As a teenager, A’zja escaped her family and hid for three weeks in a friend’s closet.
She’s also walked herself to therapy, deciding that she needed mental health support. She learned Omaha’s public transit system as a child, worked a job since she was 12, and has been mistaken for someone almost twice her age – with good reason.
But A’zja’s story of survival is even more remarkable still. In addition to living in her friend’s closet, she sought shelter with her cousin, a hairstylist friend, her father’s ex-girlfriend, her friend’s grandmother, her friend’s aunt, her friend’s grandfather, and her own grandmother. She’s even spent the night at the hotel where she worked – all within a two-year period.
Despite her struggles, the one thing that A’zja can’t hide is her resilience. And her difficulties have carried her into a presence far beyond her 18 years.
“I’m a youth who’s achieved a lot of things that other people haven’t,” said A’zja.
“I was forced to grow up at a young age. The motivation to have a good career and college experience was something I was thinking about at age 12 because I wanted to provide for my family.”
The second oldest of five children, A’zja said that growing up in a troubled household became fodder for her to become a responsible big sister and protector of her siblings.
A’zja said, “I always played a mama bear role. There were many things I wanted to do, but I could not yet do at my age. I wanted to pay bills and get a job at McDonald’s. When I heard they hired people at age 13, I was so excited. I had a babysitting job at 12!”
From there, A’zja used her maturity to her advantage.
“The mom I babysat for never asked my age,” said A’zja. “I’d get up at six in the morning, stay with her kids at 12, then bring my brothers and sisters over to watch them too. And I could feed them.”
A’zja’s wisdom led her to this moment. She’s pursuing a degree and a career in Early Childhood Education. A young leader, A’zja is a participant in Nebraska Children and Families Foundation’s Connected Youth Initiative (CYI), our older youth program, and Beyond School Bells (BSB), our statewide afterschool network.
CYI is dedicated to working with young people who experienced foster care so they can successfully transition into adulthood. BSB, on the other hand, creates and sustains high-quality expanded learning partnerships throughout the state. Together, these initiatives and Central Plains Center for Services (CPCS) leveraged CARES Act dollars to create a well-paying internship opportunity for CYI participants to make a difference in school-age students’ lives.
This latest initiative includes providing young people like A’zja with paid opportunities to work with students in the Omaha and Lincoln Public Schools afterschool programs. These talented young people have since decided to pursue careers in this field, especially once they realized they could positively impact students!
A’zja attributes her strength to her faith and responsibility.
“I had to do it. I’m very spiritual. I believe in God, so that helped,” she said.
“Being hungry, going to school without basic hygiene, and being teased at school, made me try to figure things out. I just kept pushing,” she said.
“I had examples of what I did not want to be. I was so angry at my parents, I wanted to prove them wrong. I’d tell myself, ‘You’ve gone far; you’ve been through worse: you can get through this.’”
A’zja had to navigate the adult world again while still a preteen, thanks to her strength and a few dedicated adults.
“I couldn’t get to school, so I figured out how to take the bus. My principal gave me a bike to get to school. His name was Mr. Haynes!” she said.
A’zja credits Mr. Haynes for being there for her and emphasizes the role that caring adults play in children’s lives.
“A lot of times, kids are scared to speak up; he made me feel comfortable. I was like, ‘OK, I don’t have a ride to school. I don’t have clothes.’”
At only 18 years old, A’zja has attended college for three years as part of her high school’s dual enrollment program. She now studies at Metro Community College full-time and pursues a major in Education. Before that, A’zja fueled her love for teaching as part of the CPCS and CYI internship program. But long before that, she found her calling.
“I want to be a teacher for eight years, but my [ultimate] goal is to work for a nonprofit,” she said. “I want to open my own home to offer services like therapy, GED classes, and rehab. I also want to get a Ph.D. in Psychology to write a book; actually three,” she said.
A’zja plans to write a series of spiritually informed memoirs after finishing her Ph.D.
“I want to tell my life story, but the story is long and huge, and there are a lot of events. So, I’ll make different books that revolve around the scenario I experienced and the positive and negative ways those events impacted me. I want to have spiritual quotes that are inspirational throughout the book,” she said.
“There are two quotes: one is, ‘I’m stronger than my strongest excuse.’ The other one is, ‘I will not worry about the things I can’t control.’”
Right now, A’zja lives in a foster home. She plans to move into an apartment soon.
From there, she intends to attend Metro for another two years, then transfer to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
A’zja describes a familiar struggle as she ages out of the foster care system. She sympathizes with her peers, who are often too overwhelmed to consider the nuances of the transition.
“That moment hits the six months before you age out. In those six months, [before you age out] you have to sign up in advance for benefits. People don’t do that because they’re already doing a lot and working. So, they’re rushing or don’t think they can do it,” she said.
After being recruited by a colleague from her paid internship, A’zja is now working at an Omaha-based Catholic school, which she says has been great.
“I’ve connected with children, made lesson plans, and the students are working on numbers,” she said.
During her CYI internship, A’zja gained a valuable connection with a supervisor that led to her current career. Her manager was leaving and offered her a job at the new school where he started a program, which he wanted her to join.
“The reason for the internship was to get more experience teaching a bigger group of children,” she said. “Now, I get a full-on experience and the ability to lead the class and make my own lesson plans.”
