SALT LAKE CITY — More than a hundred of Utah's older foster children Monday heard a man who describes himself as "the once-homeless kid, the dope-smoking hippie kid" talk about the difference one person can make in the world. "Be that one to help one — even if it's just yourself."
The man who has been helped and is now trying to help others is Kaysville resident Sam Bracken, former foster kid, former homeless youth, former football standout, current general manager of FranklinCovey Media Publishing, co-founder of The Orange Duffel Bag Foundation and forever optimist. He was the keynote speaker at the Division of Child and Family Services' two-day youth summit for kids who are aging out of foster care. Beforehand, he announced the foundation's joint campaign with Every Child USA to raise $1 million to provide "life coaching, training and ongoing mentoring to at-risk youth in Utah."
There are a lot of them. At-risk includes not only youths in foster care, but also homeless teens. And Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff said that while the number of children in foster care is decreasing, about 200 a year "graduate" by becoming old enough to age-out of the system and the support it provides. The trick is to help them be ready and capable of standing on their own.
That includes youths like Desiree, who told the news conference before the summit that she has been in foster care since sixth grade and is grateful for it.
Utah numbers are startling: Of youths in state foster care, 65 percent had been sexually abused, 85 percent physically abused and 95 percent emotionally abused, according to campaign statistics. In the last couple of years, the number of homeless school-age children has risen by 48 percent in Utah, as well.
The lives Bracken tries to help heal are similar to what he experienced as a kid. He describes growing up in the equivalent of a "drug-crazed, wacked-out episode" of "The Brady Bunch" meets "Cops." At one point, he was lit on fire, at another he was a human dart board. He was neglected and abused and was using drugs and alcohol while still grade-school age. By the time he was a teenager, he'd decided to change his life, but it was not an easy process and his family was no help. He was earning honors in school when he was 15 and his mom abandoned him and his siblings. He packed his meager belongings into the orange duffel bag he'd been given at his school's football camp.
But he was smart enough, he told the youths, to pack his bag with hope and change, rather than opting to carry around the garbage of his old, wildly dysfunctional life. And those with such baggage, he said, can choose what they take with them into lives over which they have more control.
His own hard work and tenacity helped, he said, but his breakthroughs came because of "loving, caring human beings. They helped me and changed the trajectory of my life."
If every family would help one kid in their lifetime, it would eradicate youth issues, he said.
The more connections kids have, the more opportunities they have, foundation co-founder Echo Garrett added.
Bracken's lifeboats included the family of a friend who took him in, a physician who helped him apply to colleges and a coach at Georgia Tech who gave him a football scholarship and stood by him later when shoulder injuries threatened to take him permanently out of that game.
"There is help out there," Bracken said. "You just have to ask."
The foundation's training program addresses "seven rules for the road," including desire, awareness, meaning, choice, love, change and gratitude.
The Orange Duffel Bag Foundation has programs in Georgia and Utah and expects to expand into other areas, as well. Money raised in Utah supports the program's ability to help youths in Utah, Bracken said. To donate, text the word "Orange" and the amount you're giving to 27138 or send a check to Every Child USA, 701 E. Franklin St., Suite 1000, Richmond, VA 23219.