In this world, we may face seemingly insurmountable difficulties. In those moments, sometimes we can’t see the end, a better day, or even see ourselves.
Denise Daugherty has experienced the foster care and juvenile justice systems. Throughout her life, she’s endured difficulties, but she’s made fire into light and heat.
Certainly, her warm presence draws people in; and she’s grown to see herself in this new light, as an accomplished leader and successful professional, and one day, even as a foster care parent! To see herself, however, she needed others to see her, too.
Denise’s perceptions of her life shifted when she first began training for her new internship in which she worked with school-aged children in the public school system.
Thanks to her Central Plains Center for Services (CPCS) coach’s LEAP strategies, Denise was seen, and her lively personality was illuminated by working with children, especially those whose challenges mirrored her own.
Nebraska Children and Families Foundation’s Connected Youth Initiative (CYI) partners with CPCS to administer supports and services for young people between 14-26 who have experienced foster care among other challenges. Through these programs, participants can transition into adult life feeling connected to a community and developing themselves as leaders.
Throughout the years, we’ve played a part in people like Denise’s success as they move into college, careers, financial independence, and parenthood. Our partnered coaches utilize LEAP strategies for young people who experienced foster care to pursue education and professional opportunities.
This time around, our afterschool network, Beyond School Bells, teamed up with Connected Youth Initiative to leverage CARES Act dollars. In the process, the teams decided the best use of these funds would be to provide paid internships for CYI participants to work with school-aged students in Lincoln and Omaha’s Public Schools.
Now, back to Denise and the internship that would change her life, even before she started to work.
Denise said that from the moment she entered training for the program, she began to see the world differently, which she attributes to LaRon Henderson.
As the Program Quality Director at the Collective for Youth, LaRon led the summer and fall interns through two weeks of leadership and diversity training. LaRon worked at Nebraska Children, so he remains familiar with our work and mission for every young person to thrive. We’re happy to hear he continues to touch young people like Denise’s minds and hearts.
Denise said that although she was skeptical, she eventually resonated with his words.
“[He said] everything that happened in your life was supposed to happen. It was already written before it happened. I said, ‘You can’t say that.’”
From there, nonetheless, Denise began to see herself and her life in a new light.
“He said that everything that happened was supposed to happen to make you better, whether it’s wrong or right. An outcome brings [betterment] if you take it the right way. If you look at something [as] bright and good and can learn from it, you can prosper and know better ways to handle the situation. I’m mad I only met him now!” said Denise, laughing.
From there, Denise said other people in her life continue to echo these sentiments.
“It’s crazy; after he said that, somebody else said that, too! That’s crazy that someone else said that!” she said.
Since then, her view of herself has transformed and allowed her to enter her internship with renewed faith.
“I feel like the things that happen to you make you stronger or make you weaker. Then, the objects that you felt were barriers, once you [overcome] them, will let you lead a happy life,” she said.
One of Denise’s biggest setbacks involved experiencing the justice system.
“I’m 26; I never thought I’d be stable or working with kids or I’d have a good boyfriend,” she said. “I thought I’d be in prison. I went at a young age when I was barely 18. It opened my eyes; I’m not so negative or so angry anymore,” she said.
Denise said now her sights are focused on her many joys.
“Now I do what makes me happy, or what’s best for me. I’m not worried about others,” she said. “The reason I got into trouble was that I needed to love and protect people. I’m [now] doing what makes me happy. It feels good!”
Denise said she loves her internship, especially working with school-aged children, particularly those who act out.
“I love working with kids and seeing kids who remind me of myself. I see myself in them. These students are girls and always angry. When they have a good day, I show them someone cares and understands them,” she said.
Denise said she continues to see her past self in the children with whom she works.
“When I was a kid, I was in the bad classes and was considered a bad kid because nobody took the time to understand me. They just judged me,” said Denise.
Determined not to dismiss her students, Denise positively impacts these children’s lives.
“The teacher said two of the girls are doing so much better! She said, ‘I don’t know what you said to them, but they aren’t acting up anymore.’”
For Denise, this internship went from enjoyable to a new career path.
