Sasha Bruce

(via Washington Post article by John Kelly)

Selena Best learned long ago that if she wanted to be taken care of, she’d better do it herself.

Selena is from the District. She was about 4 years old when she and her older sister were taken from their mother, who had become addicted to drugs. They lived with an aunt for about three years.

“Then [child protective services] came and took me away, and we went to four different foster homes,” Selena said.

The sisters were in foster care for a year before they were adopted by their grandmother. They lived with her mostly, but occasionally went from family member to family member.

Selena said, “I always thought like, ‘Why is it that every adult in my life just seems to have a problem?’ ”

Some adults had drug problems. Some had law problems.

In October 2014, Selena, then 17, ran away from home, and for a month she lived on the streets of the District and Maryland. She might be there still if the mother of a friend hadn’t told her about Sasha Bruce Youthwork, a Washington nonprofit group that helps homeless teens and is a partner inThe Washington Post Helping Hand.

Selena moved into Promise Place, an emergency shelter in Capitol Heights, Md., run by Sasha Bruce. At first, it was just a relief not to be homeless. But Promise Place turned out to be more than that. It was a new experience for Selena, who had chores and a curfew, who took a bus to high school every morning and returned every afternoon.

“It was actually like a big family there,” she said of Promise Place. “It was like something that I always felt I wanted, to come home from school and [hear someone] say, ‘How did you do? How was your day? What’d you do at school? Do you need help with your homework?’ ”

Selena lived at Promise Place for six months, then moved into Re*Generation House, a transitional living program run by Sasha Bruce in Southeast.

All the moves Selena had undergone, and the poor support from home, meant she was behind in school — in the 11th grade but with only 13 credits. She was dispirited.

One day, Mercides Daley-Palmer, Re*Generation’s program director, handed Selena a pamphlet. It was for the Capital Guardian Youth Challenge Academy, a residential academic program established by the D.C. National Guard.

“All I saw was ‘military’ and I was like, ‘I’m not doing it. It’s not for me,’ ” Selena said. “She was like, ‘Selena, that’s your problem. You’re always saying something’s not for you. You never give it a try.’ ”

So, Selena did. She enrolled in the five-month program, donning a uniform every morning at the Laurel, Md., campus where the program takes place. She awoke early, took GED classes and exercised with military precision. There were times when she felt like quitting, but she didn’t. She graduated earlier this month.

“I never finished something I started,” Selena said, still a little disbelieving. “I always quit. So for me to graduate — and say I finally finished something, I finally achieved something — it was just amazing.”

Selena hopes to earn her GED soon. (She fell five points short on the math portion when she took the test.) She’s applying for jobs now and wants to save some money for college. Her interests include earning a cosmetology license, learning culinary skills, and studying acting and moviemaking. Selena has always loved movies — one of the few places she has been exposed to functional families.

Selena told me that when she was growing up, many of the adults in her life were what she called “running the streets”: out all night, partying.

“I thank them for that,” she said, “because they showed me how I’m not going to be, how I refuse to be.”

Sasha Bruce Youthworks’ Re*Generation House hosts eight young people, ages 18 to 21. Clients stay for a year, receiving counseling and support.

Mercides, the program manager, said it’s not unusual for her clients to have barely any connection to their families. “Most of them, they grow up on their own,” she said. “They’re like adults. They make their own rules. They don’t really have any structure. Sometimes that’s what they’re crying out for.”

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