ep. 15 - Ashley Rhodes-Courter: NYT Best-Selling Author, Social Worker, & Former Foster Child

Bio

Ashley Rhodes-Courter is the quintessential American success story. Born in 1985 to a single teen mother, by the age of 3 she was in Florida’s foster care system where she spent almost ten years being shuttled between 14 homes—some quite abusive—before being adopted from a Children’s Home at the age of twelve.

Despite her ordeal, she excelled in school, and felt compelled to advocate for herself and the other children she lived with, particularly in the abusive foster homes.Since the age of 14, Ashley has advocated for the half-million children still in foster care in America by giving speeches throughout the U.S. and abroad. She has spoken on Capitol Hill, has been invited to the White House, and has taught at numerous colleges and conferences for elected officials, judges, social workers, policy makers, and families.

Her efforts and academic achievements landed her Eckerd College’s Trustee Scholarship—the school’s most prestigious full-tuition award. She graduated with honors and ahead of schedule earning a double major in Communications and Theater and a double minor in Political Science and Psychology. Ashley then went on to earn a Master’s Degree in Social Work from the University of Southern California.

On June 1, 2003, the New York Times Magazine published her grand prize-winning essay about her adoption day. She expanded her essay into a memoir, Three Little Words, which was published by Simon & Schuster in January 2008 and quickly became a New York Times bestseller. Her memoir is currently being made into a major motion picture. The book has been adopted by schools and communities as part of One School, One Book initiatives across the country.

Three Little Words: A Memoir
$9.89
By Ashley Rhodes-Courter
Three More Words
$10.99
By Ashley Rhodes-Courter

Transcript

Kyle: Okay, with us today is Ashley Rhodes-Courter. Wow, I screwed it up, but it is Ashley Rhodes-Courter. She is a former foster kid turned social worker. Now, she's a New York Times best selling author of the book 'Three Little Words' and the author of 'Three More Words'. [00:01:30] She's also a keynote speaker. Thanks for joining us today,

Ashley, how are you?

Ashley: I'm great. Thanks for having me.

Kyle: It's a real pleasure to have you on the podcast as we say over here. If you could, I know I purposely so gave you a really short introduction because I like it when people such as yourself have the opportunity to tell their own story, so if you could, give us your background and give us your story so the audience has an idea [00:02:00] as to who you are, and we'll go from there.

Ashley: I would be happy to, and it's always such an honor to be able to share my story, because my early beginnings were founded on the fact that I was a foster child. I spent almost 10 years in foster care. During that time, I had 14 different placements. I later learned that more than 25% of my foster parents were or became convicted felons. [00:02:30] You can imagine that I definitely was not placed in the most ideal of circumstances all the time, but through a lot of that tragedy and pain, I was really able to create a lot of great coping skills and found this sense of resiliency that has served me well into my adulthood.

When I was 12, I was finally adopted from a children's home. I was really lucky to find that stability [00:03:00] of an adoptive family. I did have a mentor, guardian ad litem, also nationally known as a casa volunteer, Court Appointed Special Advocate. She was really this phenomenal volunteer who came in and provided me with a voice and someone to talk to and someone to teach me how to be a humanitarian and give back and really look up to. She helped find me this adoptive family that was fantastic. Now, I get to have [00:03:30] a really normal, happy life.

When I think about a lot of the messaging that I speak about today, I talk a lot about what are the elements of resiliency? How can people transcend the circumstances they were initially born into or have experienced? How do you overcome those adverse situations but also recognizing the power of one person and the individual influence that [00:04:00] the smallest act of kindness can really have on a person. Using my personal story, I get to illustrate all of these yes, I'll give you seemingly cliché topics, but my story is just a living testament to how unbelievably resilient the human spirit can be, how dedicated and hardworking community members are as they're trying to engage the world around [00:04:30] them.

I think that one of my favorite groups are educators and teachers and policy makers and people who really put their hearts on the line for other people. Companies that have a philanthropic angle: hospitals, healthcare professionals. These are facets of the work force that directly impact children and families, which is who I serve every day. It's really cool to be [00:05:00] a live example of why these fields are so important and how any individual with any background can ultimately go on to do really amazing things.

Kyle: When you were growing up in the foster system, I know you said you spent 10 years, get 14 placements. They weren't always the best individuals if you want to say that. I mean, [00:05:30] I don't remember being 12, so if you could just remind me what is it like when a 12 year old has to find coping skills or learn what resilience is like? What is that? I mean, explain it.

