A Child Welfare worker and teenager forge a path for the future
Danielle Rouhier had never met a 13-year-old who felt so defeated by life at such a young age. Rouhier is a Social Service Specialist for the Oregon Department of Human Services (ODHS) in the Child Welfare division in Jackson County.
Landon and his siblings were one of the first families she worked with in her career. Landon had already spent more than half his life in foster care. At that time, it was hard for him to care about school causing his reading skills to be below his eighth-grade level.
“It was an arduous and demoralizing journey for Landon and his siblings,” Rouhier said.
When she first met Landon in 2018, he was living with his aunt and uncle in Grants Pass. He was struggling there as well as in school.
“It’s been rough. With them being my aunt and uncle – it used to be a place where I could get away from my living arrangement you know like when we had days without eating. It was always like, ‘Let’s hang out with the fun uncle.’ He’d let us play his X-Box. He took us out for ice cream and there was always food around. We weren’t used to him being a parent,” Landon said.
But then, one day Rouhier had a conversation with Landon.
“I asked Landon, ‘What do you want to do after high school?’ Landon said, ‘I really want to play college football, but I know that’s not going to happen.’ He very much believed that education, graduation, college etc., was just not in the cards for him. I reminded him that he was in a home with his aunt and uncle who can and will do everything they can to support him in achieving that goal,” Rouhier said.
After a lot of thought and soul-searching, Landon did something unexpected and quite brave. He called a face-to-face meeting with his father and mother. The family decided that it would be best if Landon lived with his aunt and uncle under their guardianship.
“Landon could have gone home to his parents, but he wanted something more for himself and his siblings. In their most loving and selfless act as parents, his parents came to court the day of the guardianship hearing and tearfully stood up and said, ‘We do not contest.’”
It was still not easy for Landon. School was hard and it took a lot of support from his aunt and uncle.
“Education-wise I struggled a lot. I needed more help than other people did. Doing schoolwork has a big impact on playing sports. I used to see school as just an area that they force you to do. I was going from kindergarten through eighth grade not caring about school. That made it hard to do better. But sports-wise I guess it just all kind of clicked between junior and sophomore year,” Landon said.
As Landon successfully progressed through high school, he didn’t need Child Welfare support. As Rouhier was preparing to close his case, she made one request of him.
“I simply asked that he send me a graduation announcement. I say ‘simply’ but I assure you there was nothing simple about it. It had seemed about as realistic as the Easter Bunny when he first entered care – but as they left care they did so with a new hope for their futures,” she said.
Recently Rouhier received a graduation announcement for Landon and a call from his aunt sharing that Landon has requested that she attend his graduation ceremony.
Her response: “Trying not to cry like a blubbering idiot, I said, ‘Ummmm…. ABSOLUTELY!’”
Alongside his mother, father, aunt, uncle and other family members she watched Landon walk across the stage and receive his high school diploma – a feat he once thought impossible.
On July 8, Landon will be moving to Eugene to attend Lane Community College and to play college football for the Pac West Academy. Pac West provides a chance for football players after high school to become eligible for scholarships to attend a four-year university. Pac West also provides Landon an apartment shared with other Pac West students.
“I’m excited but extremely terrified. It’s just because I sit here and tell myself I’m not good enough. I think I’m just psyching myself out. It’s hard to look at it and I guess see that it’s the same person in the fifth grade who went to school about 12 times a year. Hard to think that I have gone this far. I’m super excited, don’t get me wrong. I never thought I would get this far in education or sports. If you work hard enough nothing is impossible,” Landon said.
He is also proud of something else.
“I heard that I was the first kid who had invited her to something to their graduation. That’s kind a cool to always be the first person to do something.”
And for Danielle Rouhier?
“When I interviewed for this job and I was asked why I wanted to work here. I remember saying, ‘I want to effect change in the lives of children.’ This was a much-needed reminder for me that we can and do effect change here. In Landon’s case, I did very little. I simply planted a seed. Landon, and his aunt and uncle, nurtured and watered that seed. His parents, surrendered that seed, knowing that they were not able to give it what it needed to flourish. The change that was effected in Landon was massive and changed the course of his life.”