The twist to Legend Walker’s story of 13 years in foster care is how easily she laughs telling it.
Recalling her first foster home in third grade, Walker of Kansas City throws back her head: “Cats and Pepsi.” That home had plenty of both.
Her second foster home had a private zoo. “I am not making this up: They had zebras, chimpanzees. ... I’d hang out with kangaroos,” Walker says, then delivers the punch line.
“They had an anteater, OK? It was awesome.”
Minutes later, she’s back to dabbing at her eyes with tissue.
Growing up has mostly been painful for Legend Walker. Approaching 21, she soon will “age out” of Missouri’s foster care system without finding a forever family.
She’s lucky, though, that Jackson County Court Appointed Special Advocates in 2015 received grants to fund transitional services for older youths, from 15 to age 26 if need be. Under the program, Walker has been getting help to hone adult skills and learn independent living beyond her 18th birthday. That’s when services end for foster children in most states, including Kansas.
On Wednesday, she will tell her story to 1,200 supporters at Jackson County CASA’s 17th annual Light of Hope fundraising breakfast.
Since the group formed in the 1980s, training volunteers to help neglected or abused youngsters in state custody, Walker is the first “CASA kid” still under court protection to speak of her experience to a large audience, organizers say.
“Legend is a remarkable example of the strength and resilience that motivates these young adults to pursue their dreams,” said Martha Gershun, Jackson County CASA executive director.
Walker says she wants to speak — not only to show appreciation for CASA volunteers and staffers, Family Court judges and Missouri case workers who have steered her to this portal in life. She also wants to spread hope “to my fellow foster youth” facing similar journeys.
“It’s hard, and it’s lonely,” she says. “I used to live in the past, thinking of how things didn’t turn out for me.
“I didn’t think so much of how things could turn out ... when I’m finally in control.”
A rough childhood can teach many things, she says, like “knowing you can beat the odds.”
Staying on track
National child-welfare statistics show that many young Americans aging out of foster care do succumb to the odds:
▪ More than 20 percent become homeless.
▪ Seven out of 10 girls who leave the system without permanent placement become pregnant by age 21.
▪ Only 58 percent of foster youths who age out will graduate high school by age 19, compared to 87 percent of 19-year-olds in the general population.
▪ Only half are employed at age 24.
Walker ages out this summer when she turns 21. She could have left behind all those years of case workers, courts and CASA volunteers when she hit 18.
But she has avoided every bullet point listed above, thanks partly to the transitional services now available in Jackson County to older youths.
She pays her own rent through income she earns helping manage a restaurant. She remembers the exact date she obtained her GED — Jan. 10, 2014 — and intends to be the first in her family to get a college degree.
She is enrolled in a welding program at Metropolitan Community College.
Walker gives much credit to former CASA staff member Ashley Shroyer, who in 2009 first met Walker — then a young teen and bitter — pacing and fidgeting in a courtroom hallway. Shroyer has since left the county advocacy agency but stays close to Walker as a CASA volunteer.
Shroyer is there to check at least monthly on Walker’s needs, take her phone calls anytime, talk about the ins and outs of car-buying (don’t forget sales tax) and offer other guidance.
“I’ve seen Legend mature a lot since she was 18,” Shroyer said. “She deserves all the credit. Legend has done it on her own.”
Moves and memories
One part of her life in foster care that Walker won’t broach is how it began. She’s mum on the home conditions that led to her being taken away in a state vehicle when she was 7, going on 8.
Talking about that is living in the past. Not her thing anymore.
The first foster home, with the cats and cases of Pepsi, lasted maybe six months. The zoo experience a while longer.
A kid loses track moving from place to place. Don’t hold her to it, but “I want to say five foster homes? And two residential group placements,” or group homes.
When a move happens to young foster children, often they aren’t told why.
Sometimes a child’s trauma is just too deep for a home to handle. Sometimes a foster parent lands a new job requiring a transfer. Or there’s a divorce in the home. Or a new love interest enters.
“Life happens even to foster families,” said Gershun.
Yet even as little Legend was mystified by the moving, she usually took with her good memories of the foster families she’d leave.
Today she says: “They were there for you. You don’t forget them.”
Still, a larger memory meant as much to her. “When you’re 8, you know who your family really is,” Walker says. “I missed my siblings and my mom,” most terribly during holidays.
In her mid-teens, a bad time for any child to change environments, she rejoined her mother.
Didn’t go well. Ignoring all boundaries, she skipped 80 classes in ninth grade. Mom called case supervisor Shroyer at CASA and said, “She’s out of control.”
Walker knew it, too. Which is why, at her next court date with Shroyer, she felt respected when Shroyer shot straight and recommended a group-home placement.
“You’ve given me no choice,” Shroyer said unapologetically. “You need the help.”
Walker has trusted her ever since.
‘This is your spot’
At the group home, in Marshall, Mo., Walker got serious. She found work and boned up for the GED, testing out at 17.
Having her fill of foster care, she reached an age when contemplating a forever family made little sense to her. But it also made little sense to walk away from the team of social workers ready to help her become an adult.
Not merely a legal adult, but a prepared one.
Shroyer left her paid job at CASA to pursue another career in 2014, around the time Walker turned legal. But as Walker’s friend and mentor, Shroyer kept working with her as a CASA volunteer.
It’s difficult enough for any young person to grasp the challenges attached to adulthood. “Imagine going in without those parental figures to guide you,” Shroyer told The Star.
“There can be a bit of terror. I’ve seen Legend’s fears decrease the closer she gets to her 21st birthday.”
Now whenever Walker looks for a new place to live, she and Shroyer wind up discussing the front door.
“You control who comes in and out,” Shroyer tells her. “This is your spot.”
Doors have been swinging for as long as Walker can remember. But from here on, said Shroyer, “she’ll be in charge of who comes in and out the front door of her life.”
Now, having reopened the door to a good relationship with her mother, Walker says she’s ready to embrace the world.
The modern architecture of Dubai captivates her. She might travel there to start welding.
In any event, she sees herself returning to Kansas City to help mentor foster youth.
She still dabs at tears, but “I really am happy,” Walker says.
“I’m happy because I have people who love me.”
As always, more volunteers are needed.