Ashley: I think for kids, especially children who have experienced abuse and neglect and trauma, they have to grow up really quickly. I have really vivid memories of being a very little kid and wandering [00:06:00] around a trailer park begging for food for my baby brother and myself. I have tons of case files and records and notes that showed that at a very young age, I had to create skills that would allow me to survive. I think also when kids are forced to grow up that quickly, sometimes it can really harden them. They become very jaded and cynical and sad [00:06:30] and statistically of kids who are in foster car, 50% or less will even graduate high school.

Three percent or less go on to higher education. Those numbers alone show you how much that childhood trauma can really create negative outcomes for young adults. I think it's really important to share stories like mine because it not only reinforces the work [00:07:00] that educators and social workers and people in sometimes very thankless professions, it reinforces the work that they do, but it also shows young people and teenagers that they can transcend their circumstances and despite what's going on around them, there are elements of their life that they get to harness.

A lot of people will ask me, "Well, how did you do it? How did you find the resiliency? What does that even look like as a kid?" You can believe that wheen I was seven or 12, I didn't know what resiliency was, [00:07:30] but I did have a sanctuary, and I had passions and things that I loved and things that I looked forward to. For me, school was absolutely a sanctuary. When I went to school, I wasn't beaten and I didn't go hungry. I was a foster kid, so I got free breakfast and a free lunch. I thought it was fantastic.

Kyle: Right.

Ashley: I just found a lot of really positive reinforcement in that environment. [00:08:00] In the fourth grade, my teacher gave me my very first book, which was 'Ann of Green Gables'. For all of the listeners who can't see my right now, I have red, curly hair, so I'm a walking little orphan Ashley. I'm reading this book, and of course I knew about little orphan Annie. I'm thinking to myself, okay, woah, what's up with all these red heads who are orphans and have A names? [00:08:30] I was like sensing a little bit of a pattern here, so that was a really touching moment in my life.

Who could have guessed I would go on to be a writer myself and have two books about my life? It's looking back on those moments that I'm able to illustrate how these small acts of kindness can make a huge difference, but also how you [00:09:00] as an individual can harness experiences for the better and turn them into something beyond anything you maybe could have imagined.

Kyle: That's amazing. I have a lot of friends who have very interesting background stories, some similar to yours, some vastly different. One of the themes I find with some of my friends is they always get lost in books. I'm a horrible ... I didn't learn to read until the second grade, so I'm probably not a great example [00:09:30] of it even though I was a history major. I find that the whole idea of what you said of getting lost in books and having a fourth grade teacher tell you about that and that small, little act planted a seed for something that was so much greater.

Ashley: Well, and not only that, I think it's really interesting that you brought up the reading thing. When I'm talking to groups of high schoolers and college students and young people who are really struggling to find their way or they're feeling [00:10:00] self-conscious about maybe an academic deficit, what's so interesting and so encouraging is that the landscape now for sharing a story, sharing your creativity, getting your voice heard, is so vast and so different. In my case, I was blessed that I wasn't born with a cognitive disability. I didn't have drug exposure in utero. I thrived [00:10:30] academically.

However, there are so many other ways to succeed in school. School isn't just about textbooks. You don't even have to be a strong reader. To be perfectly honest, I'm not a great comprehensive reader. I tend to have to read things several times. I'm constantly missing little things.

Kyle: You and me both.

Ashley: Well, but no. It's totally the truth. It's like you don't have to be this amazing genius to [00:11:00] have a passion for something. A lot of times, people will say, "I have a story, and I want to do this, or I want to do that, or I want to write a book, but I hate writing." I'm like, "Well, then why write a book? Write a song, play music, have a play, do a sport." I think the arts in general are an amazing outlet for creativity an storytelling, but you don't have to be bound by one craft or one art form. Honestly, I wouldn't even call myself a writer [00:11:30] as weird as that sounds. I have the two books, but they're memoirs. It's pretty easy to tell your own story. For me, it was like writing a huge term paper.

