Changing the System A WWC Social Work Student with an Inside View

November 01, 2005 | Kristi Spurgeon

Jeff Lawson grew up in the foster-care system. Or perhaps more accurately, Jeff Lawson grew up despite the foster-care system. Now the Walla Walla College senior social work and religion major is determined to keep what happened to him from happening to other children.

Lawson recently joined Republican Congressman Tom DeLay and other notable politicians at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a one-of-a-kind foster-care community in Texas called Oaks of Rio Bend, spearheaded by DeLay. “I have personally seen the good, the bad, and the ugly in this system, and can say I would have given my right arm for a place like Rio Bend,” Lawson said to a standing ovation from the crowd gathered for the grand opening.

His first six years were spent with an abusive mother before he was placed into the foster-care system where he spent the next 12 years shuttling between 40 to 50 different group homes. When he was released from the system at 18, Lawson describes himself as “ill-prepared for adult life.” He received his GED, then joined the Job Corps in Kentucky where he became acquainted with Seventh-day Adventists and decided to attend an Adventist college.

Lawson chose Walla Walla College, but was forced to postpone his enrollment for financial reasons related to his foster-care records. Around that time, a random e-mail led to his involvement with DeLay, his wife, Christine, and his senior policy adviser Cassie Bevan, who has since become Lawson’s godmother and who also helped obtain those needed records.

Lawson hopes to intern with DeLay, inspired by DeLay’s commitment to foster children. The DeLays have been foster parents for many years, and the opening of the Rio Bend community is the fulfillment of a dream for the couple. The community, built and maintained by money raised by the DeLay Foundation for Kids, will serve as permanent, caring homes for the children, so they don’t have to move from place to place. It will also provide a home for them to return to after “graduating” from the foster-care system. Eventually Rio Bend will house a total of 192 children in what DeLay describes as a “faith-based community.”

Being involved with the project has been inspirational for Lawson. He’s now seen both sides of the foster-care system and plans to use his personal experience, WWC education, and political contacts to change it from within.