PARK HILLS — When R.J. Sloke graduates from Mineral Area College in December, he won’t have to wonder about his next step. The Army Reserve soldier, who once bounced from foster home to foster home, has been making plans for the future and taking advantage of as many opportunities as he can at MAC.

The social work major is planning to continue his education at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., and take a job with the office of U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-Louisiana. Landrieu is a founding co-chair and board president of the Congressional Coalition on Adoption and co-chair of the Congressional Foster Care Caucus.

This summer, he was one of 15 college students nationally chosen to participate in the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute’s (CCAI) Foster Youth Internship (FYI) program. He interned with the Washington, D.C., office of U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Missouri, providing policymakers with input, perspectives and experiences on the foster care system.

It’s a system he knows all too well.

Sloke, originally from Anderson, S.C., said he spent his formative years isolated in his room at home to escape the physical, mental and emotional abuses heaped on him and his siblings by his drug-addicted parents and their friends. At one point, he said, he was actually locked in his bedroom, his door nailed shut, his food slid to him under the door.

“For that one particular experience (being shut in his room), I read my Bible and a set of encyclopedias over and over again,” he said. “This benefited me later on, when I was so far behind in school.”

Entering the foster care program at the age of 13, Sloke found out not many foster parents wanted to deal with a rough-around-the-edges teen, so he was intermittently sent to various institutions.

“I found myself, between the ages of 13 and 18, moving among 30 group homes, foster homes, and in some cases, juvenile detention facilities,” he said. “Instead of being locked behind nailed doors, I found myself being locked behind magnetic doors in maximum security group homes. It’s very much like prison, and you learn how to fend for yourself.”

Sloke said he attended 12 high schools. In the first week of his 11th high school, he found himself in the ninth grade for the third time, because each time he moved, his caseworkers and schools failed to transfer his credits.

It was only through the diligence of a teacher who cared, Karen Parker of Summerville High School in South Carolina, that his credits were pooled so he was able to move up a year.

“I owe so much to her,” he said. “She was outraged when she learned of my story, and fought every inch of the way for me to receive the credits I earned.”

Although he still had to move on to yet another high school, he joined the Army Reserves his junior year, which allowed him to attend basic combat training at Fort Benning, Ga., the summer between his junior and senior year.

“I was filled with pride when I returned to high school my senior year as a soldier,” he said.

Unfortunately, he had also been officially emancipated at the age of 18 from the foster care system right before basic, which led to a stint of virtual homelessness during his senior year. He crashed at friends’ houses, staying on couches, sometimes sleeping in cars, before he secured a full-time job and his own place. He graduated from Westside High School in South Carolina at the age of 19, a major milestone accomplished.

Staying with the military, he was deployed to Afghanistan with the U.S. Army for a year. At the end of his deployment, having nothing and no one to return to in his home state, he followed a fellow soldier to this area. When the relationship disintegrated, he enrolled at MAC and signed up for college housing his first semester.

“When I first got accepted to MAC back in the spring of 2010, I cried,” he said. “It was an emotional realization that I had made it past so many obstacles that others in the foster care system hadn’t been able to clear. Less than 50 percent of kids in the foster care system graduate from high school, and less than 1 percent graduate from college. Statistically, I shouldn’t really be here, but I am.”

While he started MAC as a criminal justice major, he knew in his heart he wanted to get into social work and reach out to other foster youths. He started contacting social service organizations and stumbled across an internship application for the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute, which annually chooses 15 former foster youths from around the country to intern with a member of congress.

This summer, Sloke was one of those youths, and his summer spent in Sen. Blunt’s office in Washington, D.C. was “the opportunity of a lifetime.”

“I had the privilege of writing and presenting a report to congress on my recommendations to improve foster care,” he said. “One of my recommendations, the Uninterrupted Scholars Act, is actually in the process of becoming law after my story influenced Senator Blunt to cosponsor the bill.”

When he returned to Missouri in August, he was amazed to receive a letter telling him he was awarded MAC’s Danny Staples Memorial Endowed Scholarship. “Never before have I received a scholarship, and it’s good to know someone out there was willing to invest in me,” he said.

The opportunities were beginning to snowball for Sloke. In September, he was invited to speak in front of hundreds of people at an annual Angels in Adoptions gala, which was attended by politicians and celebrities of note, including Michelle Bachmann and Katherine Heigel. He inspired so many with his story, he was written about in the Washington Post and featured on Fox News with Sen. Landrieu.

“There’s a lot of work to be done in the foster care system,” he said. “About half the prison system has been involved in the system, unemployment is rampant, and so is drug use. I’m trying to use my story to reach out to those youth, to tell them they can succeed through resilience and a never-give-up attitude.”

Locally, he’s helped out on Missouri senatorial candidate Gary Romine’s campaign as a paid staffer and has been so inspired by his various political experiences, he’d like to go on to law school and combine his knowledge of social work and law to help reform foster care in America. He wants to open his own nonprofit for helping at-risk youth, and he eventually would like to run for political office.

But for now, he’s got his eye on graduating from MAC “—and I will most likely cry then, too,” he said. He and the mother of his baby girl are readying for their move to the East Coast, and he’s working on how to pay for the tuition, fees, books and living expenses associated with attending George Mason University and bringing up his family. Just recently, he was invited back to his high school, Summerville, to share his story with students.

He said he’ll never forget his time at MAC, though.

“MAC has been a great stepping stone for me in my life,” he said. “It’s helped me find out who I am and what I’d like to do in life. There’s one quote I think of, by (Supreme Court Justice) Thurgood Marshall, when I think of the role the people here at MAC have played in my life:

“He said, ’None of us got where we are solely by pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. We got here because somebody  parent, a teacher, an Ivy League crony or a few nuns — bent down and helped us pick up our boots.’ I want to help someone else pick up their boots, too.”

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