I had all of these case files, and I did interviews. It felt almost like being a journalist in a weird way, but I couldn't even begin to tell you how to piece together a piece of fiction or a scifi novel or something like that. You know what? That's okay, because [00:12:00] everybody has different strengths and different interest. You don't have to be an amazing writer to have your voice heard. I think some of the most compelling, best selling books right now, they've got a lot of grammatical errors and some things that people traditionally would call issues with structure. All of this formality goes out the window when you're [00:12:30] dealing with a subject matter that you're passionate about.

That passion and that genuine desire to help other people and do good in the world, I think it transcends whatever rhetoric is out there about what should or shouldn't be done or said or printed or worn or played or experienced. It's really about who you are as an individual. How you choose to express that is entirely your own.

Kyle: Wow. I think it's a [00:13:00] good segue into the first book you had, which was 'Three Little Words'. You mentioned just a moment ago that you had the ability to read over case files and to conduct interviews. Looking back, I guess for you, your life's documented. What's that like?

Ashley: Well, what I'll say is that me having access to my case files, that is not normal. That is not what happens. When [00:13:30] a child is adopted, their records get sealed, so the fact that I had access was very, very unique. I only had access because fast forward a lot into my story, when I was a teenager, two of my former foster parents had been arrested, and I had lived in this home when I was about seven and eight years old. They had 16 kids living in a trailer with two bedrooms. We were [00:14:00] beaten, starved, locked outside. It was just absolutely torture, horrible.

Well, many years later, they had been arrested on over 42 counts of felony child abuse with torture. That was shocking, and I was happy, because it meant that finally somebody was listening to the kids, and somebody was trying to take a stand for what was right and protect the kids that [00:14:30] remained in that home even after I'd left. I got involved in a series of class action lawsuits in Florida where I live. That was a really amazing experience because I got to be come Ashley Brokovich so to speak and create a lot of policy change in the child welfare system.

I think that was really important for me, because I've always believed that it's not enough to complain about something if you're not willing to be a part of the solution. [00:15:00] Instead of my just whining and crying about having been abused as a kid, it was important that I had a chance to change laws and practices and procedure that maybe could prevent other kids from falling through the cracks of the foster care system like I did. Because of those lawsuits, my records were subpoenaed. That was the only reason that my records got pulled out of the vault of the abyss that they go into.

It was a really [00:15:30] wild experience because I got to read all of these files and case notes and interviews, and it is completely weird to have your life documented for you. What's upsetting is that sometimes what's in those documents is completely inaccurate. In fact, I had some case workers that were arrested for falsifying records. When you're looking at this mound of paperwork that's supposed to tell other people about who you are and what you're [00:16:00] about, it can be really damning. One of the big things that I have in my presentations is that you can never judge a child by their case file, a patient by their medical report, a colleague by a peer review. There's so much more than what's on the paper.

I definitely experienced that first hand, but it also gave me a lot of speech material, and it gave me a [00:16:30] lot of opportunity to see where improvements could be made but also get a lot of factual information about my story that a lot of people definitely do not have. That helped me recreate a lot of the early dialog and scenes that are in my first book. 'Three Little Words' is all about my experiences growing up in foster care, so it starts when I'm a little girl and people are lik, "How can you possibly remember this stuff?" I say that first, [00:17:00] it's absolutely human nature for people to remember the worst of your experiences, especially if you don't have that positive influence to remind you of good times.

I absolutely remembered very vividly a lot of the feelings of abuse and abandonment and alone and being hungry. Having all the files helped recreate a lot of the early dialog and early scenes. Then, helped me track where my foster homes [00:17:30] were, who my teachers were, what my schools were. I changed schools twice a year until the seventh grade, so everything was so all over the place, but I got to go back and do interviews and phone calls. Again, it was like writing a huge research paper on myself. I never thought that I would write a book. That wasn't thing on my radar. The whole experience came about because when I was 17 I entered a contest for the New York Times [00:18:00] magazine that asked you to write about a day that was really life changing.

I wrote an essay called 'Three Little Words', which was about my adoption day and how my adoption day was not this rainbows and sunshine kind of happy occasion. It was absolutely terrifying for me, because I had seen kids be unadopted and sent back. This idea of happily ever after and permanency and family, it [00:18:30] meant nothing to me. I just didn't believe that that was in my cards or that was something that was within reach for me. I'm not going to spoil what the three little words are, because I did it once at a radio show, and I got massive hate mail, because we are not a country of spoilers.

When people are like, "What are the three little words?" I always say, "Read the book."

