Camarillo’s Casa Pacifica youth share their stories of struggle and survival
By Michael Sullivan 11/27/2013
On a Wednesday afternoon, a 4-year-old little girl had just been admitted into the crisis care emergency shelter, along with her 2-week-old brother. She had come in with a broken nose — her father had hit her in the face and both she and her brother were taken to Casa Pacifica in Camarillo. Their home and parents were apparently deemed unsafe by Child Protective Services.
This was an exceptionally hard day for Casa Pacifica employees (not to mention the children). While they often see cases of neglect, that kind of violent abuse is rare. But thankfully for both children, there was a safe place for them to go. Twenty years ago, however, Casa Pacifica wasn’t anything more than an idea of certain caring individuals in Ventura County who felt children in the area were lacking services after they had been taken by Child Protective Services. And so, with successful public-private partnerships and $10 million from fundraising, Casa Pacifica went under construction in 1993 and in July 1994 opened its doors to neglected, abused and the most at-risk youth in the area.
Since then, Casa Pacifica has continued to broaden its scope of services, from emergency shelter and housing for transitional youth to onsite nonpublic education for children who aren’t able to continue with regular public education and in-home services for at-risk youth, even delivering services to families in Santa Barbara. Casa Pacifica serves local youth on its nearly $24 million annual operating budget, reaching 400 children and their families each day, and approximately 4,000 unique children every year.
With the growing population comes a bigger need for services to address neglect and other concerns for children. In order to meet these challenges, Casa Pacifica launched a $21 million capital fundraising campaign this year to improve and enhance services onsite, including adding new cottages, housing for transition-age foster youth, a therapeutic activities building, vocational education and training space, classrooms and a site for clinical services. Temporary buildings will also be replaced with new state-of-the-art treatment facilities. Currently, Casa Pacifica has raised $9 million and the goal is to reach $21 million by the summer and break ground in July 2014, its 20th anniversary.
While donations will clearly help in raising funds for the capital campaign, the need for volunteers to participate in any number of activities on campus and with the youth is ongoing and prominent. To get involved, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 445-7800.
Along with each child who receives services, there is also a story to tell. One current resident and two former residents who are all now in Casa Pacifica’s Coaching Independence in Transition-age Youth program (CITY program) came forward to share their stories of struggle and survival and Casa Pacifica’s role in their lives. (Due to the sensitive nature of their stories, the writers asked only that their first names be used.)
“Alexandra’s” storyThe world I’ve experienced thus far is not what many people had at my age. There were a few different events that changed my life forever. I was born and raised in Russia until I was 12 years old. My parents separated when I was 7 years old. My mother is American, and she would come to visit me and my brother every few years. I would often get into arguments with my father due to missing so much school. When I turned 12 the problems at home got so bad that I made the difficult choice of leaving my country and everything that was familiar to me, and moving in with my mother, whom I barely knew.
Life with my mother was extremely challenging. She had a mental disability that caused her to be abusive toward me; she also struggled with maintaining a clean home. The way we obtained our food was from cleaning houses or simply digging through the dumpsters behind the grocery stores. Due to her unpredictable behavior and hoarding disability, I was taken away from my mother and immediately entered the foster care system. I started to pick up English little by little. I was able to do this by mimicking everything people said and by carefully observing the expressions on their faces when they spoke.
I’ve been placed at Casa Pacifica multiple times. My first time was overwhelming, mainly because of the language barrier. My English was very limited and no one in my cottage spoke Russian. But there were a few moments where I had fun in this new experience as a foster child. I didn’t speak the language at first, so I was scared and lonely, but Casa Pacifica provided me with lots of comfort and love. The staff helped me with a smile and provided me with hope. The expressions on their faces told me that it was OK to have fun. Casa Pacifica is where I learned English, and if all of the staff at Casa Pacifica hadn’t helped me achieve my goal, I don’t know if I would be standing before you and speaking with you today.
Photo by: T. Christian Gapen
School books and other personal effects on a shelf
in the room of one of Casa Pacifica’s residents.
At Casa Pacifica, I learned that I can let go of my past, and focus on my future. I learned how to stand up for myself. Even though living at Casa Pacifica is challenging at times, I always receive help when I need it. During my senior year, I had been living in Angel’s cottage, a residential center, for two years, and I managed to maintain a 4.0 grade-point average at a mainstream high school. I also took advanced placement classes in calculus, economics and government. In addition, I had an opportunity to be a part of the track and tennis teams and was a varsity cheerleader at Camarillo High School. My youth advocate, Cristina Miranda, helped me edit personal statements for my college applications and helped me to apply for scholarships and universities throughout the country. The Archie Fund has helped support my cheer events, paid for my yearbook, senior picture, class ring and my graduation announcements. I feel recognized and appreciated here. I am almost 18, and the thought of being on my own is exciting yet scary. Right now, the CITY program at Casa Pacifica is helping me get ready as I prepare to be independent.
One skill that I picked up while in foster care, and that has continuously worked for me during the most challenging times is, singing. I enjoy singing all kinds of music and I am thankful for being able to learn this skill.
In many ways, I am thankful for the difficult life that I’ve had. I would not be who I am if I hadn’t gone through the tragic events that occurred in my life. I am proud of myself for my consistent effort toward pursuing a good education.
I recently graduated with a 4.0 GPA. This fall, I will be attending San Francisco State University. I will major in music; my dream is to be a singer. I want others who have been or will be in my situation to know that, in spite of the hardships, it is possible to be successful.