“I’m glad I got this experience! I used to want to work with youth; now I want to work with kids!” She said.
Although incarcerated at barely 18 for a felony, Denise said her past doesn’t define her.
In fact, she said her history made her stronger, along with her PALS coaches, whom she is already working with on her new career goals!
“Lisa and Jess [my PALS coaches] helped me apply to become a para! We’ll work on my resume this week. I’ll either apply for either OPS or the Urban League, so I can still work with kids,” said Denise.
Denise said that her coach is her biggest role model.
“I want to be like Lisa,” she said. “She’s so helpful. Without her, I wouldn’t be where I am at today. No matter what I did, right or wrong, she always said, ‘We’re going to move forward. This [setback] will be part of your past.’ Her mindset and my therapist’s mindset didn’t doubt me; they were always uplifting.”
Denise said she attributes her thriving life to her resilience and the supportive people, who saw her for who she is.
“They’re part of my success today. I would never have thought about not being in trouble or working with kids. I never had goals and dreams. I thought I’d end up in jail for a long time. I’m just really proud of myself, and Lisa makes me feel better,” she said.
Denise said that she and Lisa have cultivated a relationship that has spanned over a decade!
“She’s worked with me since I was 17. She said, ‘Look at all the things you endured and look at where you are. Stop doubting and be proud of yourself.’”
In addition to her career and coach, Denise’s relationship is a huge source of support.
“My boyfriend inspires me too. He gets up and goes to work and motivates me. He tells me to stop doubting myself. He says, ‘Somebody is going to hire you and like you. You walk in a room, and they’ll stare at you!’”
Denise said that she’s aware of her energetic presence. That said, so are people around her, even those who greet her for the first time.
Throughout her internship at Martin Luther King Elementary, which is part of the Omaha Public Schools system, Denise still affects children’s lives.
“One of the boys was always angry. He began getting destructive. The staff said, ‘He has a lot going on at home. He’s in foster care; he’s not adjusting.’ One day, I took him aside in the hallway. We talked for thirty minutes. I said, ‘I don’t know what’s going on, but I know you’re angry, and I was in foster care too.’ He looked up and said, ‘For real?’ I said, ‘Yes, I was always the bad kid.’ He said, ‘You don’t seem like that now!’ I said, ‘You don’t want to be bad forever. You don’t want to be in jail, but you shouldn’t have to worry about that now.’”
Denise said that she encouraged the young boy to redirect his anger.
“I told him, ‘Worry about being good and going back home.’ He explained that he’s mad because he can’t see his family. He said, ‘How am I supposed to let it out when everyone keeps yelling at me, messing with me, placing me in different places?’ I said, ‘I know that. They don’t always understand you, but you have to understand you.’”
From there, Denise said the boy transformed.
“Now he’s my little buddy! He walks up to me and says, ‘Hi, Ms. Daugherty.’ I say, ‘Are we going to have a good day today?’ He says, ‘Yes, ma’am.'”
Denise said that she brings relatability to each young person whose life she touches.
“With my teachers, if I can’t relate to you, then I don’t want to hear you,” she said. “You can’t feel students’ pain until you know what’s going on at home.”
In addition to being transparent about her experiences in foster care, Denise said that she’s vulnerable.
“I cried in front of the boy, and he asked, ‘Can I get a hug like that again?’ He sometimes has bad days, but overall, he’s not how he was. He wants to stay with me and do things with my class. He’s cool now when I’m around,” she said, laughing.
“It feels good when kids run up to you and say ‘Hi!’ It feels good to know you’re loved, too.”
This experience has also prepared Denise for becoming a foster care parent.
“Right now, my boyfriend and I have an apartment,” she said. “We want to rent a house so we can start doing foster care. I want to keep working with kids! And soon, maybe in a few years, I’m going to go back to school to get a better knowledge of working with kids,” said Denise.
“Our goal for next year is to find a house!” she said.
By working with numerous partners, Nebraska Children helped create a pathway for young adults like Denise to find a career as well as providing opportunities for younger kids to connect with caring adults.