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Saving Isaiah
At 17, he’s lost his parents and has been in jail on drug charges. Now he’s a high-school football player, has a nice apartment, is trying to figure out girls, and wants to go to college. Here’s the story of how Isaiah and kids like him are learning to be
A few years ago, Isaiah Spriggs was breaking into vacant houses to find a place to sleep. Photograph by Matthew Worden.
Comments () | Published March 1, 2010

When Isaiah Spriggs walks the halls of Rockville’s Richard Montgomery High School, he’s surrounded by classmates who have things he doesn’t. Laptops, cars, cable television. His teammates on the varsity football team have parents watching them from the stands.

If it was meant to be that way for me, it would be that way, he’s told himself. You can’t hate on somebody that got the dream life.

Before he moved to the area from Baltimore about two years ago, Isaiah had never heard of Montgomery County. The only people he saw driving Porsches were drug dealers. He was sleeping in a jail cell that had a small window with a view of a brick wall—the breakfast sausage was hard and flat, like his mattress.

Now Isaiah has his own apartment with a kitchen, a balcony, and a couch. He doesn’t have much in his refrigerator—ham, cheese, Country Crock, a carton of eggs—but there’s tuna and Oodles of Noodles in the cabinet. That’s fine with him. He could live on Oodles of Noodles. The dishes are dirty and the trash needs to go out, but otherwise the place looks good. He’ll get written up if it doesn’t.

“Don’t store leftovers in the pan,” adults say when they stop by. “Get your clothes off the floor.”

At 17, Isaiah is part of an independent-living program called FutureBound, which is designed to help prepare teens in the foster-care or juvenile-justice system for life on their own.

Both of his parents are dead. He still remembers the man who came up to him at his mother’s funeral and said, “Just because they’re gone doesn’t mean they’re never with you.” He was eight then, old enough to understand what had killed his mother and that she’d gotten it from shooting drugs.

Isaiah likes having his own place. Nobody tells him to get off the phone or that it’s too late to take a shower. But nobody stands over him helping him study, either, or cooks him dinner. That’s the point of independent living: He’s supposed to become an adult.

The campus of the National Center for Children and Families, the nearly century-old nonprofit that runs FutureBound, sits on 13 acres in a neighborhood of $700,000 homes near downtown Bethesda. When a petty crime takes place in the neighborhood, residents often look to the 12-to-17-year-olds who live in NCCF’s group home, some of whom come straight from juvenile detention and find themselves walking the halls of Walt Whitman High School.

Most of the teens in FutureBound, including Isaiah, came to the program from a group home like NCCF’s, where kids share rooms and follow study hours and chore lists. They’re not used to the freedom they get in independent living—or the responsibility. At NCCF’s group home, staffers tell residents: “You’re not here simply because you did something wrong.” They talk to kids about the families that have let them down.

At FutureBound, teens such as Isaiah have to stop making excuses for themselves. NCCF pays Isaiah’s rent and gives him money for groceries as well as a clothing allowance. In return, he has to work and go to school, turning in pay stubs and report cards. Until recently he had a job at Giant; now he has to find a new one. He’s required to attend Life Skills classes, where adults talk about everything from dining etiquette to how to fill out a college application.

If he messes up, he could end up on his own: He’s a ward of the state, a name in a file at the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services. There’s nobody else who can care for him.

About 250 young people have participated in FutureBound since it was created 15 years ago. Like Isaiah, many teens in the program had childhoods marked by abuse and neglect. One young man has walked by his homeless mother at a bus stop—she’d given him up as a baby—and heard her yell out for him, begging for money. Another cared for his siblings while his mother got high. Some have lived in many foster homes.

“Part of our program is about helping them heal,” says FutureBound coordinator Roberta Rinker, “answering that question for them: How do you become self-sufficient when how you’ve been loved wasn’t good enough?”

Isaiah started dreaming about his mother when he was in fourth grade. He was living with his aunt, Angela Jones, one of his mother’s sisters, in a bedroom that had life-size drawings of Bugs Bunny on the wall.

“I heard my mother call me,” he says. “My mother called my name clear as day: ‘Isaiah, come here!’ ”

His mother had started using drugs years before he was born and hadn’t stopped when she was pregnant. As a newborn, he’d spent two months at Mt. Washington Pediatric Hospital in Baltimore because he was going through withdrawal. His aunts sang to him and touched him through an incubator.

He was a chubby baby—“like a little butterball,” Jones says—who took his first steps to get a snack. His parents were unable to care for him, so he lived with his grandmother until she died when he was one, then Jones took over custody. His mother rented a house nearby and visited. She had seven children who had three different fathers; Isaiah was the baby.

He gave his aunt a hard time once he started school. He acted up in class; at home he put holes in the walls. She was working full-time as a caterer and raising a daughter on her own. She had to buy Isaiah a new bedroom set because he’d destroyed his. He was eventually diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

“When he got older, they wanted to put him on Ritalin,” she says. “I was running back and forth to therapy. I stopped giving him the medicine—he was like a zombie.” For a while, he had one-on-one help in his classes. His favorite subject was math.

Isaiah spent only a few months staying with his mother the summer she tried to get clean. For most of his life she’d been in and out of jail. One Christmas she sent her sister money to buy him an Elmo that did flips.


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Posted at 04:00 PM/ET, 03/01/2010 RSS | Print | Permalink | Articles