By her 13th birthday, Destany had been in multiple foster homes, experienced sexual assault, and was convinced most adults are not to be trusted.
Today, at 18, she’s living happily with her partner in Albany, NY, has a new job, and is looking forward to a bright future. Destany is grateful to Wayne County Youth Advocate Programs (YAP), Inc. for sticking with her through the tough times and empowering her with tools to turn her life around.
Reflecting back six years ago when she first met the YAP team, Destany recalls wanting none of what they were offering. She’d just moved back in with her father and paternal grandmother after nine months in foster care. She said social services had removed her from the home after she and a group of friends coerced a man to buy alcohol for them that she tried to hide in her bedroom.
Her first foster placement was with her maternal grandmother. She went to another foster home after reporting a sexual assault from a relative during a holiday visit. Destany said she ran away from that home when she watched her foster dad brutally beat his biological son. She said from there, she went to live with one of the most caring adults she has ever known. “She was the only person other than my [paternal] grandma who I felt safe with,” Destany said.
While she was happy when it was time to return to her grandmother and father, Destany said leaving the safety of the foster mother she’d grown to love was traumatic. As part of the reunification, the child welfare system brought in Youth Advocate Programs (YAP), Inc., a nonprofit in 29 states and the District of Columbia that provides community/family-based services that serve as an alternative to out-of-home placements.
“When the YAP people came, I ran into my room and locked the door. They were knocking for a half hour. I remember yelling, ‘I hate you. I’m not talking to you.’ I finally opened it when Stephany said, ‘I’m not leaving till you come out.”
Stephany Gravino would become Destany’s YAP Advocate. Her support team included Wayne County YAP Director Mike Crespo and Stephany’s co-workers, Brett DeJohn, Nate Hackett and James Schuler. YAP Advocates, based primarily in the neighborhoods of the young people they serve, help youth see their strengths and work with their teammates to connect them with tools to pursue their goals. At the same time, YAP Advocates provide parents/guardians with accessible resources to firm the family’s foundation.
“Stephany said, ‘just give me five minutes,’” Destany recalled. “We sat on my bed and started talking. She told me about herself first.”
While enrolled in YAP, Destany would get back on track for a few months. But she said she still had a negative perception of herself and continued to make bad choices, which eventually led to a blowup with her father. “I was getting myself into a lot of trouble. I was angry, hurt, lost. I got into a physical altercation and lied on him,” she said.
Once again, Destany was in foster care, this time with her godfather.
“I was there two years and things were going ok, until he went to prison for selling drugs. That’s when I went to my Aunt April’s.”
Her Aunt April is the sister of Destany’s father, who she still had contact with — mostly through visits to her grandmother, whose health was failing.
“My grandma was handicapped and couldn’t breathe without oxygen. She had a trachea and a colostomy bag. My dad took care of her. I’d help her take a shower and sometimes her bag would explode.”
When her grandmother moved to a nursing home, Destany continued to visit her. By then Destany was 16, growing sadder and angrier and not believing her life could ever get better.
“I broke my ex boyfriend’s girlfriend’s windshield,” she said. “I was on probation for truancy.”
Along the way, Stephany and her YAP team were there for Destany, refusing to give up on her. “Stephany was like a second mom. She was there almost every day. She did homework with me and everything,” she said.
Destany said Stephany and her team even found work for her, a part-time job in their office.
“I started working for YAP as the janitor. Stephany would pick me up from my aunt’s every day and take me to work with her,” she said. “It helped me be independent. I got my own money.”
Things were going smoothly for several months. Then Destany lost her grandmother and felt despair like never before. “I was like ‘screw this; screw everyone,’” she said. “I was cutting myself. I had so much anger, but I didn’t want to take it out on someone else. I felt I’d already hurt everybody I loved.”
Stephany and her YAP teammates intervened.
“We all sat down and all of us started crying. That’s when I was like, wow, they really care. It’s not just an act. This is someone who knows me, someone who cares,” she said. “It helped a lot. “They talked to me about grief. They said whatever I need, we’re here. They refused to let me push them away. They didn’t force themselves on me. I came back to them.”
With Stephany and her team, Destany looked into counseling groups and other resources.
“We found different ways to deal with my anxiety and depression,” she said.
As months turned into a year, Destany began seeing herself and her world differently. She grew closer to her family and began meeting new friends, including someone very special.
“I’d have her come to the office with me; she and [YAP Advocate] James [Schuler] are extremely close; he knows her dad,” she said.
Seven months ago, Destany moved away from her small town to live with her girlfriend in an apartment in Albany’s Clifton Park neighborhood. She got a job at Red Robin, began studying for her GED and will soon apply to cosmetology school.
“It feels really good. We just bought a car – a Honda Accord. I’m finally saving money.”
Destany stays in touch with Stephany and the team and lets them know how she’s progressing. She also checks in on her younger sisters back home and is proud to be someone they look up to.
To learn more about YAP, please visit yapinc.org.