LEWISTON — Dustin Strout has no family. He has resided in a mental institution, two group homes, five foster homes, several friends’ homes and numerous homeless shelters for nearly 20 years, but nowhere within those places did his family reside.
“I grew up and raised myself,” he said.

Strout’s story goes not from rags to riches but from rags to community advocate, and all by age 21. His experience reads like a best-selling novella; one whose current chapter surprisingly tells of college enrollment and community activism.

Earlier this year, Strout submitted an online application to FosterClub, a national network of people in foster care, in hopes of being recognized as a youth leader in his community. In May, he was selected from a large pool of applicants as one of America’s Outstanding Young Leaders, an award honoring 100 foster care youths nationwide who have excelled in the areas of community service, education, accomplishment and leadership.

“I love the recognition,” he said emphatically in a recent interview.

Being an outstanding leader is a bright spot for a young man who still faces adversity. Despite his achievements, the Lewiston native remains homeless with few friends he trusts.

“There are a lot of negative people around here,” he said.

Strout, who’s been a writer for as long as he could remember, said he blocks out negative people by focusing on his writing instead. He has finished his first poetry book and is hoping to get it published. The 21-year-old has also begun to reflect on his struggles in a series of four autobiographies, each one chronicling a different stage of his life.

Book one will begin with Strout as a baby. Born to a teenage mother and an absentee father, Strout’s elderly grandmother assumed the responsibility for raising her three grandsons. As she aged and began showing signs of Alzheimer’s, all three kids were placed in the foster care system. Strout was 18 months old.

There in his first foster care home, Strout would permanently be separated from his brothers.

“It’s not really my family,” Strout said of his childhood experience in different foster homes. “I didn’t want toys; I wanted family love.”

Strout remembers crying over not having a biological mother. “I wanted the person who gave birth to me to be there,” he said.
By the time Strout was 9, he had entered and left four more foster homes. “They just didn’t know how to deal with me because I had so much confusion and so much anger.”

After running away from that last home, a place where he resided for four years, he was placed at St. Mary’s Genesis House, a group home for troubled teens. “I had to say goodbye to all the teachers and friends I knew,” Strout said, listing their names.
His eight-year stay in the foster-care system was followed by a tumultuous one-year period at St. Mary’s, where Strout says he was accused of acting erratically and attempting to throw a staff member out a window, a claim he denied. He was sent to Hampstead Hospital in New Hampshire, a psychiatric facility where he recalls the uncomfortable feeling of constantly being locked up.

Strout was then enrolled at Spurwink Services, a school and facility in Auburn for children and teens with behavioral or emotional issues. “I was dealing with kids with more behavioral problems there,” said Strout, who stayed at Spurwink for six years.

Near the end of his extended stay, Strout said he had the desire to leave Spurwink. He became motivated to do better academically and emotionally, and transferred to Auburn’s Edward Little High School, where he attended the 11th grade.

During his hours outside of the classroom, Strout was homeless, couch-hopping at friends’ homes or sleeping in homeless shelters. “I had to rely on friends to support my well-being,” he said.

At school, Strout stayed mum, hiding the fact that he was homeless from classmates and teachers. “I used to be embarrassed a lot,” he said. Strout’s only possessions were his backpack and his books. He transferred himself to Lewiston High School for his senior year.

“I would go to school wherever I went to sleep,” he said, adding, “I was homeless but I still graduated and got my diploma from Lewiston High School.”

Strout says the period that transformed him from a person with little sense of direction into one who is an advocate for others is a truly personal one. He only shares that a traumatic incident two years ago caused him to reflect deeply on himself. The incident helped Strout realize that he wants to see himself in a positive light in the future.

“When you’re 40-years-old, you want to look back at something positive, you don’t want to look back and it’s all negativity. You want to look back and see what you did to help.”

Strout speaks of the 45-year-old men and women he observes getting drunk each day on a Lewiston street corner. “What are their sons and daughters doing? They go over there every day and they get drunk and go to jail. Do I want to go to jail like them for the rest of my life?”

About a year ago, Strout got involved with THRIVE System of Care Initiative, a center in Lewiston that focuses on helping young people cope with mental illness. He sits on the THRIVE board as a youth advocate and is playing a key role in composing a research guide that will help teens from the Lewiston-Auburn area find services and support.

As Strout realized he wanted to make a difference, he began to share his poetry. In the poem “Mental Health,” he reflects on his memories of neglect and confusion.

“Physical neglect reflects my family, growing up unhappily, started chaotic violence, awakening death in life’s reality.”
Brianne Masselli, a youth coordinator at THRIVE who has worked with Strout, said she believes that his perspective on life is improving even as he continues to cope with his difficult childhood.

“He’s in a state of positive transition,” Masselli said. “Dustin is in a situation many people are in where he had no positive reinforcement. We’re working to build on his strengths to show him he has the potential to be successful.”

Working in conjunction with THRIVE, Strout stars in the short-documentary “Digital Stories: Where There is Help, There is Hope,” which combats the stigma of mental illness and provides those in his position with a list of locations and resources for support and help.

Strout says his self-motivation, along with his goals of bettering himself, prompted him to enter college six months ago.
Today he is enrolled at Central Maine Community College, going for a degree in human services.

“I want to work in group homes with kids. I want to help foster families that are having a hard time with kids,” he said of his goals post-graduation.

Another goal Strout has?

To tell his story on Oprah.

Justin Strout 21 has no family, has lived in 5 foster homes and 2 group homes ; Strout was named one of America’s Outstanding Young Leaders, an award honoring 100 foster care youths nationwide who have excelled in the areas of community service, education, accomplishment and leadership.
Dustin Strout’s advice for foster care and homeless youth

  1. “Don’t live day-by-day. Live goal-to-goal.” According to Strout, living day-by-day is existing, while living goal-to-goal helps people build on a list of achievements. He urges youth to keep pursuing their goals and to not give up.
  2. “Keep up with the positive and you’ll end up in positive places. Keep up with the negative and you’ll end up in negative places.”
  3. “Everybody has potential, it’s just within you to dig deep and find it.”

Foster care today

  • Today there are more than 500,000 kids in foster care.
  • There are more than 1.3 million kids who are homeless in the U.S. (As of 2002, Maine was filling more than 240,000 shelter beds a year.)
  • Of that 1.3 million, 20 to 25 percent may suffer from mental illness.
  • More than 26,000 teens “age out” of foster care without having permanent family to rely on. Fewer than 3 percent of youth who age out of foster care will graduate college.

Check these sites for more information:
To learn about THRIVE System of Care Initiative, visit thriveinitiative.org.
To learn more about America’s foster care crisis, go to fosterclub.com

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