Back on Track

by Jim Boyle

Jessica Spears’ life had been unravelling when she made the anguishing decision at the age of 17 to remove herself from her family’s home and enter the foster care system.

Jessica Spears in her grad photo from PACT Charter School.

Her three oldest siblings had already fled at the age of 18. She started in kin care (living with relatives) when she moved in with her siblings.  Soon, life in a one-bedroom Minneapolis apartment with four people became overwhelming, too.

Then she moved into non-relative foster care with the family of Julie and Randy Goldenman in Zimmerman.

It was a landing place of sorts for Spears, an accomplished student and athlete at the PACT Charter School in Ramsey who had been free-falling in school and elsewhere in life.

She’s now 21 years old. Under the watchful eye and caring touch of the Goldenmans she turned her life around and was honored with the Outstanding Youth Leader Award from a national foster club and the Foster Care Child of the Year award given out by Sherburne County.

Turnaround started immediately 

It felt right from the first moment Spears set foot in the Goldenmans’ Zimmerman home. She traded a life of stress and strife for one of peace and serenity. She felt for the first time what the biblical principals her mother had been so diligent to teach her felt like in practice.

“It was a relief,” she said, “to go from a life of watching over my back for thugs. I didn’t have to worry.”

She felt pampered when she got makeup given to her or her hair colored. And groceries were like a luxury item. The portions alone were heart-warming.

Instead of seeing her life continue to spin out of control, she planted her feet back in school, where she had found comfort earlier in life. She did the same on the athletic field, where she had been praised  for her previous success. Having a loving and supportive home to go home to allowed her to flourish in every aspect of her life. She’s now responding to a spiritual calling to be either a pastor or teacher or both.

“She’s pursuing her dreams,” said Julie Goldenman, a proud and tearful foster care provider.

Spears said she couldn’t have done it without the Goldenmans, who have had two children of their own who are now grown. They have also welcomed 35  teenage foster daughters into their home. Their care has been a Godsend.

“They nurtured what had been damaged and hurt,” she said. “Their spiritual walk is so strong.”

Softball and soccer fields as well as gymnasiums for danceline no longer needed to be venues to for Spears to take out aggressions. Her confidence returned and she was renewed as the captain of the softball team and danceline. She also became the captain of her soccer team for her senior year.

She also grew as a person by doing volunteer work.  Among her accomplishments, she produced a video about the Sherburne County foster care system. She participated in a church music team and other special outreaches hosted by her church. She served as a youth leader for one of the outreach groups and coached a summer soccer league in Big Lake. She was also an assistant coach for the Spectrum High School girls’ soccer team.

After graduation from high school, she completed 1.5 years of higher education at Anoka-Ramsey Community College.

Jessica Spears reading to an attentive bunch at a Christian academy.

She worked at Shepherd’s Inn Christian Daycare for two years. She then worked in retail and taught as the kindergarten and first-grade teacher at Solid Rock Christian Academy for the 2011–12 school year.

Of all her accomplishments, teaching has been the most profound.

“That was the most wonderful thing,” she said. “To see the difference you can make in each student. That was most amazing.

“You pick up on what each child needs and teach each one differently. And not just spelling or the ABCs, but character and good principals.”

Social services worker stepped up to nominate Spears for award

Brittany Lochner, a Sherburne County social worker, nominated Spears for the national Outstanding Youth Leader award, of which a few are sent on from each state to compete. Spears was one of 100 foster care children selected nationwide.

The awards and recognition coupled with the care and attention paid to her by the Goldenmans has given her the confidence to step out and to pursue her interest in being an educator and spiritual leader. She has moved out of the Goldenmans’ home and is attending a Bible college in California.

She credits the Goldenmans and her faith in God for her wings.

“I knew if I was hurting, he was helping heal me,” she said of God. “I had a strong relationship with Christ. He would tell me it mattered what I did with that.”

The Goldenmans affirmed it.