Kyle: Yeah. Read the book.

Ashley: The first book ends when I graduate [00:19:00] high school, and I happen to win first place from this essay contest and then publishers contacted me interested in hearing the full story. It was this crazy freak show opportunity that fel into my lap when I was a teenager. When you're 17 and they're like, "Oh, do you want to write a book?" You don't say, "No thanks, I'm driving." No, you just say yes and you figure it out later. That was [00:19:30] kind of my jumping point into writing a book and between then I went to college and was living life and 10 years had passed.

Then, in that span, went to college and had very real life experiences, good and bad. I met my husband. We became foster parents. We've cared for over 25 foster kids. The stories of those foster kids were just equally remarkable, [00:20:00] but also frustratingly they systemically were making a lot of the same mistakes with these kids that they did in my case. Part of my just healing process was journaling, so I did keep a journal throughout this whole period and would write down my feelings and emotions and catalog it for myself. Then, at the end of the day, there was this pretty amazing story to tell of these kids. It absolutely [00:20:30] fueled my passion for advocacy and my desire to share about this population.

We had a lot of really sad circumstances, kids that were sent back to really abusive situations. We tried to fight for them and advocate. It was to no avail. Last year, we had a former foster child that was sent back to family she had been removed for. She was a nine year old little girl. [00:21:00] She was beaten to death with a tire iron by her uncle living in the home. That was really, really devastating for us, but it also became a lesson in reframing and refocusing and even though at that time our fostering journey had come to an end, that just wasn't something we could do any longer, we then shifted our focus and energy into a non-profit organization of our own.

[00:21:30] We created the foundation for sustainable families, which is an organization that helps connect existing resources but also bridges the gap and provides direct services for high risk and high conflict families. We've been able to channel our passion into a slightly different way of helping kids and families. That all leads to a really important message about burnout and retention. It's [00:22:00] sometimes just that refocusing and reapplying but never giving up entirely.

Kyle: Just to use your words, you refocused and you reframed what it is you're doing now, but out of curiosity, what are your hopes for the foster care system that's in place now? Pardon my naivety, but I'm assuming this is a state run thing and a state by state basis, but what changes [00:22:30] would you like to see made either on a state by state or nationally, or-

Ashley: Sure, I think that is one frustrating element is there is no uniformity across the country, so every state does things a little bit differently. Even within the stats, some counties sometimes do things differently than other counties. Some states are privatized, some states aren't. Systemically, it's a little bit of a mess. However, permanency has to be a priority, so finding kids permanent families [00:23:00] as quickly as possible whether that's appropriately rehabilitating their birth parents or finding a suitable relative for them to live with or getting them into a good adoptive family as quickly as possible. Those elements really, really help, but at the end of the day, there's so much red tape in bureaucracy and opinions and players.

The thing I always boil down to being [00:23:30] the most important is that one on one relationship. Kids in any field, whether it's education, social work, child welfare, juvenile delinquency, dependency, whatever, human beings, they don't understand that red tape and the layers of drama and nonsense and chaos. They understand kindness and safety and warmth [00:24:00] and compassion. Those are the elements that are going to transcend whatever mistakes logistically are made in any case, whether someone is in the work place or a child is navigating the school system or a kid is stuck in foster care.

The things that are going to make the biggest difference are those human relationships. How can we not only empower the young person to survive their elements, but [00:24:30] also encourage the community to wrap around these young people and ensure adults know how critical that intervention is. It's just bringing it back to that micro level and reinstilling compassion and kindness and just giving a crap about other people will go a really long way in resolving a tremendous number of issues.

Kyle: I couldn't agree more. [00:25:00] Yeah, I made a comment on another podcast recently that it was kind of on the same boat, but just being hyper intentional and being-

Ashley: Brilliant.

Kyle: -in the moment and actually giving a damn.

Ashley: Totally. I love it.

Kyle: Not just kind of floating through the world with a nonsensical two minute phone calls that result in nothing but actually having something to say and caring.

Ashley: That's awesome. [00:25:30] What's so cool about volunteering and just going beyond yourself is ironically it's one of the most selfish things you can do, because it's so therapeutic and healing and rewarding. I can't tell you how much of my own stuff, because we all have stuff, that I've been able to understand and harness and work through by simply helping other people. It [00:26:00] kind of gets you out of your head and gets you beyond yourself. It's also, at the same time, really doing a tremendous service for somebody else or a community at large. It's absolutely a win-win.

