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Inspired by her past, Graham advocates for teens in foster careDate: 10/26/2017
By Kev Moyè
Stephanie Graham is on a mission to assure that no adolescent encounters the chaos she once experienced.
A Department of Human Services (DHS), Division of Children and Family Services (DCFS) Child Youth Investigator for the Washington County office – Graham brings an aura of joy into each of her responsibilities.
A single name explains the reason why.
“I chose Sunny as my nickname because it represented the person I wanted to become,” said Graham, who made the decision at 17. “When I decided to change my life and be the person I wanted to be, I stopped hanging around my old friends and began meeting new people. That’s when I started to introduced myself as Sunny – instead of Stephanie.”
The name change is cathartic for Graham. However, by no means is she bitter about the past. The apt way to describe Graham’s outlook is: Inspired to make a difference.
Kristin Powers – Graham’s wife – describes how becoming a foster parent increased her spouse’s desire to be a positive presence in the community.
“Growing up, Sunny knew she’d want to assist kids who were in foster care,” said Powers, a program eligibility specialist for the Washington County office. “We were foster parents in California. We saw all the events geared toward younger kids. She wanted to make sure people didn’t forget the teens in foster care.”
Graham takes pride in every facet of her career, according to Washington County Investigations Supervisor, Tina Wood.
“She loves the job she does and her colleagues see it and strive to be just like her,” said Wood.
WHY SHE’S INSPIRED
Graham’s childhood was the antithesis of ideal. Her youth was marred by a horrific situation. However, it was during that stormy period when Graham established a goal to one day provide assistance for teens in foster care.
“I was a foster child in Washington state. Later in life I eventually became a foster parent in California. I know first-hand what the kids sometimes experience,” she somberly acknowledged.
Graham departed the custody of her adoptive parents prior to her 18th birthday. She got away from the situation thanks to a confidant from school. The comrade convinced her family to allow Graham to reside at their home.
Despite Graham fleeing the dangers of her adoptive residency, finding happiness remained a struggle. Though she was grateful for her new living arrangement, Graham was still unable to have the life of a typical teenager.
“I saved up money from working two jobs. I wanted to buy a car and also make a deposit on a studio apartment,” Graham said. “I was also attending a private school and had to pay for the remaining portion of the school year myself.”
MAKING A WAY
Steadily, Graham adapted and would graduate from high school. Afterward, she continued to make the most of a tough situation.
“I worked from about 5 a.m. to 11 then went home and slept for a few hours. When I got up I went to my second job and worked from about 5 p.m. to midnight,” she said. “It was actually easier to live this way than it was to live with my parents.
“My mother was physically and emotionally abusive. I was never really sure if or when I would be punished.”
Being a true optimist, Graham doesn’t dwell on yesteryear. Instead, she chooses to focus on life as an adult, and remain positive about what lies ahead.
“It’s better to live in what’s happening today than to invest time and energy in things I had no control over in my past,” said Graham – who on occasion still communicates with her siblings and mother.
For Graham, being focused on the present includes doing her best to protect the overall well-being of children in foster care.
“Sunny goes out of her way – no matter the time of day – to ensure that children are cared for and protected,” Wood stated.
ENJOYING THEIR HOLIDAY
Graham, the biological mother of two teenage boys, is a dedicated advocate for teens in foster care.
“We’re both products of the foster care system. Our experiences were completely different,” Powers said. “Everything she has done leading up to this job, has led to this career. It was simply about the pursuit of being able to help kids.”
Graham’s generosity never wavers. And there’s a particular time of the year that she invests even more into being an emblem of hope: Christmas.
Recognizing that teenagers in foster care are too often overlooked during the Christmas season, Graham established the Stockings for Teens program.
The project provides teenagers in the Washington County foster care system with gifts cards and other coveted items for Christmas.
“The community is really receptive to Stockings for Teens,” Powers said. “They want to make sure these kids aren’t forgotten.”
Stocking for Teens 2016 marked the second year of the endeavor. Over 50 stockings were provided, more than doubling the 2015 total. The stockings were filled by generous donors. Some individuals sponsored a specific teen and filled a stocking based on the provided wish list. Meanwhile, some Stockings for Teens advocates supplied items – such as gift cards – that could be used by any youth, regardless of their interests or gender.
The growth of Stockings for Teens is not a happenstance. Hard work and compassion are cornerstones of the program.
“I enjoy seeing the smiles and the gratitude the kids have when they receive their stockings,” Graham said. “The process of getting the names and their interests as well as coordinating volunteers and getting things delivered is difficult. But seeing a kid happy is worth it.”
Visit the official Stockings for Teens facebook page: www.facebook.com/stockingsforteens for additional information about the project. Info can also be gleaned by using the facebook hashtag of: #nwastockingsforteens .
A SOURCE OF HOPE
Graham wants people to understand that foster teens need a variety of love that’s too often not available.
“People tend to think of teens as kind of … lost. Or, there’s nothing they can do for them at this point of their life,” she said. “When people see a teen in foster care, many times the first thing somebody asks is: What’s wrong with them?
“It’s nothing wrong with them; it’s what their parents did. The challenge is to change the mentality from, ‘what’s wrong with them’ to ‘what can I do to help’.”
Graham’s passion is greatly appreciated.
“Sunny has made trips to the grocery store to get a foster child’s favorite cereal,” Wood says. “Sunny has stayed up all night in our office to watch kids and they all respond by wanting Sunny to be their primary caretaker.”
Graham – an alumna of Walden University – has learned to cope with the peaks and valleys that typically come with helping an adolescent who’s in state care.
“It’s a double-edged sword. It’s satisfying when she knows that a family has received help. But there are a lot of families that don’t – based on how the system works,” Powers said. “I know Sunny would love to do more. That’s what drew her to Stockings for Teens. Sunny wanted to do more and get other people involved in doing more as well.”
(It is for all of these reasons that Sunny Graham was nominated and featured for the Living the Mission series at DHS, which focuses on individuals who go above and beyond their typical functions. If you know someone who lives the mission of DHS and should be featured for the Living the Mission series, contact Kev Moyè at email@example.com.)