We recently had the opportunity to sit down with an amazing young woman, Ronika Allen, and her former CASA volunteer, Eloise Hudson, who advocated for her with CASA of Central Texas.
Ronika grew up in and out of the foster care system from age 7 up until she turned 18. Today, she is 24 years old. It hasn’t been an easy road, but she has risen past her circumstances and grown into a brilliant, driven young woman. She was the first of her five siblings to get her bachelor’s degree, and these days, she prides herself on her self-sufficiency.
“I’m extremely hardworking,” Ronika said. “I basically do everything myself. I pay my own bills, I live by myself…I still get help sometimes, but for the most part I do everything on my own.”
Eloise, Ronika’s CASA volunteer, joined CASA of Central Texas as a staff member back in 2007. In her role as a recruiter, she heard story after story about CASA volunteers making a difference, so she decided to go through training and become a volunteer, outside of her job. Eloise has known Ronika for 12 years now—“half her life” as she puts it.
There’s a lot about Ronika’s time in foster care that she doesn’t remember very well. During our interview, Eloise good-humoredly asked her if she remembered what kind of kid she was when the two first met. Ronika responded, laughing: “I was kinda bad, I think!”
To explain: During her four years serving as her CASA volunteer, Eloise saw Ronika through many placements, including a residential treatment center, a children’s shelter and a stay in juvenile detention. Like many other kids in the system, Ronika often tried to cope with her situation by acting out. Through it all, Eloise stood by her and stayed connected.
At one point, Ronika was having a hard time at a faraway foster placement in Houston and ran away from her foster home. Eloise got a call from someone who explained that Ronika was on her doorstep and had asked the stranger to call her CASA volunteer for her (Ronika knew Eloise’s cell phone number by heart). Eloise called her CPS worker and they got her safely back to her placement. Eloise also regularly got calls from the school counselor’s phone line in Houston, because if Ronika was having a bad day, she would ask to call her.
“I have to say, as hard as it was to listen to her going through things and be so far away, it warmed my heart that she chose to call me and talk to me to feel grounded,” Eloise said.
Eloise’s official appointment to Ronika’s case ended when the case closed and Ronika went back home to live with her mom at age 16. Ronika explained that she’d actually ended up going back into CPS care shortly after the first case closed. Unfortunately, Eloise wasn’t informed or reappointed by the judge on the case because Ronika was living in a different county at the time. For the remainder of her time in high school, Ronika lived in a children’s shelter. She was able to rely on her Preparation for Adult Living (PAL) worker and staff members at her high school for support. She decided she wanted to attend college, and to pursue a career that would help others.
“I feel like that’s kind of what made me change, was the staff and people that I met in high school, and how they treated me good. Like, they always did good stuff for me, always got me whatever I needed…. It made me not want to disappoint them, because they just helped me so much,” Ronika said. “I think after everything I went through when I was younger, I think I just wanted to do something that was better.”
Ronika’s PAL worker and the staff at her high school helped make sure she took advantage of the benefits she had from foster care, such as the State College Tuition Waiver, and helped her enroll in classes at Austin Community College (ACC). After getting her associate’s degree at ACC, she moved on to Texas State University for her bachelor’s degree—and as she explained, the enrollment and financial aid process was much easier now that she had done it once before. She graduated in May 2020 with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice.
Ronika and Eloise reconnected over Facebook when Ronika was 18. Though she wishes she hadn’t missed those couple of years before Ronika turned 18, Eloise is incredibly proud of the person Ronika has become.
We asked Ronika if she had any advice for CASA volunteers, caseworkers and others who support youth in foster care. For her, it came down to a couple of things. First of all, don’t be judgmental, and make sure the youth knows you believe in them.
“I kind of feel like Eloise never really judged me, so I think that was good! She always respected me,” she said.
Second, it’s important to make sure youth know about the resources available to them and how to access them, so that they have a better chance at being successful after aging out of foster care.
“I was able to obtain a lot of resources from CPS that helped me out a lot. Because I don’t think I would’ve made it, where I was at, without those types of resources,” she said.
Ronika isn’t sure exactly what she wants to do with her degree yet, but she’s leaning towards becoming a probation officer. If she does end up in that field, she said that she will “definitely be honest” with kids about her own past involvement with juvenile justice, because it will help them to know that she has been where they’ve been.
One of Ronika’s sisters is also currently on track to get her bachelor’s degree, thanks in no small part to seeing Ronika’s example.
“We had a lot of talks, and it’s just really amazing to see her go from that 12-13-year-old to where she is now,” Eloise said. “Ronika’s really leading the way.”
There are so many young people in the foster care system, just like Ronika, who deserve every opportunity to pursue their passion. CASA volunteers can make a difference by believing in them, connecting them with the resources they need, and facilitating a network of support that will help them be successful. If you’d like to be there for a young person like Ronika, consider taking the first step to become a CASA volunteer at www.BecomeACASA.org.