Kyle: I agree on that one too. I have a phrase when it comes to working out, and I know it's a weird way to relate this, but it's getting out of your mind and into your body. It's kind of the similar thing where you just get out of your own self if you will and apply it to other people, [00:26:30] or beings. Like I just told you prior to recording, I just adopted a dog that was found stray on the street. Now, we're trying to get rid of tapeworms. I wouldn't give him up for the world, because I love the little bastard.

Ashley: You also mentioned that the shelter had given him the wrong breed and had been dismissive about it. See, you immediately saw something really special that nobody else did. You're probably going to have the most amazing companion on your hands because it sparked something [00:27:00] and you went out on a limb and even though it's hard and inconvenient and not pleasant and probably smelly, it's going to be-

Kyle: It's all sorts of stuff. Yeah.

Ashley: -a life long relationship that is going to change the both of you. That's just so cool.

Kyle: Yeah. I guess now we maybe get my mom excited about kids. We'll figure that one out. Okay, cool. Yeah, I agree with that. I mean, so much in volunteer work that I've done in the past and probably will continue to do in the future, [00:27:30] it seems like a very selfless act, but the rewards and the benefits I receive from it from a, if you want to say, a spiritual level or an emotional level or whatever I'm getting back out of it. It's kind of like a dopamine rush of awesomeness. Yeah.

Ashley: I won't play coy, because I know there are a lot of college kids out there, a lot of high schoolers, let's be honest. Young people need community service hours for scholarships, [00:28:00] for job applications, for-

Kyle: Teen court.

Ashley: Yeah. Here's a prime example. 'Three Little Words' is part of a curriculum called the first year experience, so it's been used in a lot of Universities all over the country, which has been totally awesome, because the entire incoming freshman class reads the book. Then, each discipline does different projects and community service and discussions. The book is integrated into the curriculum [00:28:30] throughout the year. Completely cool experience. One school was so fascinating because the book was in the medical department. This is students that are pre med. They're like, "Oh man." It's easy to see how the book relates to social work, education, you know?

They're like, "How are we going to tie this into medical and aspiring doctors?" Some of it's easy because the medical care that foster kids receive [00:29:00] and they can be the first point of contact for reporting abuse and those elements, but the professor did something that was so brilliant. They said the kids, not just focusing on foster care, they focused on community service and serving others, because all of these little aspiring doctors and lawyers, they're going to be like every other aspiring doctor and lawyer. What's going to set them apart from everybody [00:29:30] else?

One of the big kind of hooks they were encouraging these students to embrace are those extracurriculars, the community service. You have to broaden who you are. It's going to help, yes, all of those warm, mushy gushy things, and there's people like us that it think just genuinely love service to others, particularly because like in my case, I remember so vividly what it was like to be on the other side. [00:30:00] For those who maybe are a little more practical about it, it absolutely is great for you spiritually, but you don't know. Your volunteering in the big brothers big sisters might be the element on your resume that sets you apart when you're going to get that job interview or when you are applying for a scholarship for school or for anything.

The moral of the story is just do it. Just [00:30:30] volunteer. Even if you're doing it for selfish reasons, volunteer, actually do something, engage. I suspect that what will happen is it's going to be healing and rewarding. Maybe you're going to find something that you're unbelievably passionate about. Worse case, you've just done something that maybe helped or save somebody else's life. Do it for the right reasons, do it for the wrong reasons, whatever, just do it

Kyle: Shout out to Nike.

Ashley: [00:31:00] Oops. Yeah. Unintentional.

Kyle: No worries. I'll throw one caveat onto that, not saying you're wrong or right, but show up, but actually show up. Don't just walk through the-

Ashley: Oh, well that's a necessity.

Kyle: I dropped my phone. Hold on. I had-

Ashley: I love that you're like drop the mic boom.

Kyle: Drop the mic yeah, except I dropped my phone. That's 2017 calling. Yeah. You know, I've seen people just [00:31:30] go through the motions when they do volunteer work just because ... I had to do teen court for a speeding ticket I got when I was 17. I was on one of those playground pick up things, and you could just tell the kid just didn't care, whereas I was like, "Oh, let's clean up. This is fun," and I made a game out of it for some reason. It was enjoyable to me, but that's just kind of how I've done every volunteer thing or any time I've ever had to work with somebody else, but actually how up and get engaged.