A’zja said that her internship training provided valuable professionalizing experience.
“The [paid internship] did inform my interviews; that helped a lot. When we did our training, it was more than just child safety; we underwent mental training. Many classes were about telling us to know who we are before we go into the classroom. You have to go in, be confident, and know who you are. Remember when you were a kid.”
A’zja said that her internship turned into her current job as a Youth Assistant at Hope Center, a faith-based afterschool program. She supervises 30 students ranging from PreK to second grade and is training to become a teacher!
One of A’zja many responsibilities includes ensuring her students’ academic success.
“They all do homework time, which is academic success time. I give students the extra help they may need. Some kids are working on subtraction, addition, and long division,” said A’zja.
Before long, A’zja said she’ll finish training and move into her teaching position. She remains busy and on her toes in the meantime!
“I have to watch the students because a lot more things can happen when you have age groups mixed in,” she said.
A’zja said that CPCS Higher Education Liaison and PALS coach, Jessi Hedlund, is instrumental in her internship journey.
“Jessi sent me Ted Talks on motivational speakers. One stood out to me; it was about a teacher who had a blind grandma. The lesson was about how you can teach kids empathy. With his grandma, he’d watch Aladdin and explain the whole movie to her.”
Jessi said that she’s impressed by how much initiative A’zja has taken, as she took charge and supplemented her internship with other career-building skills and activities.
“A’zja was proactive in seeking additional leadership opportunities as part of the internship, and she helped plan and facilitate professional development meetings,” said Jessi.
A’zja said that she intends to integrate empathy into her curriculum soon.
“Kids can show empathy if someone has an injury or is disabled. Being attentive and aware can help you show empathy,” she said.
“I want to do a lesson about it, as students sometimes don’t say nice things. They don’t mean to offend someone, but they do because they don’t understand the other person’s stance.”
Aside from compassion, A’zja’s greatest internship takeaway is her love for teaching.
“I do LOVE teaching. Nobody knows how good or how much they like something until they do it!” She said. “I thought I’d love [teaching] based on my past tutoring experiences, but once you get in the environment, you know you like what you’re doing, and I do!”
Overall, A’zja said the experiences she gained from her internship have paid off tenfold.
“I feel like the internship made me think a different way. It opened my mind. I’m young; teenagers think they know everything, and they don’t,” she said.
One person who impacted her included LaRon Henderson, Program Quality Director at the Collective for Youth, who led the summer and fall interns through two weeks of leadership and diversity training.
A former Nebraska Children staff member, we’re happy to see LaRon continuing to spread our mission of positive change and impacting young people like A’zja, who was pleasantly surprised and challenged!
“When I met with LaRon, everything was so confusing,” she said. “He was using all these big words; it wasn’t easy. Nothing in life is easy. You’ve got to work for it. The last few weeks of the internship, that’s what he was doing! He was making us work for it.”
A’zja said she learned an essential lesson that fueled her work ethic.
“People thought they knew what they were doing; he was like, ‘No, you don’t. You’re dealing with a different set of kids and atmosphere. You’re being a good teacher doesn’t mean everything; you still have to adjust.”
Aside from remembering who she was, A’zja remembers what she needed.
“I didn’t have parents who sat down and made sure I did homework. My parents didn’t care; they saw school as daycare. They never went to conferences or looked at my grades.”
In middle school, as A’zja underperformed academically, she said everything changed when a teacher challenged her.
“I began with all Fs, and then I began getting As and Bs!” She said.
Unlike some other adults in her life, who encouraged her to do her best, A’zja said that she decided to excel academically due to an administrator’s put-down.
“My administrator said, “’There’s NO way you can get all As and Bs!’ She didn’t believe it. I had low Fs and Ds. She said, ‘You are going to be back here in 8th grade.’ And I was like, ‘I am going to get my grades up.’ She didn’t believe me.”
At the end of the semester, A’zja marched into the teacher’s office and put her transcript on the woman’s desk. Sure enough, A’zja had earned all As and Bs.
There was still another teacher who believed in A’zja.
“I had this one teacher tell me, ‘You’re smart, you can do this. Just because things aren’t good at home, I still care about your grades. School is your golden ticket; school’s your way out of what you’re dealing with; treat school like it’s your job!’” She said.
“I said to her that I wanted to care for my siblings. She said, ‘You can. School is your job. School is how you can help them.’ And that’s exactly what I did. I began going to school in my grandma’s blazers. I began wearing flats.”
From there, A’zja’s entire world shifted. She began to view school as her profession and started dressing the part, which she still feels is key to her success.
“I want a briefcase for Christmas,” she said. “That advice went a long way. I kept it with me. School is my job. I’m paying myself with knowledge! If you have the knowledge, you can do anything.”
From there on, she continued to earn excellent grades, which she said her siblings were happy to emulate.
“My brothers and sisters fell in line; they sure did! We began making good grades a competition,” she said. “My brother skipped a grade, and he will graduate with me!”
Today, A’zja finds herself on the brink of transition and embarking on more success. As she pursues the next chapter of her life, we’re glad to see that her resolve, some caring adults, and our partnered supports can play a part in this remarkable young woman’s life.