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Ieesha Johnson, 32, of Laurel, Maryland, had to grow up faster than other kids, taking care of four younger brothers and sisters while her mother struggled with addiction. In spite of the adversity, being split from her siblings, and being abused by a foster parent, she went on to college, earned a graduate degree and plans to start an organization to help children in foster care transition into adulthood.
Ieesha Johnson’s story starts in Las Vegas, the oldest of five. Without supervision, without an adult to care for her, or to show her how to care for herself, Johnson started to fall into a bad crowd.
"It wasn't a good place to raise kids," she said of her junior high years in Las Vegas.
Without an adult to watch out for her, she and her friends strayed to the Strip, not too far away, a place that is mostly off limits to children. She was living too fast, doing things reserved for adults, and sometimes illegal, like drinking and smoking marijuana on a couple of occasions.
At the same time, she also had the responsibilities of an adult. Her mother had developed a serious drug habit and left Johnson to fend for herself and two brothers and two sisters, each born almost exactly two years apart.
"I couldn't do the things teenagers did," she said. She skipped school. Not to roam Sin City with her friends, but to take care of her siblings.
"Somebody had to stay home and take them to school," she said.
Before long the family crumbled, the kids were ultimately separated and put into foster care.
But that wasn't the end of Johnson's story, nor did it provide a pattern that she would follow.
Determining her own path
Johnson refused to let her experiences in the foster care system define her.
She went to college, got a master's degree and now works as a hospitals services provider for an organization that helps promote organ donation.
What she lacked, what she had to learn on her own, sometimes the hard way, was the seemingly mundane life lessons that come from being looked after and cared for by an adult.
In spite of what she has heard from those who have heard her story or stories like hers, she doesn't consider herself exceptionally strong.
"She has dealt with it really well," said Adreon Fenderson, her college sorority sister. "I think it has to do with who she is."
Instead of exceptionally strong, maybe she was exceptionally lucky. But it could have been a lot easier, and it’s Johnson's goal to help make it easier for others.
Entering foster care as a teenager
Rewind to Las Vegas. Johnson's mother couldn't take care of her kids, struggling with addiction. Johnson, along with her mother and siblings, wound up back with their extended family in California. They lived in weekly motels, but before the family had a chance to find a permanent place, and before her mother could straighten out her life, things went south.
Johnson entered foster care and was separated from her siblings at age 15. She was placed in a foster home in Compton, an area of Los Angeles with a reputation for rough neighborhoods.
She describes it as a bad dream. She received calls from her siblings, who were lonely and afraid.
And again, being just a kid herself, Johnson had to grow up fast.
"I felt like I had to be the strong one," she said.
In spite of the reputation of her neighborhood's public schools, she found herself in Advanced Placement courses geared toward preparing high school students for the academic rigors of college.
She hadn't thought about attending a university before. But in the classes, where teachers challenged students to think critically, it was expected.
"You guys are going to college," she remembers her instructors telling the class.
It was a stark contrast to the other courses, where unruly students bullied teachers and little was accomplished in the way of learning.
In the advanced classes, teachers just assumed each student would graduate on time and then go on to college.
It was her teachers’ faith in her abilities, the guidance and support that showed Johnson the way for her to build a future.
"I just wanted something better for myself," she said.
She found a mentor in her literature teacher, and the guidance counselor who routed her into the advanced classes.
"If it wasn't for that counselor, I would have never gone to school," she said.
Johnson graduated and was accepted as a freshman at California State University at Long Beach.
Entering college from foster care
At the same time she was entering college, Johnson’s foster father sexually assaulted her. She managed to get out, to leave, and moved into dorms. He stalked her and waited for her outside her dorm room. She then took to sleeping over in the rooms of friends and calling the police.
Her next foster parent was kind and loving. Johnson wasn't living at their house when school was in session, so the parent would send Johnson the monthly check, thinking it only fair.
"It could have been a lot worse," she said of her experience in foster care.
But as she made her way in school, learning about what she wanted to do — she discovered she was a confident public speaker, and majored in communications.
However, Johnson also had a learning curve other students didn’t have in doing ordinary tasks of adulthood such as a paying bills and managing money. She also got a credit card without realizing the risks of a young person suddenly gaining access to more money than they have ever seen.
"I took a life skills class, but it was a joke," she said.
Without anyone to look after her, she found friends, sought out mentors and tried to help those in need, including her brothers and sisters. Having to learn the hard way, she realized young adults leaving foster care needed some kind of practical instructions on living life on their own.
"I didn't have a mother worrying about my grades," she said.
Johnson hopes one day young people entering college from the foster care system, despite not having a mother worrying about them, will have the skills to take care of themselves.