JONESBORO -- One woman's story of triumph over adversity. Ashley Rhodes-Courter has quite a story to tell. Orphaned at an early age, she spent the bulk of her childhood in Florida's foster care system. Now, as foster care in Arkansas faces extreme scrutiny, this young speaker and author comes to Jonesboro.
You'd never know by looking at this poised young woman who has appeared on national shows like Good Morning America and Montel that Ashley Rhodes-Courter lived in 14 different foster homes as a child. She had 44 caseworkers and 19 foster parents. One of the foster homes she was in was even shut down over abuse and torture of children.
Ashley shares her story and her book, "Three Little Words" in hopes of getting more people to take a chance on love and adopt a child. She was adopted at age 12 by Phil and Gay Courter.
"I'm living proof that foster kids are just as good as biological kids," said Ashley to Good Morning America host, Diane Sawyer. "We're all people. We have just as much love to give."
"She will inspire us all for her courage and the way she's been able to succeed after having lived in foster care," said Sharon Stallings of Adoption Coalition VIII. Stallings co-chairs the organization bringing Ashley to Jonesboro.
Federal funding through the Adoption Opportunities Grant is making her trip possible and all of this comes at a key time for the state of Arkansas.
A former foster parent in the system was sentenced to 70 years in prison for child pornography. Four foster children died over a two-month period this past summer, two of which were in homes that were already under investigation for abuse and Governor Mike Beebe has ordered a top to bottom investigation of the foster care system.
"We need so many more good quality foster homes. Foster care is not a place to grow up," said Stallings.
One bit of good news that Sharon Stallings and Dia Sawyer, both members of the Adoption Coalition for Area VIII are celebrating: the number of adoption are on the rise in this part of the state.
In fact, the counties making up Area VIII have experienced a 70 percent increase in finalized adoptions over the past year. Still there's always room for improvement as long as children are waiting to be adopted. Dia has worked on many of the billboards you see around town and the Adoption Coalition's website.
"The Heart Gallery pictures that we take and the bios that we place with the photos just give you a glimpse into their lives and into their souls that they're just normal kids," said Dia Sawyer, Director of the Heart Gallery.
"No kid should have to spend ten years in foster care," said Ashley.
Not long after Ashley was adopted she began to speak out as an advocate for better foster care and the need for more CASA, or court-appointed special advocate volunteers. It was a casa volunteer who made her adoption possible. Ashley has travelled the country doing speaking engagements as a teenager in high school and even during her college years.
She's spoken on behalf of Wendy's Founder Dave Thomas' Foundation for Adoption and she encourages everyone to open their hearts to the plight of children in foster care.
"I think it's important for families to take a chance and also take action because children are being abused everyday in our foster care system," said Ashley. "Even if they don't have availability in their homes, at least they should open up their hearts and donate and keep your eyes open and be aware of the public injustices going on right here in our own backyards.
Ashley's story is so powerful...and especially when you consider this: less than 2% of foster care children ever go to college and get a degree. Ashley first wrote about her experience in foster care as part of an essay contest in 2003, then expanded it last year into a book published by Simon and Schuster.
You can hear Ashley Rhodes-Courter speak on October 28th from two until 3-15 p-m at the ASU Convocation Center Lower Red Entrance.