January 21, 2021

Whatever it Takes

CJ wanted to be a rock star.  His song lyrics were all about pain and suffering though.  He lugged around a hard cover of a Harry Potter novel in his backpack and liked to speak in funny voices, attempt Tibetan throat singing, and eat.  It was clear, he wanted someone to listen to him.

At the end of each class, CJ would race to the bus stop.  He told me he was living with a very strict grandmother who had very strict curfews.

As I got to know CJ each successive Saturday, I was surprised to hear his backstory.  He had been homeless for months, running away from his grandmother, and after he was picked up by the police, he was sent to Gardiner Betts juvenile center.  How bad were things at home?  Well, he told me he would rather stay in juvey than at home.

I also learned that CJ was an orphan. He was originally from Hawaii.  He told me matter of fact that his mother had been murdered. And his father had been killed in his wheelchair after a late night hit and run with a truck. 

All these kiddo's have sad backstories, but it was difficult not to be affected by CJ's tragic past.  I googled his name - as he has a unique surname - and found a newspaper article about his father's death.  But that article mentioned that CJ, then 5 years old, had survived the tragedy of his mother's shooting in Hawaii.  That gave me more specifics, and again with the help of the Internet, I found articles in Hawaiian newspapers about CJ's mother's fate.

His mother was Filipino, and she was unhappily married to a Naval officer.  He found out that his wife was cheating on him, so one day, he tracked his wife down and shot her dead while she was holding CJ who was just 18 months old and wounded her boyfriend - CJ's biological father - so that he would be wheelchair bound.  The officer took his own life.

But imagine my surprise when the article ended that the "2 brothers were unharmed."  CJ had never mentioned a brother!  With more Internet sleuthing, I soon found CJ's older brother who was in the Air Force.

Suddenly, a lot of pieces came together.  I did not understand why CJ's grandmother seemed to hate her own grandson.  But she looked at his half-Asian features as a constant reminder that her late son had had an affair.  Whenever we tried to talk to her about CJ's schooling, she would immediately rage about being stuck with a kid to raise at her age.  She resented her fate, she resented CJ's very existence.

I contacted CJ's older brother, Jason, on Facebook.  He messaged me that he had been looking for his baby brother all his life!  It was Thanksgiving weekend when I talked to Jason and he explained that after the tragic shootings, they discovered that he and CJ had different fathers so the court separated the brothers - one would go live with the officer's family in New York.  And CJ would go with his wheelchair-bound father who moved to New Mexico and died in the truck accident a few years later.  After that, CJ was sent to live with his paternal grandmother in Austin, Texas.

Once I contacted CJ's brother, Jason, I worked very closely with Erin at Partnership as to the best way to let CJ know about his brother.  He was having trouble at school.  He was having trouble with his grandmother who had resorted to locking him out when he was 5 minutes late for curfew and throwing out his clothes as punishment.  She resorted to removing his bedroom door.  She refused to take him to his after school tutoring sessions, guitar lessons - every educational benefit the YES program had found to help CJ complete high school.  Even the wonderful staff at Garza High School pleaded with his grandmother to be more supportive, but when she refused, I drove CJ to his classes.

However, things got worse - after yet another argument with his grandmother, CJ ran off to couch-surf with friends. He dropped out of school and seemed content to live in houses that were filthy, flea-ridden, and at one point without electricity or water!  No surprise, there were drugs in these houses of teens who had all dropped out of school.

When we told CJ that he had an older brother, he too was stunned.  His grandmother never talked about the tragedy, except to badmouth his mother.  CJ friended his brother on Facebook.  CJ's mood lifted dramatically.  He talked about the future.  He talked about meeting his brother, making a YouTube business together.  He was very excited, and in the background, I asked his brother to encourage CJ to finish school, perhaps follow in his footsteps in the air force?

A few months later, we received an amazing announcement.  His older brother's adoptive parents – actually his paternal uncle and aunt - contacted me.  They were concerned about CJ's couch-surfing.  They were concerned about his education.  They wanted CJ to live with them in NY to finish high school.

CJ moved to NY in November 2015.  His new family enrolled him into the SUNY GED program. A few months later, CJ was happily showing off his diploma on Facebook with this post:

Got my diploma today!!!
I completed my high school education a little early. I want to thank everybody that motivated me to get this piece of paper and believed I would get it on my FIRST TRY. I am truly shocked and humbled by this. Comparing myself to who I was two years ago I am baffled to see myself where I am today. Thank you guys so much for the support and for believing me every step of the way. Love you all!

High School Graduation Day!

** 2021 Update on CJ - He’s made his way back to Texas (Dallas), and he’s still interested in pursuing a career in music. He has a driver’s license, a job, and is still the same incredible human he was back at 16 when we first met. His struggles are far from over, much like many of the youth who have aged from care he finds it challenging to maintain stable housing while trying to pursue school and work. At the end of the day, though, Harrison is still there to answer his calls and PFC will always be in his corner.