Preparing for Takeoff

By Jim Boyle

The seven most important words Ashtyn Rose Stiller ever heard in her life were “I will always be there for you!”

The trouble for Stiller, 18, is she didn’t hear them from anyone until most of her years as a teenager lapsed, and she certainly wasn’t about to believe them.

Julie Goldenman, the person who said them to her and the same person who is helping her believe them, was the 2012 winner of the Sherburne County Foster Care Provider of the Year.

Graduation day for Ashtyn Stiller with social workers Steve Oie and Paula Minske as well as Julie and Randy Goldenman.

She and her husband, Randy, raised two children of the their own and have  provided foster care for 35 young girls or women over the years. Social workers say she has gone above and beyond what she normally does this past year to help her most recent foster children.

Stiller, who was once found alone on the streets of Minneapolis in a diaper at the age of 2, had been placed in dozens of foster homes before coming to the Goldenmans. Stiller never met her biological father. Her biological mother struggled as a single parent to raise her and four other children.  Stiller began her tumultuous journey through the foster care system at the young age of eight. It included stops at her grandmother’s home until she died, three failed adoptions, a successful adoption and then more foster care home placements.

The ride has left her rigid with a severe case of reactive attachment disorder. In other words, Ashtyn has learned to sabotage relationships before she can be abandoned.

Then she found the Goldenmans. Julie Goldenman told her she would never leave, and she actually meant it. Stiller became a believer when she messed up big time last year and found herself at a group home wondering what new misery was in store for her next.

That’s when Goldenman showed up and  told her yet again. “I will always be there for you!”

It gave Stiller the courage to address the keepers of her fate in the judicial system. She took responsibility for her  actions and told of her checkered past.

“I have been in foster care for the past four years and with that 30 placements throughout my life,” she read painfully from a prepared statement. “Things have not been well in my life.”

By that point in time she had been at the Goldenmans for two years, “learning to be successful,” she explained.

She told of her personal struggles and her attachment disorder.  “(It) has been a struggle for me to learn to trust in my caregivers,” she stated.

She’s learning to trust the Goldenmans, though. The Goldenmans have learned from her. The 12 words that Stiller once uttered have stuck with Julie ever since they rolled off Ashtyn’s tongue. They were: “If I was your own child, you wouldn’t give up on me.”

They have not given up on her. They see a beautiful young lady full of potential. They see artistic ability. They see a caring side. They see bright future.

Their approach to foster care has differed from others’ in Stiller’s life.

“They’re not going to fit into your mold,” Julie Goldenman said. “You roll with it and do what you can to help. You stay steady and steadfast.”

It’s a team effort that includes Sherburne County social workers and other professionals.

Paula Minske, a therapeutic foster care social worker, nominated Goldenman for the award. She has worked alongside her and others like her colleague Steve Oie, another Sherburne County social worker, to help Stiller grow.

“We come into foster homes to support the families,” she said. “We connect them with other professionals.”

Stiller is a graduate of Zimmerman High School, and the Goldenmans have chosen to continue their walk alongside her after she turned 18. Minnesota allows foster care providers to stay connected up until 21 years of age to help launch them from home.

“Just because they turn 18 does not mean they have arrived,” Oie said.

The relationship between Stiller and the Goldenmans still has some of the push-pull in cases of reactive attachment disorder. Stiller has voluntarily left the home on several occasions to test her independence but has been taken back. So it’s different than the push-pull others have had with her.

“I realize it’s not always the child causing them to make the decisions they are,” she said. “It’s all the other stuff the child is dealing with.”

Minske agrees.

“Julie  has been patient,” Minske said. “She’s gone to the trainings to learn. She’s gone the extra mile.”

Stiller has aspirations of going to Regency Beauty School in St. Cloud. She is working on getting her driver’s license and is working part time at a day care.  She’s also working on getting certified as a PCA and has been reunited with her biological mother.

It’s likely the seven most important words Goldenman said to Stiller, the ones she made her believe, helped make this possible. She will still always be there for her, too.