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Craig High School senior Ayana Smith-Kooiman poses for a portrait. Smith-Kooiman, who spent time in the foster care system, will attend college on a full scholarship this fall.

JANESVILLE

What does “home” mean to you?

It’s probably the place your family lives, where you absorb your values and where you feel secure.

Craig High School senior Ayana Smith-Kooiman lived in many places before she found her permanent home.

She has lived with her birth mother and her siblings, with a foster family and her older sibling, with a foster family and her younger sisters, and with a foster family without any of her siblings.

In fall, Ayana will attend Macalester College, a private liberal arts college in St. Paul, Minnesota, where she hopes to pursue a double major in political science and international studies with a concentration in human rights and humanitarianism.

She’ll be doing that thanks to a QuestBridge scholarship, which will pay for her room and board and tuition. About 15,000 students apply for the scholarships, but only about 1,000 win them.

In newspaper stories, the phrase “in and out of foster homes” often forecasts some sort of disaster in someone’s life.

In Ayana’s life, there is no disaster. There is only Ayana, a thoughtful, intelligent and balanced woman who can acknowledge—even joke about—what she perceives as her flaws. Yes, she works too hard. Yes, she pursues personal success when she probably should take more time to chill.

Her family life—or lack thereof—has been the biggest influence in her life.

Researchers say one of the most traumatic events that can happen to a child is removal from her home and parents—even if the home is a terrible place.

A Rock County human services official once described it this way: “It might be a bad home, but it’s their home, and they love their parents.”

When Ayana was 5, she was sent to her first out-of-home placement with her older sister. A series of other family configurations followed, with the girls sometimes living with relatives and sometimes with strangers.

The foster system “sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t,” Ayana said.

“I mean, I was fine,” she said. “But that’s because I kind of conformed to the mold of being the ‘good kid.’ But the moment you don’t conform to that mold in the system, it can be very, very awful for you.”

Despite her role as a “good child,” she remembers having breakdowns.

Being removed from her family was “very traumatizing,” she said.

“I remember when I was living with the one family in Beloit, I would just start screaming, ‘I want to go home, I want to home, I want to go home,’” Ayana said. “One time, I got so mad I took a shirt and ripped it right in half. I think I was 9 at the time.”

For the longest time, she couldn’t figure out why she and her siblings had been taken away from their homes.

“We didn’t know. Nobody told us. And that’s a very helpless feeling,” Ayana said.

The experience was hard on her younger sisters, and her older sister spent time in a group home, she said.

“My older sister had PTSD—actually, we all have problems with PTSD and depression,” Ayana said, referring to post-traumatic stress disorder.

“My older sister is really lucky that she got adopted when she did. That’s a big fear with foster kids. The older you get, the less likely you are to be adopted. And then you age out of the system, and then there’s no safety net.”

In 2010, Ayana and her two younger siblings were adopted by their aunt and uncle, Krystle and Josh Kooiman. Ayana calls them Mom and Dad.

“We’re a very spiritual family, and my mom prayed and prayed that we would be placed in a home that was safe and where they could still see us,” Ayana said. “My mom’s running joke is, ‘I guess God thought that was us.’”

Sometimes Ayana struggles with the past. But when something triggers the grief, trauma or betrayals of her childhood, she responds by working harder, by trying to overcome something difficult or by trying something new. She took a physics class just because she knew it would be difficult.

That work absorbs her mind and spirit and helps her feel better.

“I’m always trying to better myself, to put my best foot forward,” Ayana said. “There’s a running joke in our family that we all have the smart gene, but we’re also very lazy. So I’m trying to be the best me I can be.”

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