Fostering a future
At 25, Ashley Walker is a foster mom helping teenage girls in state custody transition to adulthood.
Ashley Walker, center, is the leader of a local nonprofit with a focus on girls ages 12-18 in foster care. Jessica A., left, lives with Walker at Manna House, the first phase of a project to build a girls’ group home in Tulsa. Amanda Jordan, pictured with son Greyson, met Walker during Jordan’s stay at the Laura Dester Children’s Shelter.
Ashley Walker grew up in a foster home, but not as a foster child. Her parents and grandparents have fostered children for as long as she can remember.
Although she planned to attend law school, Walker changed course after a mission trip to an orphanage in Brazil. Jobs at the Laura Dester Children’s Shelter and Youth Services of Tulsa confirmed the vision she had in Brazil: foster parenting was in her future, too.
But for Walker, foster parenting wouldn’t look the way it had for her parents and grandparents. For one thing, Walker wanted to work with girls.
“No one works with girls,” she says. “Teenage girls in DHS custody are tougher than the boys.”
She also knew she wanted to focus on the girls’ transition from DHS custody to adulthood.
“When you are living at a shelter and turn 18, you leave a place where you have to ask to go to the bathroom and, if you are lucky, move into your own apartment where you have to know how to pay bills,” Walker says. “There has to be a bridge between lockdown and 100 percent independence.”
Enter Project Manna. A division of Walker’s 501(c)(3) Launch Ministries, Project Manna is a three-phase approach to fostering girls between the ages of 12 and 18.
The first phase began in August when Walker rented a home in the Tulsa area and became certified as a therapeutic foster parent. Her home is designed to house Walker, three 12- to 18-year-old girls in DHS custody, and up to three young women who have “aged out” of custody.
At age 25, Walker is foster mom to two teenage girls. Their house is a traditional two-story home in a subdivision. Upstairs are the whispers and laughing sounds of teenage “sisters.”
Walker calls her purpose “pretty simple.” She says, “It is to reach, inspire and empower” girls in foster care as they transition to adulthood.
Soon, Walker will turn her attention to phases two and three — obtaining a second house specifically for girls who have “aged out” and eventually, raising funds for Tulsa’s first girls’ group home. She also is in the process of matching girls with adult mentors, hoping to build lasting relationships.
While working at Laura Dester, Walker met Amanda Jordan.
“Amanda lived in that ‘emergency’ shelter for five months,” Walker recalls.
The two have kept in touch and Jordan has spent a little time hanging out at Manna House.
“This is the best thing ever,” she says.
Now 20, Jordan lives with her boyfriend and their infant son. When she saw Walker post a request for house supplies on Facebook, Jordan bought everything on the list. She shrugs off the memory as she bounces her son on her knee.
“A lot of people expect us to fail,” she says.
But to Walker, “Amanda is a good mom. Her son is not in custody and he won’t be. To me, that’s a success.”
Among Walker’s team of committed volunteers is former foster child Angelique Hampton. Hampton does the house’s weekly grocery shopping and helps cook many meals. But when it comes to parenting, she gives all the credit to Walker.
“Everything changes when you’re in DHS custody,” Hampton says. “Your stuff can disappear. Your schools change. Your friends change. Your families change.
“Ashley is determined to be a steadfast presence. Her relationship with the girls is mom/mentor/sergeant/best friend, and everything else that your biological mom would be.”
“Every day it’s something,” Walker says of her role as foster mom. “But it’s not always something bad.”
She smiles as she remembers a recent phone call that took place around her kitchen table. One of her girls, 15, spoke with her biological mother for the first time in 11 years.
This summer, Walker’s foster family spent some time at the lake. Walker, as she puts it, is “not a water person.” So she froze when one of the girls asked her to swim. Walker looked to her friend Hampton, hoping for an excuse to stay on the boat. Instead, Hampton reached out her hand and said, “Give me your watch.”
Walker remembers proudly, “Getting in was worth it. She (the foster daughter) was smiling.”
These out-on-a-limb moments are the best and worst parts of Walker’s day because, ultimately, she says, “You pour a lot of finances, time, energy and love into them, but they could be gone tomorrow. You don’t want to love or parent with any reserve.
“So, I’m giving it all I can today, without knowing what tomorrow will bring.”