While Minnesota legislators and administrators work on recommendations for improving Minnesota’s foster care system and out-of-home placements, North High School senior and Beat the Odds® scholarship winner Domenic Johnson provides a first-hand look at the system he calls “harsh and unforgiving.” Domenic and his sister spent several years in foster care after the state determined both his mother and his father were unfit parents. He experienced instability and abuse. He sums it up simply as “not a good experience.” Domenic cites participation as a child in a CDF Freedom Schools® program as the highlight of his childhood.
Domenic and his sister eventually went to live with his grandmother, who he says loved them but believed in corporal punishments that weren’t much different from the abuse they experienced in foster care. Domenic accepted his grandmother’s discipline as normal behavior, but as he grew up he became more aware that it was not acceptable. “It’s not how you show love,” he says. Domenic began running away from his grandmother’s house. He admits he wanted to be with his mom or get attention from his dad. But, he would eventually just end up back in the same situation. When he was in the ninth grade, Domenic got kicked out of his house and realized he had no place to go. He found an open garage that he could crawl in to keep warm and wondered what he was going to do. Domenic describes that night as a pivotal point when he knew he had to take charge of his own life.
After bouncing around from one friend’s house to another, Domenic finally landed at his aunt’s house, where he began to turn his life around. One of the first things he did was to find a job so that he could help support himself. The second thing he did was turn his focus on his education. He no longer thought of school as a distraction or obligation. He viewed school as his way out. He was no longer content, he says, to settle for less. He had a dream to further his education and achieve his goal to become a nurse, and he was determined to make it happen. In addition to improving his grades, Domenic began joining groups and working to make his school a better place for all students. He joined the Student Council and Student Activities Committee. He began attending the Gay-Straight Alliance Club to meet new people and to learn about other lifestyles. He also thrived at his job and helped other students find work and resources. He attributes much of his turnaround to the staff and students at North High. “North High is more than just a school,” he says, “it’s like a little family.”
In spite of the obstacles and family breakdowns Domenic has faced in his young life, he shows great insight and understanding of the frailties of his family. He doesn’t “bash” any of them. His mother has mental health issues, and his father has issues stemming from not having his own dad around. He understands, too, that his grandmother cared for him but didn’t know how to show it. “Every mistake comes with a lesson,” he says of all he has learned from his family situation.
As he looks at his future, Domenic has applied to several schools, including Bethel University and Minnesota State University Mankato. He plans to get his degree in nursing or another health profession. He also plans to eventually open a program to help kids like him. “There will be only one rule,” he says, “you have to go to school.”