The Story of Jelani Freeman

The Washington Post carried the remarkable story of Jelani Freeman last week, noted in the blog of our good friend Kerry Hassenbalg.  The twists and turns of Freeman’s story provide a window into the real-world texture of life in the U.S. foster system.

The full story is worth the read, but certain key points come through loud and clear, first among them the ache of realities so many children face:

When Jelani Freeman came home after school one day, his mother was gone. Eight years old, he waited, realizing as the hours passed that she would not be back. She was mentally ill and in need of treatment. His father was in prison. “I just knew that was it,” he recalled…. In foster care, he was first placed with a woman who barely talked to him. “Dinner is ready,” she would announce, without using his name.  His next foster family left him home when they went to the circus, the movies or Chuck E. Cheese’s…. He lived in one group home, then another. His final placement, for a year and a half, was with an older sister who took him on a foster-care basis, he said, and told him he would have to leave when he turned 18.

Where Jelani is today, however, is a tribute to the profound difference personal involvement from caring adults can make in the life of a foster youth.  Just this week, he graduated from law school.  (A quarter of former foster youth who aged out of the system like Jelani have no high school degree, and just 6 percent even acquire a 2-year AA degree).   The elements that Jelani believes were key for him are worth noting:

For Freeman, what’s made the difference has been a kind of makeshift family of those who have cared along the way. Some cooked him dinner. Some steered him toward opportunities. One couple paid for a year and a half of his law school tuition. Many gave him the kind of advice a parent might bestow.

Alongside the many smaller involvements, one woman played a particularly significant role as a mentor:

“There were so many things going on, I sort of didn’t care about school,” he says. But that began to change when he met Jackie Booker, a Xerox manager and mother of three who became his mentor in the 11th grade through a community program….After school, he worked in her office at Xerox, and a few times a month they went out: to church, the bowling alley, the mall. They talked a lot by phone….Said Booker: “He needed to know somebody was around who cared. He needed to know I was there and if he had problems, I was going to help him resolve those issues.”

Looking towards his Law School graduation, Jelani concluded about Booker and the many others who opened their lives to him:

“This didn’t magically happen,” he said. “People encouraged me. People supported me….”One person at a time, he has pieced together something akin to family, and as he prepares to cross the stage once more, he says, “that’s more important to me than the degree.”