Shelia Stroup, The Times Picayune
The first time Ashley Dewey ever felt safe was when she sat down and talked to Charin Richard at Raintree House.
She was 16 and had come to the home for abused and neglected girls after her mother kicked her out of her house, and then her father kicked her out of his, and told a Juvenile Court judge: “I don’t want her. Keep her.”
“When I got to Raintree, that’s when my childhood started,” Dewey, 23, says.
In the beginning, she kept to herself. “I tried to put up a shield, so if I was disappointed, I wouldn’t be hurt,” she says. “I just listened to my CD player.”
But when the batteries in her trusty companion died, she was not allowed to get new ones. “So I had to talk and interact,” she says, looking at Richard and smiling. “Ms. Sharon was the first one I opened up to.”
Richard is a residential counselor at the stately group home in the Garden District, where the grounds are dotted with golden rain trees.
“I’m here to counsel the girls and let them know they’re safe and that someone cares about them,” she says. “The best part of my job is, I get an opportunity to mentor them and see them grow up to be nice young ladies and be successful.”
I met Dewey and Richard at Raintree House one recent Saturday. Dewey is an honor student at Southern University in Baton Rouge and will graduate in May with a degree in accounting. She also works at Chase Bank, but she finds the time to come back to Raintree to mentor the young women who are where she was six years ago. She tells them: Don’t let your situations get you down.
‘I’m a survivor’
“I tell them, ‘There are resources all around. Just use them. There is free counseling and free tutoring. Use all of it,’” she says.
She also tells them, “My mother told me I would never be nothing, and look at me.”
“I went from the bottom of the barrel, and I’m still climbing up,” she says. “I’m a survivor.”
Dewey didn’t meet her father until she was 12. “Before that, I thought he was dead,” she says.
He stood her up the first two times he was supposed to come and get her, but the third time, he finally showed up. “It was a happy moment to know him,” she says.
When she visited him, he would give her money or have somebody take her shopping. “He always palmed me off on his wife or one of his girlfriends,” she says.
When she was 13, she told her mother she wanted to spend Christmas with her father, but her mother wanted her to stay home and take care of her four younger siblings.
“I told her, ‘You should be happy my dad is in my life,’ and she jumped up and grabbed me and slit my neck on the side with her super-long nails,” Dewey says. “I still have a little scar.”
Then along comes Raintree, and everything was calm.” — Ashley Dewey
By the time she was 16, she was failing all her subjects because she had missed so much school to take care of her sisters and baby brother. She tried drinking and smoking pot, but she didn’t want her sisters to think that turning to drugs and alcohol would solve their problems.
“So I quit,” she says.
‘Mama, I forgive you’
The greatest sadness in Dewey’s life is not being able to see her siblings, especially Isaiah, who was in her care from the time he was a baby.
“When he got circumcised, I was the one who changed his diaper and took care of that,” she says. “He would eat off my plate, and I was there when he started to walk.”
She didn’t think of him as a burden, though. “Once my little brother came, that was my fun time. He was my alarm clock. He followed me around,” she says. ”I wanted him to be, like, the smartest person in the world.”
When she left her mother’s house for the last time, Isaiah was 20 months old. She smiles through tears as she tells me what he did as she was leaving.
“He came out carrying a little grocery bag with some clothes in it,” she says. “He wanted to go with me.”
After staying with friends, she went to her father’s. But two days later, when he was high, he beat her up and pulled some of her braids right out of her head. “He gave me the licks he was planning to give his girlfriend,” she says.
He called her mother and told her to take her daughter back, but she refused, so he took Dewey to the parish courthouse in Gretna and she became a ward of the state. She had no possessions until her case worker took her shopping.
“I still have the overnight bag she bought me,” Dewey says. “I still have some of the jeans and shirts.”
While she was waiting to find out where she’d end up, she wrote poems, and she wrote down her goals and aspirations. She wrote out the names and ages of all her siblings, and she wrote, “Mama, I forgive you.”
She went from one temporary foster home to another until her court date.
“Then along comes Raintree, and everything was calm,” she says.
Once she learned to open her heart to the other girls and the counselors at Raintree House, Dewey began to blossom. She had to redo her junior year at a new school, and she earned straight A’s at Cohen Senior High. She became Student Government Association president and joined the Big Brother Big Sister Club. She met Edward James, and he has been her boyfriend since March 18, 2008.
“He’s the reason I went to Southern,” she says. “He’s graduating in December, so it’s perfect. He can start making some money.“
At Raintree, Dewey had computers to use and a library. She went to the zoo and the aquarium for the first time. She took a swamp tour. She has done things she had never had the chance to do as a child.
She remembers getting in trouble with Richard once when the Raintree girls were on a field trip in the French Quarter and Dewey wasn’t listening. “She pulled me to the side, and then I couldn’t see my boyfriend,” Dewey says.
“It was tough love,” Richard says, smiling at her.
Raintree House and tough love were what Dewey needed.
“I loved it here. It was the first time I ever felt that family presence,” she says. “It’s awesome that I can still come here and get free comfort.”
One of her favorite things about Raintree House was sitting at the table with the other young women for dinner every night. “I know when I have my kids, this is how I want my family to be,” she says.
When Dewey turned 18, she went into the Young Adult Program. She lived in an apartment in Metairie and learned about budgeting and cooking. The young people in the program also get a computerized “baby” to take care of.
“That baby was a disaster,” Dewey says. “It was crying every two hours. It was not like my brother.”
Although she no longer lived at Raintree House, she felt a connection there and often visited. Even when she went off to college, Richard was a constant presence in her life, and they still talk frequently and send text messages to each other.
“Her freshman year, I called Ashley every morning, and I sent her inspirational words every day,” Richard says. “I didn’t birth her, but she’s my daughter.”
On Sept. 30, Dewey will be in Washington at the Children’s Defense Fund’s 40th anniversary celebration, where Hillary Rodham Clinton will be honored. Dewey and another Beat the Odds Scholarship recipient will represent Louisiana. Dewey wrote her essay, “How I Beat the Odds,” in 2009, and she won the scholarship and the all-expenses-paid trip to Washington, D.C.
“I’ve never been to Washington, so this experience will be exciting,” she says.
Dewey’s favorite quote is by David Brinkley: “A successful man is one who can lay a firm foundation with the bricks others have thrown at him.”
Those words certainly apply to this beautiful young woman. She has an impressive foundation to build on, and she and her boyfriend look forward to a happy family life together.
“We’re waiting to have kids until we’re married and are financially able to do it,” Dewey says.
She’s not sure where they’ll settle after graduation, but as long as she’s not far from New Orleans, she’ll keep showing up at Raintree House to inspire young women.
“This was my vacation place, my rehab place,” she says. “You can see why I still come back here. It was my first true home.”