A Lawrence High School graduate has been recognized as one of a dozen former foster children across the country who have emerged victorious despite their challenges.
Heidi Bryson vowed to make something of her life despite the abuse she suffered as a child.
Tonight, a national group rewards the 21-year-old for coming through on her promise.
Bryson, who considers Lawrence home, is being recognized this week in Washington, D.C., as one of a dozen former foster children from across the country who have overcome stiff odds imposed by childhood hardships.
At an Orphan Foundation of America awards dinner, she will be given a $4,000 scholarship as part of the group's OLIVER project. OLIVER is the acronym for Orphan Leadership Initiative: Value, Education, Resources.
Now in college studying music education and performance, Bryson remembers a time when she cried in her classes at West Junior High School, overwhelmed by her family's dysfunction.
Her parents, she said during a Monday interview, were mentally ill. Her mother suffered multiple personality disorder, and her father fought severe depression. They were emotionally and mentally abusive and, at times, struck out physically, Bryson said.
Workers from the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services visited the home, she said, and "in eighth grade they told me I was going to the hospital."
"I was crying at school every day," Bryson said. "Every day I'd go to school and cry because of the things that were going on at home.
"When there's so much emotional abuse in the home, it's hard to hold your ground. There were so many problems I didn't know how to take care of. While I was in the hospital they placed me in foster care."
Entering the state system at age 12, Bryson went through seven foster-care placements before landing with Nancy and Greydon Walker of Lawrence. She lived with the Walkers from 10th grade to her senior year at Lawrence High School. Greydon Walker is assistant director of Douglas County Youth Services.
"The Walkers would probably be my only positive experience," she said. "It was hard to be a kid like me in foster care. I wasn't in trouble with the law, but I was in placement with children who had problems with the law and had a chip on their shoulder. It was hard to be part of that when I was trying to be so positive."
Bryson said she promised herself that she wouldn't let her past hold her back.
"I knew that I didn't want to live like this for the rest of my life," Bryson said. "I was going to make something of myself."
Only 50 percent of foster children graduate from high school, Bryson said, and only 11 percent go on to college.
Douglas County District Judge Jean Shepherd, who has dealt with hundreds of foster children, called Bryson an "outstanding young woman."
The juvenile court judge said she was thrilled Monday when she learned of Bryson's scholarship and recognition.
"She's had a lot of challenges, which she's viewed as opportunities," Shepherd said. "She's a strong person who obviously has a lot of internal resources."
Nancy Walker said Bryson is a can-do person who knows what she wants to do with her life.
"She's very assertive, and if she doesn't know how to do something, she finds the resources to do so," Walker said. "She struck me immediately as a very honest, conscientious, positive person."
Bryson is transferring from Emporia State University to Wichita State University this fall to continue her music studies.
"My main instrument is the violin," Bryson said. "I also sing and do a little bit of percussion."
Playing the violin helped her through a lot of hard times as a child, she said.
Bryson served as president of the ESU A Cappella Choir, concert master of the ESU Chamber Orchestra and a member of the drum section for the school's Marching Hornets. She also made the dean's list all three years in Emporia and was named an All-American Scholar.
While in Washington, Bryson will meet with a member of Congress to discuss foster-care issues. She and the 11 other OLIVER recipients each will have a few minutes to talk about one aspect of foster care they'd like to see improved. Bryson wasn't sure Monday which lawmaker she would meet. But she said she was preparing comments about the need for independent living programs for children who have gone through the foster system.
Bryson said she no longer looks at her past with only regret.
"What I went through is why I am who I am today," she said. "I see the world in a different light, and I see it in a positive way. I can make it through whatever comes my way."
-- Deb Gruver's phone message number is 832-7165. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.