Ashley: Okay. That's true. I do stand slightly corrected. However-

Kyle: Non-intentional [00:32:00] correction by the way.

Ashley: No, it's good, but it's like you have to do something beyond yourself. I think that wen I identify those kids that are not really into it, what's kind of interesting about that as well is that you don't know someone's satyr. You don't know why they're dragging their feet that day, so I really try not to pass too much judgment on how others act. Instead, you kind of have to let it inspire you and your actions. I think [00:32:30] for me it makes me work harder and look to do something a little different or better or make sure they have a hug that day.

Kyle: That's good. One of the things that I kind of want to kind of pivot towards is once your story came out, it just blew up. I'm reading right here that you were featured on the Today Show, Good Morning America, Nightline, Nancy Grace, ABC Primetime, Montel Williams. I see Levi's shape up to what's to come campaign [00:33:00] that was part of a Ted's Woman conference in DC. What was it like getting all that exposure for simply telling your story? What came of it that really inspired you to continue doing what you're doing today?

Ashley: I think to this day it's completely bizarre and weird that this is a thing, that people have me come an speak places. That's a thing. I'm pinching [00:33:30] myself constantly that I have this opportunity, because it just seems so common place for me. I think that because I was such a fierce advocate at such a young age, I've always been that soap boxy type person. I've never minded sharing my story, especially because it was a way for me to show that you don't have to be embarrassed about the things you've experienced, and it's [00:34:00] because of your adversities that you're actually that much more capable of success and succeeding.

I think that it's been great that the exposure that I've had has created more awareness about a national issue. I'm motivated to keep going and keep sharing, because I know that every time someone hears my story, maybe it will inspire someone to become a CASA volunteer in their community because there [00:34:30] are CASA organizations all over the country. Maybe it will inspire someone to be a mentor or a foster parent or a donor or maybe it will inspire a teacher to not resign or not give up or just kind of reinforce what people are doing.

Every time I hear stories and get feedback like that, it tells me that I'm doing the right thing. I will say that as I've gotten older, [00:35:00] it's become a lot more difficult. I think it's really, really easy for people to like and respond well to a young person telling their stories. I mean, teenagers and kids and young adults have the most powerful voices. You almost can't go wrong, but when you become an adult, I'm not 31, and you start running into a lot of I guess you would call trolls, people who want to tear you down, who want to see you fall, who question [00:35:30] your motives. The conversation just can become really bitter, especially when you're dealing with controversial issues like children dying.

Those can be really, really difficult situations to navigate, but almost always when I'm in these moments where I'm doubting myself or thinking that I should just crawl into a hole, not answer the phone, take care of my kids, just kind of live a life [00:36:00] of anonymity, I'll get an email from someone that says, "Your book is the first book I've ever read cover to cover," or, "I was going to commit suicide this week, but I found your book in the library, and your story makes me think I can do it." That kind of response is breathtaking. It means so much to me. I guarantee that there are people out there who maybe [00:36:30] don't like what I have to say or don't like the way I talk about certain things or either my speaking style or whatever it is.

It's about finding your tribe and the people that want to hear you message and the people that you can influence and will influence. It could be life changing, which you have to focus on [00:37:00] those positive elements, because if you focus on the hate mail or the evil reviews or the nasty remarks about particularly women in the speaking field. It's so much less about content. It's, "Oh, what she was wearing." My people have gone after my weight. It's very that superficial element, but you transcend all of that because you're [00:37:30] doing it for the right reasons. You're doing it in the hopes of helping someone else, so it makes it a little bit easier.

Kyle: One thing I do want to end on, because we don't get a lot of people on here who have the story like yourself, and there's a way to help. One of the things you mentioned either when we were pre-recording or early on in this conversation was you had a CASA volunteer or a court appointed special advocate to help you out, land your permanent home and everything else. Could you explain what it is that these CASA [00:38:00] volunteers do and how people can get involved and other things like that?

