Though she wasn’t blood-related, Tony and Marie Martinez always thought of Kim Raff as one of their “kids.”
They employed a lot of teenagers over the years when they owned the Dairy Queen on Orchard Mesa. Some of them were more reliable, others needed more coaching, but they thought of all of them as theirs, even though they had four children of their own.
They had no idea that Raff was barely making it and was content with working three jobs at age 17. They didn’t know that this girl who served blizzards upside-down and gave back change with a cheerful smile had no support system and had survived a tumultuous childhood involving her parents’ drug addiction, abuse and being involved in the foster-care system.
They knew she had a great attitude and always did what they asked. She worked hard, was kind to others and “she just always had a bright outlook toward life,” said Marie. “The only thing we did notice was her life skills, she seemed like she had no mentor as far as just preparing her for life after being a teenager,” she said, and the couple helped when the opportunities arose.
Once, they took Raff to the bank and helped her learn how to manage finances, how to balance a checkbook. Another time, she called in sick and they picked her up, brought her to their house and nursed her back to health in their guest room.
“It was just the little details that it takes to be an adult, that’s what she needed,” Marie said. “We felt drawn to her that way.”
Less than six months after she started working for them at the restaurant, Tony asked her if she’d ever considered going to college, doing something more with her life. After all, she seemed like she was smart and capable enough. It was a talk he had with many teenage employees, one that probed their interests, hopes and dreams. He’d tell them if they were interested in staying at Dairy Queen, there were opportunities for management or ownership, and “this is just a stepping stone” if they didn’t want to stay in food service. No matter what, Tony and Marie encouraged their employees to keep learning. “We tried to counsel most of the kids who worked for us to move ahead and try to better themselves,” he said. After all, they wanted that for their own children, too.
It was the first time Raff even considered college.
College wasn’t for foster kids with drug-addicted moms. College wasn’t for girls who got beat up by their stepdads and had to run away. College wasn’t for people who spent a summer homeless in Unaweep Canyon, living out of a Chevelle with four other people and three dogs, surviving on baloney sandwiches and bathing in the creek. College wasn’t for someone who wished her real mom would come to her basketball game, though she couldn’t live with her because it wasn’t safe. College wasn’t for a girl who was told a week before graduation that she would need to find a place to go, since she wouldn’t have a place at the foster home anymore, but they might give her an extra week to find somewhere to go, just to help her out.
But maybe since Tony was asking and thought she was worth it, college was something for her.
Raff was interested. She’d managed to graduate high school on time, despite not finishing her junior year due to her parents’ transient lifestyle and being homeless. The Martinezes helped her sign up to take the ACT and even took her to breakfast the morning of the test to make sure she was ready to do her best. She did well, enrolled at what was Mesa State College then, and ended up graduating in 2008 with a degree in counseling and psychology with a goal of helping kids like her.
After working in the social services field, the 39-year-old Raff has decided to launch a nonprofit organization called Foster Alumni Mentors to help support kids who were like her, who needed someone to help them learn how to live independently as adults. She knows from experience that not all kids involved in the system have someone like the Martinezes to help them out, and she wants to change that.
Part of her goal is to remove the stigma and misconceptions people have about foster kids, including the ones that foster youth have about themselves like she did.
“There’s a level of shame to it,” she said, noting that she didn’t tell anyone she was a foster kid until recently, and even as a child-welfare caseworker, she was guarded about telling colleagues.
Foster Alumni Mentors has a goal of connecting foster kids who are “aging out” of the system with the support they need to be healthy, independent, successful adults. And sometimes, that means having someone who is there for them if they need something, even if it’s the potential of needing something that other people can call relatives about.
“Who do you put down as your emergency contact?” Raff said. “Do you just put your last caseworker? It’s stuff like that.”
Now, Raff is hoping her organization will provide the same relationships and support that she had by accident through the Martinezes, when they took an interest in her future and gave her some encouragement. She credits them for changing her life, helping her get on the right path out of poverty and for empowering her with education, something she’s acutely aware of as her own 17-year-old daughter inches closer to graduating.
All this time, the Martinezes had no idea. They learned recently that Raff had been in foster care, and now they wish they had done even more for her.
“I guess a person never knows what effects they will have long-term on someone,” Marie said.
Raff’s organization is looking for people interested in becoming mentors for foster youth who are close to exiting the system, targeting those age 18 to 26. She’s especially seeking former foster kids like herself who are willing to share their knowledge and support. The program is also seeking mentors who have the ability to make a positive impact on foster kids’ lives and help from the business community in connecting former foster youth with internships, job training or employment.
“I just want people who have a heart for this population, for helping foster youth,” she said. “People who can help them reach for their dreams and not be held back.”