent, caring homes for the children, so they don’t have to move from place to place. It will also provide a home for them to return to after “graduating” from the foster care system. Eventually Rio Bend will house a total of 192 children in what DeLay describes as a “faith-based community.”
Lawson is a believer in the community. As he said at the ribbon cutting, “I remember praying to God as a little kid that I promise to be good if you give me a family. At Rio Bend, no child will have to pray that prayer because they will have a place to call their own.”
To discover more about the Rio Bend community, visit www.riobend.org. For more information about Walla Walla College’s social work program, visit www.wwc.edu/academics/departments/socialwork/.