Ashley: Absolutely. Well, CASA is a really unique role in the child welfare system. If you just picture a courtroom, you'll have the foster kid and the foster parents and the biological parents. You'll have the judge and a case worker. Then, you'll have the birth parents' attorney and the state's attorney and the case worker, the case worker's boss, the foster parent [00:38:30] who answers to the ... Basically, in that courtroom, everybody there is first of all paid to be there. That's their job, but their boss is somewhere in that mix. Their paychecks are coming from somebody, so they're there to represent the best interest of either their client, so birth parents, the state, whatever, or [00:39:00] they come with an agenda when they're at these meetings.

Then, there's always that other thing looming in the air. Well, a CASA is someone who is a volunteer from the community, so these are men and women that come from all walks of life, all ages, all backgrounds, all experiences. They go through a specialized training, and they're the only person in that entire courtroom whose only objective is to be the [00:39:30] voice for the child. There is not a single person in that courtroom whose only job it is to take care of the needs of the children. You would think that maybe the case worker or the foster parents or someone else would be that role, but no.

The case worker has to answer to the state who has to answer to the judges, so there's always that other layer. There's been times when caseworkers were like, "Well, I really want this to happen, but I can't do that or I'll lose [00:40:00] my job. I can't advocate for this because I have other cases in this court." It gets really meddled. My CASA, for instance, was the only one who believed me when I said I was being abused. She got me out of these abusive foster homes. She worked to get their homes closed, she made sure that I was getting my teeth cleaned and hair cut and had clean clothes.

She really was my advocate for me. When everybody was overlooking my case for [00:40:30] years and years and years, she stepped in and read my feels and said, "No. This kid deserves to have a family and deserve to have permanency and deserves to have someone speak up for her." That's what CASAs do. It's a really fantastic organization. In Florida where I'm from, they're called guardian ad litem. However, there are CASA programs all over the country, so you can go to nationalcasa.org and they'll give you a directory. If you're interested in learning more about how to become involved with [00:41:00] foster children in your community, that's one really great way to do it. There are all of the classes and everything are free. It's a tremendous organization to support, because you can be a donor, you can be an active volunteer. They always have a variety of ways to help out.

If you are interested in the work that I'm doing with my non-profit, it's the foundation of sustainable families, sustainablefamiliesIESfoundation.org [00:41:30] We're doing a lot of really interesting programming with kids in families. Right now, we're in the process of taking over a one acre piece of land in the middle of a local city. We're creating a micro urban farm. On this site, there's an old farmhouse that we're re-having to be a community center where we provide therapies for children and families. We have an animal assisted therapy program with rescue animals and kids. [00:42:00] It's going to be this really great site where we're also going to be able to grow thousands of pounds of food for needy families.

That's going to be my next step and life's work when I'm not on the road. I roll up my sleeves and I'm drowning-

Kyle: Playing in the dirt.

Ashley: Play in the dirt. Yeah.

Kyle: That's awesome. Well, I think that's a good point for us to wrap up. I'm so curious. I normally would probably ask you this after we record, but are you still in touch with your CASA advocate?

Ashley: I [00:42:30] am, absolutely. In fact, 'Three Little Words' is actually being made into a major motion picture, and the last I heard is they're going to start filming this summer. I think that's going to be one of the key relationships in the film is this mentor and guiding light and saving grace, so her name was Mary Miller. I'm still in touch with her to this day. She forever changed my life. That's the power of one person.

Kyle: [00:43:00] Thank you. That was awesome. Very, very cool. Hey, I really appreciate this conversation, Ashley, and I really appreciate you coming on the podcast. If y'all are interested in reading the transcripts from today's podcast, you can do so by going to GDApodcast.com. If you're interested in booking Ashley Rhodes-Courter for any of your events. You can contact gdaspeakers by calling 214-2 ... No. I almost [00:43:30] gave you my cell phone. 214-420-1999 or you can visit GDAspeakers.com. If you could just do me a real quick favor, what's your website again?

Ashley: My website is rhodes-courter.com. R-h-o-d-e-s hyphen c-o-u-r-t-e-r.com.

Kyle: The one for your foundation.

Ashley: The foundation for sustainable families. SustainablefamiliesIESfoundation.org.

Kyle: [00:44:00] Nice, and be sure to go buy the book 'Three Little Words' and the other book 'Three More Words'. We will have those available for sale on gdapodcast.com, so thank you so much.

Ashley: Right on. Thank you for having me.

Kyle: Thank you.

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ep. 15 - Ashley Rhodes-Courter: NYT Best-Selling Author, Social Worker, & Former Foster Child by GDA Podcast is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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