TAMPA - Dereck Boulden's childhood was far from a storybook. Born in Decatur, Ga., Boulden lived at more addresses than he can remember. At age 9, he and three older brothers were removed from their parents custody and put into foster care. One by one, his brothers aged out of foster care, and now, at 17, Boulden calls Lake Magdalene, a foster care facility in northwest Tampa, home. "Never really had a consistent home," Boulden said. "I moved around a lot. I've been to a lot of different elementary schools. At least five or six in Tampa."
What has helped the reserved teenager look beyond his harsh reality is the game of basketball, a simple act of throwing a ball through a hoop. "It helps me look toward my future," Boulden said. "It helped me to stay focused on my grades and stay focused in school. In order to play basketball, I have to do good in school, so I have to stay focused. It keeps me out of trouble." ----- There are 6,000 kids, from newborns to age 17, in foster care in Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties. Half of the foster care population in Tampa Bay is under the age of 6. For many youths in the foster care system, sports is an escape. "I'm one of those guys who believes extracurricular activities makes a kid whole at that age," said Mike Carroll, suncoast regional managing director for the state's Department of Children and Families. Carroll's region extends from Pasco and as far south as Collier County. "It provides the same benefits for any other child. But for sports, particularly team sports, it teaches responsibility," Carroll said. "It teaches accountability to have the grades. You have to be a good citizen." Boulden played junior varsity basketball at Chamberlain High his freshman and sophomore years. Last season, he was promoted to varsity during the latter part of the season as the team journeyed to the state region tournament. Boulden, a guard, is hoping to earn a spot on the varsity squad after tryouts in October. "It's a chance for me to show myself," he said. "He has a very natural skill set and with the right dedication and focus, he can be an above-average basketball player," Chamberlain basketball coach Christopher Snyder said. As an eighth grader at Tampa's Adams Middle School, Boulden embraced the emotional rewards of playing team sports when he was named the basketball team's captain. "Just to be on a team, and be team captain, and just to be looked at as a leader was great," he said. Carroll was a former football coach at Clearwater's Countryside High and now coaches youth football. During his many years as a coach, several of his players were in foster care. "I absolutely think it normalizes their life," Carroll said. "It brings them socialization to peer groups and life-long friendships they will cherish for the rest of their life. In their personal life, they're dealing with a level of trauma most kids don't have to deal with." While most kids have a daily routine consisting of homework and chores, foster youths have court appearances and mandatory therapy sessions while living in group homes waiting to be reunited with their parents. Mike Hayes, a senior child specialist at Lake Magdalene, has 25 years experience working with youths, his past seven with DCF. He encourages them to try out for teams. "It lets them get away," he said. "I try to teach them to put their anger into it. If they're angry, we go outside and toss a softball around, or a football or a basketball." The state recently passed legislation that will allow more youths, like Boulden, to partake in extracurricular activities. In April, Gov. Rick Scott signed into law the "Let Kids be Kids" bill. The law will allow foster parents to make decisions for the children in their care without waiting on caseworkers or courts to intervene. Without the law, foster children would have to get courts involved before they could get a drivers license, participate in sports and in some cases, even attend a school prom. "What we'll find with passing of this bill is more youth will become more involved in community activities, as well as sports," said Shalondra Young, the independent living manager for Eckerd Community Alternatives, which oversees case management and adoptions for foster youths and young adults in the Tampa Bay area. "They won't have to worry about being labeled. That is the reason most of them choose not to. With going through background checks, it exposes who they are. It will empower our youth to be more involved. "We have quite a few kids that look to sports to identify who they are. They can say, 'I'm not just a foster kid. This is who I am, this is what I can do.'" ----- Boulden has had opportunities to be adopted, but chose to remain in the foster care system. Lake Magdalene is his third group home in eight years. He turns 18 in February. The labels that come with being a foster kid are hard to erase. According to a pre-independent living survey conducted by Connected by 25, 57 percent of foster kids between ages 13-17 received substance abuse treatment services, while 44 percent were on prescription medication. Twenty-eight percent had been arrested in the past 12 months and 22 percent were either on probation or on Department of Juvenile Justice supervision. A 2012 Florida National Youth in Transition Database survey of young adults between 18-22 formerly in foster care revealed 57 percent completed the 12th grade or received a graduation equivalency diploma. Only seven percent of that group completed secondary education. Changing the stereotype of foster kids has been a mission for ex-NFL player Myron Rolle, the former Florida State safety and Rhodes Scholar. For five years, he has orchestrated the Myron Rolle Wellness and Leadership Academy for Florida's foster youth. Recently, Rolle's foundation selected 80 youths, ages 12-17 from across the state, to attend the academy, which featured women's basketball star and ESPN analyst Rebecca Lobo, Florida Representative Clovis Watson Jr. and seven-time Olympic Medalist Amanda Beard. "We tell them to believe you can be successful like anyone else despite your circumstance," Rolle said. His academy focuses on a healthy body and mind. His message? "We look at you as future leaders of this country." "You'll be defeated and at times, you'll have moments you feel invalid, but that's a microcosm of what life is about," Rolle said. Boulden completed his sophomore year with a 3.3 weighted grade-point average and after high school, plans to study engineering or business in college. Through the Road to Independence Act, set up by state legislature in 2002, the state will play for Boulden's secondary education and boarding if he attends a state college or university. Being a foster child has given him a desire to want more in life. "I feel like I have to work harder," he said. "I can still be somebody and still do something with my life." email@example.com (813) 259-7305 Twitter: @NickWilliamsTBO