Every kid in foster care has a story. But it would be challenging to find one that started with the severe level of abuse and exploitation that one San Diego young person survived and which transformed with a remarkable rise to adulthood, even being appointed by the president as a White House adviser.
His name is Suamhirs and his childhood memories are horrific, camouflaged in an upper-middle-class family with a doctor as a father.
“Behind closed doors, my father was a different man. He was an abusive person, enjoyed seeing others in pain. He would hit us on a daily basis," he said. "I have 57 scars on my body. “
In one attack when 9 years old, a terrified Suamhirs says he tried to get his father to stop hitting his mother along her lower back whom he said was now silent and motionless on the floor.
“He grabbed me by the neck, dragged me down to the kitchen and he tried to cut my eye out," he said.
With his mother no longer able to walk and care for him, Suamhirs was sent to live with his godmother in San Diego. It would at least be a safe haven. Or so he thought.
“She was someone I put my trust in but I quickly realized something was really wrong. In fact, I became someone she took advantage of. I was being sold. People were paying and they came to the room for one purpose: to rape me. I was basically a prisoner there and a victim of the sexual commercial exploitation of children."
Seeing no way out or any hope, Suamhirs attempted suicide. From the San Diego hospital where he was treated, he was informed he was entering San Diego County’s Foster Care system, which would shuffle him 13 times through foster homes and group homes.
“Two days before my 18th birthday, the secretary of the group home comes in and says your C.A.S.A. is here! I didn’t know what a C.A.S.A. was."
It stands for Court Appointed Special Advocate. They are everyday volunteers trained by the nationally recognized local organization called Voices for Children to make sure the housing, educational and medical needs of a foster child are being met. Suamhirs didn’t realize it at first but his new C.A.S.A. Marco was about change his life for the better.
“I thought this guy was old and boring and that we would have nothing in common but we started talking and he genuinely wanted to know about me," he said. "Still, my idea was this guy will come back one more time but he’ll be like everyone else in my life. Here today, gone tomorrow. But that wasn’t the case.”
It began with little but meaningful things: Suamhirs lived in San Diego but had never been to the beach so Marco arranged to take him. And Marco took Suamhirs to a nice restaurant for his 18th birthday.
At first, Suamhirs felt a bit anxious at the site of a nicely set table with multiple utensils, something not in his foster care experience. Marco noticed and offered reassurance.
“In a group home, they give you a ‘spork.' We laughed about it. Marco truly cared and helped me. I have never been with somebody who took the time to explain something so simple to me as using a fork," he said.
And that was just the beginning. The C.A.S.A. volunteer learned everything about Suamhirs’ needs from education to housing to emotional. And he helped chart his future and build his confidence.
“My C.A.S.A. told me something very simple. Don’t let what happened to you in the past define you.”
Suamhirs took the ball and ran. He finished his high school education with an “A." He landed a great job, while securing a nice home and car before someone from the Obama Administrationcame calling. A White House representative asked Suamhirs, now 26, if he would serve on the President’s U.S. advisory council on human trafficking.
This young man continues to thrive: through his perseverance, strength and the transformative help of a Voices for Children volunteer who cared.
“Everything started when this one person first asked me ‘how are you? Now I work for the President! It’s all because someone planted a seed and said, you can become someone great," he said.
C.A.S.A.s come from all walks of life. No legal background is required and typically only 10-15 hours per month is required to change the future of a child who has been through so much. There is a big need for Spanish speaking volunteers like Marco to serve the hundreds of children waiting for a C.A.S.A.