Difference Maker

Sam Bracken's Orange Duffel Bag project helps at-risk former foster kids

Bracken, himself a former foster child, started Orange Duffel Bag to offer life coaching and other help to teens dealing with the challenges of homelessness or foster care.

By , Staff Writer

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    Sam Bracken, with his orange duffel bag, addresses teenagers in an Orange Duffel Bag Initiative class in Atlanta.
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Dimitri came to the United States from Russia when he was a youngster. Soon after that both his parents died.

For all his subsequent experiences as a ward of the state, Dimitri (not his real name) seems pretty well-adjusted. Tall and friendly, he's a senior at a suburban Atlanta high school. In not too long, he – like 250,000 other foster kids a year in the US – will be "emancipated" from state care, an 18-year-old left to fend for himself.

Dimitri and his cohort face a daunting statistic: Only 22 former foster care kids graduate from college each year in the US, out of the 2 million people who get their diploma. Equally troubling, 48 percent of aged-out foster care kids become chronically unemployed by age 26.

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To avoid becoming part of that statistic, the young Russian expatriate is attending an unusual program inspired by another homeless kid: a former Georgia Tech football standout named Sam Bracken who found his way from a broken home and abusive childhood in Las Vegas – where his role models were "mobsters" and "stoners" – to a successful college football and post-college career.

What no one – even Mr. Bracken's closest advisers – knew was the extent to which his trademark orange duffel bag was stuffed not just with clothes and books, but with the memories of a chaotic childhood – a time when, Bracken writes, he "thought it was normal for a dad to punch his son square in the face."

A notably big man still packing much of his football muscle, Bracken published his shocking personal story in 2010 in a book called "My Orange Duffel Bag: A Journey to Radical Change" with the thought of starting an independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit group to convey his message of personal transformation to teenagers, especially those who "age out" of foster care every year.

Rather than an up-by-your-bootstraps tale, "My Orange Duffel Bag" is an exploration of personal pain and a paean to determination and dreams – and also to the people who help foster and safeguard those ideals in hard-bitten and often jaded foster and homeless kids.

In four years, 300 students have graduated from the Orange Duffel Bag Initiative's 12-week after-school program. Operating chiefly around Georgia, the organization has received numerous awards – including the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Service Award. Now it's in the process of gearing up a national model to address the stubborn post-foster care problem, one that Bracken calls "big, but not so big it can't be solved."

"Homeless kids, foster kids, it's so true – they look fine, and many of them are creative and brilliant and bright and good-looking," Bracken says in a phone interview from his home in Utah. "But underneath it all they're dealing with trauma and instability to a point where it's very difficult for them to handle things. And when they leave high school [and age out of foster care] we lose track of them; they become invisible, they live in the shadows."

The main precepts behind the Orange Duffel Bag Initiative (ODBI) are life coaching and advocacy primarily for teens dealing with homelessness or foster care. So far, 80 percent of Orange Duffel Bag students have graduated or are about to – itself a measure of success, given that the overall high school graduation rate for foster kids in the US is just below 50 percent. The point is to provide a bridge for teens who are "aging out" of foster care, to help them get through a period that could – and likely will – define the rest of their lives.

ODBI is evaluating its ability to address "issues like stability, well-being, employment, and self-reliance," says Mike Daly, president of ODBI. "Those measurements are ... powerful for helping a teen struggling to become a successful adult." Drawn to the project by the promise of a laptop computer and their own orange duffel bag, the teens – outwardly normal, gregarious, and awkward – are in the middle of a 12-week "journey" designed to give them a road map, to help them formulate not just Plan A "but Plans B and C as well," says ODBI vice president Diana Black.

They also get what so many wayward kids lack: someone who believes in them.

The Great Recession unmoored a record number of American teenagers. Since 2008, child homelessness has increased by 38 percent in the US, testing and stretching state and county welfare and foster care budgets. Here in Georgia, the state welfare agency is a system filled with good intentions but all too often with poor execution – and dismal results.

A major study of foster kids, the Midwest Evaluation of the Adult Functioning of Former Foster Youth, known as the Midwest Study, tracked youths older than 12 years until age 26. It puts the plight of aged-out foster and homeless kids in a stark light: 12 percent of the young men in the study landed in prison; 60 percent had stayed on the couch of a friend in the span between study interviews; and 35 percent reported four or more couch-surfing spans. Thirty percent said they had completed at least one year of college, but never finished. Fifteen percent didn't know if their dad was alive or not.

Gi'Nia Stone is determined to succeed. A veteran of dozens of foster homes and a failed adoption, she is one of the standouts of the ODBI program. Smart and talented – she plays nine musical instruments – she wants to become a neurosurgeon. But she still couch surfs and struggles to stay in college.

She watched her foster parents cash her state reimbursement checks and then claim poverty when she needed a new instrument. The difference between Ms. Stone and many of her friends from intact families can come down to needing $50 for a book. "They can get that money" from a parent, she says. "I can't."

Sociologists say seemingly mundane details often trip up even motivated foster care kids. ODBI programs that provide mentors and teach planning skills fill a big void.

"One of the specific things I see is that the planning process [for teens leaving state care] doesn't begin soon enough," says Amy Dworsky, a sociologist and foster care researcher at the University of Chicago. "And often there's a tendency to wait until right before the young person [is about to age out] where the discharge planning really needs to begin long before the age of emancipation."

Written in a heart-rending, bare-bones style, "My Orange Duffel Bag" traces Bracken's early abandonment by his mom and abuse by stepfathers. His teenage determination to become a football player and lawyer would have meant nothing if concerned adults hadn't stepped in to help guide him, Bracken writes.

His story begins in Las Vegas and ends in Salt Lake City, a journey from a messed-up home – his mother was once the den mother for a violent motorcycle gang – and the lessons from his orange duffel bag that eventually led to one of his mottos: "Travel light, travel right."

In a section titled "Age 16," Bracken writes, "Mom has a mental breakdown. I visit her in the desert where she's staked her claim to a long ago abandoned gold mine. Sometimes she stays in a dirt-floor shack, warming herself by a pot-bellied stove. She feeds me dumpster stew and tells me who my real father is. I start looking for God."

Bracken's story shocked his friends when it appeared. He didn't want to dredge it up, but his co-writer, Echo Garrett, told him that nobody would care about the book unless he leveled with readers about what his life had been like.

To Bracken, the main goal for ODBI is to give promising and at times difficult young people like Dimitri, the Russian-born orphan, mentors who can offer help, advice, and affirmation.

"There were so many powerful people along the way who held my hand, dealt with my issues, and tolerated my imperfections to help me get to a better place," Bracken says. "Those people saw in me what I didn't see in myself, and that's what [ODBI] does: We see in these kids what they don't see in themselves. It's remarkable what they can become."

• To learn more, visit www.theodbi.org.

Want to take action?

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Below are groups selected by UniversalGiving that help youths worldwide:

Operation USA helps communities alleviate the effects of disasters, disease, and endemic poverty throughout the world. Take action: Help teen girls in New Orleans.

The Selamta Family Project creates small families for orphaned children and disenfranchised women. Take action: Provide complete care for an orphaned child for a year.

The GVN Foundation supports the charitable and educational work of local community organizations. Take action: Volunteer as a mentor and tutor in South Africa.

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