Against the odds

By Shawn Spurrier
Photos by Chelsea Quackenbush

On any given Saturday afternoon, Dustin Haley can be found studying at a local coffee shop – blending in with many students doing the same. As any 22-year-old does, he loves running, being outdoors, watching movies and spending time with his friends. He is witty and inviting. Dustin Haley is as well-adapted and productive of a citizen as one could hope for.

What makes this picture all the more impactful is that Dustin came from a background where the odds for success were slim. His mother battled addiction, which led to his removal from his home and placement into foster care.

“You have the ability to go back to your parents if they do what they need to do…but, she just never got her act together.”

Over the next eight years, Dustin would find himself living with what seemed to be a revolving door of relatives, foster families and children’s homes. His journey took him from Amarillo, Texas, where he was born, all the way to Nebraska, then Dallas and finally back to Lubbock, where his sisters were studying.

“I lived with 13 different families in the span of eight years and went to 10 different schools.” In a more lighthearted way, he adds, “I now have 13 different perspectives on how to raise kids when most people only have one.”

The heartbreaking reality of the foster care system is that many children are passed from home to home; often with little to no regard for the negative toll it takes on the child. Eventually they age out of the system and are left on their own to build a life without any support.

Throughout his years in foster care, Dustin experienced many of the hardships and inequalities that foster children often do. But he had an internal drive to succeed and found a way to withdraw from those things through investing wholeheartedly in his studies.

“I studied and kept to myself a lot. It was pretty much my way out of that lifestyle,” he says. “Growing up in foster care I always used education as a way to escape what was going on because it was the one thing in my life that I could control.”

Shortly before his sixteenth birthday, Dustin moved into the Buckner Children’s Home in Lubbock. There he found the support of the Buckner staff along with stability and equality with other children he had not seen in many of the homes in which he had lived. He developed relationships have had a lasting impact – many of these relationships were with staff, caseworkers and mentors.

“Quality-wise, it was a lot better than some of the foster homes,” he says. “I made a lot of close connections with the people in the office, especially. There are administrators and after care workers I talk to now. (Buckner) was a good experience overall.”

He fondly recalls Nathan Hoover, his case manager, and staff members Cassie Thomas and Kami Jackson as people he could always talk to. He spent the final two years of high school there.

Dustin’s investment into his studies began to pay off and upon graduation, he moved from the Buckner Children’s Home to Austin to pursue his studies in kinesiology at The University of Texas. During his senior year, he was a part of The Archer Fellowship, which takes students from the University of Texas system and places them into classes and an internship in Washington, DC.

Dustin was able to contribute his experiences in the foster care system to an internship at the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute, which helps to inform members of congress about legislation that impacts foster care and adoption policy.

“It was cool to see the other side of things. I am interested in policy and politics. I can imagine someday doing something involving that.”

This past May, upon returning from Washington, D.C., Dustin was one of five graduating students asked to speak at the University of Texas commencement ceremonies – a moment he refers to as “nerve-wracking.”

“I spoke about how you can always make a family out of your friends. Being in foster care I didn’t really have the family that other people do so my friends really are my family and the people I rely on.”

Dustin made that speech on a Saturday and moved to Dallas the following Monday to study at the University of Texas Southwestern. He is now pursuing his doctorate in physical therapy. He chose to study physical therapy because he loves helping people. He explains that physical therapists get to spend more one-on-one time with patients than others in the medical field. He hopes to specialize in pediatrics and go to work at a children’s hospital.

Since moving to Dallas, Dustin has already volunteered at Buckner International foster care events and plans to work with foster care advocates through CASA, Court Appointed Special Advocate Association. In the future, he hopes to potentially be a foster parent.

It is obvious when talking to Dustin that community is important to him. He credits an internal drive to succeed, the support of his friends, who he considers his family, his biological sisters, who he maintains close relationships with and a few good mentors for helping him to achieve what he has.

His encouragement to foster children is to: “Take education seriously. Life is so much harder without it. And ask for help – accepting it is not a bad thing.” He also says to “Find a person in your life that can mentor you or just be there for you. Having a good, stable, responsible adult in your life is really helpful.”

On top of that, his encouragement to prospective and new foster parents is to “be patient and put your self in their shoes. Think about moving homes five, 10 or 20 times. All a kid needs is love and someone who sticks with them.”

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