Oyuki’s journeyMy name is Oyuki and I am 21 years old. I have two beautiful children and another one on the way. I am also married to a wonderful man who has been there for me since the very beginning. This is my little family that means the world to me. Here is my journey that has got me to my wonderful family.
When I was young I had a tough life. I had a mother who was an alcoholic and a stepfather who was mentally and physically abusive. I also had a brother who always stood by my side and five sisters that I didn’t grow up with but four of them whom I met when I was a little older.
Between the ages 11 and 13 my mother got very sick. She was in and out of the hospital. She had cirrhosis of the liver along with many other things. She had to stop drinking but it was very hard. One day in November 2006, I received a phone call that she had passed away. I was only 14 and it was Thanksgiving. I was very lost and confused. I went with family members but that didn’t work. I decided to go into the foster care system.
Photo by: T. Christian Gapen
Huntington Culinary staffer Romero stocks the refrigerator
of one of the cottages where young girls share living quarters.
My first placement was Casa Pacifica. I was scared but I had a lot of support. Staff were always helping out and trying to be there for me but I started acting out and I ran away. I would stay here and there but when I got tired of it I always went back to Casa Pacifica. I was always welcomed back with open arms. I started to receive therapy there with other services. It was nice to know that they were there to help me.
Two years had passed by and I turned 16. I went back with family. I kept up with therapy and talked with staff at Casa. Then one day I became pregnant and went back to Casa Pacifica. They helped me through my pregnancy. Staff offered services but I preferred to be placed back with family. When I had my son things went a little crazy. I was young with a baby that I didn’t really know how to take care of but I hung in there. About two years later, when I was 18 and my son was going on 2 years old, we ended up back at Casa. I emancipated a couple of months later. I’m not going to tell you everything that happened afterward because then it would take a lot of time. Just know that I had it rough at times but things got better. Let me tell you why.
I met my husband when I thought things couldn’t get better. We moved in together and we started our little family. We had our boys and we stood strong with our heads held high. We have been together for about three years now. Things have gotten tough but with the help of Casa Pacifica we have made it through. I got help with my children, doing PCIT (parent-child interaction therapy), which has helped very much. I still get therapy through Casa Pacifica and some other services. Casa Pacifica has saved my life and will always be my home.
I just wanted to add that I have been through a lot but it hasn’t stopped me from going where I want to be. Five years from now I want to be able to be a Casa worker or something that has to do with children in the foster care system. I want to thank everyone that has been there for me and you know who you are.
Nerissa’s journeyI was born to a drug-addicted mother and a drug-dealing father. At birth, I was handed off to my grandparents, who raised me until they passed. From there, I went to live with my maternal aunt in Pennsylvania. I eventually landed in foster care when I became too much for my aunt to handle. She said she wanted me to learn structure because she felt I was spoiled from being raised by my appeasing grandparents in their old age.
At the age of 12, I was placed at Casa Pacifica in the shelter care program for a year. While I was there, I made great friendships and developed amazing relationships with the staff. Because of this, I experienced a new sense of home. From there I was placed in a group home in Pasadena. That was scary for me because I was still so very young, vulnerable and naive. I didn’t last there. After a few months, I went back to Casa Pacifica to the residential treatment center and was placed in the long-term-care program. This is where I felt the most comfortable and cared about. I stayed there for three years and had many ups and downs. One thing, however, remained constant: the staff truly cared about me and because of that I made lifelong friendships with them.
During my teenage years, I moved to and from several different group homes and eventually graduated from high school in Long Beach. Shortly after doing this and emancipating from the foster care system, I came back to Ventura County. I had nothing and no place to go. I had only memorized a few phone numbers, one of which was for a staff member from Casa Pacifica; she was the first person I called. She picked me up and I stayed with her for a few days until I was able to find a family member in town whom I could temporarily stay with while I waited to enter into a transitional-age host home program, a program for foster youth who had recently emancipated from the system. I got in contact with Casa Pacifica and began receiving services and support through the CITY Program.
Photo by: T. Christian Gapen
A staffer brings campus pets Baker and Tess “home”
to another residential cottage on the grounds.
I cannot even explain everything that Casa has done for me and still continues to do for me. It has awarded me with scholarships for school, given me gift cards to help with expenses, helped me with transportation, supported me in obtaining higher education and helped me with finding employment. Staff have also offered an open ear when times were tough and have been my biggest cheerleaders when I needed encouragement. When I’m having a rough day I will just go to Casa and hang out in the administration department. There, I am always reminded of how much I am loved and how much support I have. That is my motivation.
When I first entered the foster care system I felt like it was a curse. I see now, however, that it was a blessing in disguise. I come from a very dysfunctional family. I don’t know where I’d be without the amazing people I have met throughout my time in foster care and at Casa Pacifica. The people there are my forever family. When I had my daughter, they were the first ones to visit us in the hospital and send me flowers. Some of the staff attended my baby shower and some even helped to plan it. When I got my first apartment, they hosted a housewarming. They are my biggest fans and I am so grateful for the family I have in them.
I have some amazing people on my side at Casa Pacifica and I wouldn’t swap them for anything. I am currently working toward my degree in psychology and I hope to be a social worker or find some other career in the mental health field in the future. I am getting married soon and you can bet that many former and current Casa Pacifica staff will be at my wedding. Casa has been my safe haven. It not only supports me emotionally in my life journey, but it has also invested financially in my education and more. To me, Casa Pacifica is so much more than just a nonprofit organization; it is hope.