Four years ago, De’Shan Jones, then 15, didn’t think much of school.
“I don’t know how I graduated eighth grade, but I did,” he remembers. “Going into high school, my mindset was ‘I’m just going to push through, do the four years, get a diploma, and that’s it.’ Then I’d get a job at McDonald’s, something to pay the bills and cover the rent, and that would be good enough.”
His lack of interest was evident in his grades. In his first semester, he failed four courses. He wasn’t even on track to get a diploma.
But right around that time, De’Shan was assigned a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA), Rosemary Enzer.
They appeared an odd couple—an African-American teenager and a white retiree—and De’Shan admits that at first he mistook Rosemary for another social worker. But she was, in fact, a CASA volunteer and a former elementary school teacher, and she could see immediately that he was in a bad place.
“He had a terrible attitude,” Rosemary says. “He was extremely depressed, but then who wouldn’t be after everything he had been through?”
The trouble started a few years before, when De’Shan’s great-grandmother—who had adopted him when his mother couldn’t care for her kids—passed away. He had been in foster care since, separated from his siblings.
Rosemary could see that many of his problems in school were simply a function of his depression, but instead of diagnosing things for De’Shan, she insisted that he tell her why he was having trouble.
“I didn’t really think I had any problems, but after a while I started noticing what I was doing,” De’Shan says. “I wasn’t going to the extra mile to understand the material.”
Rosemary remembers the conversation slightly differently.
“He didn’t care about school or anything else at that point,” she says. “He didn’t have any interests, and he didn’t have any adult family members in his life. I think he felt abandoned.”
Either way, once the light bulb went off for De’Shan, the educator in Rosemary took charge. She set up meetings with his teachers to see what he could do to pass his classes. She arranged tutoring for him and made sure he got there. And she was in constant contact with his teachers, e-mailing many of them weekly or even daily.
Gradually, De’Shan’s grades improved and he took on more activities. By his junior year he was earning mostly A’s. He became the mascot of his school’s football team. He also became the captain of the swim team and even recruited and fundraised for it.
“He told me many times that he felt he had a responsibility to me because he knew I was going to check on him,” Rosemary says. “I just tried to let him know that he had so many possibilities and so much potential and that he needed to take advantage of every opportunity that was presented to him.”
As his senior year progressed, another opportunity came into view.
“At first I was really hesitant about college,” De’Shan says. “I was just going to go to community college and call it a day. But Rosemary really recommended it. She encouraged me to apply to universities.”
And it was only when he sat down with the social worker from his foster agency to fill out college applications that De’Shan saw the change that had come over him.
“It was a process, and I had never noticed how great my grades got over the years,” he says. “I was like, ‘Dang!’ It was a big turnaround.”
Reflecting on those four years, he can date the turnaround to meeting Rosemary.
“When she came around, everything started changing. It seemed like she genuinely cared,” he says. “I felt the support, but I tried to deny it at first because I wasn’t used to it. But after a while, it helped me appreciate how much my foster mom and everyone else cared about me.”
In February, De’Shan got an e-mail from Cal State Northridge: He got in. He later got acceptance letters from a couple other schools, but he decided to stick with CSUN because it’s close to home and one of his social workers studies there.
A couple months into his freshman year, he’s taking 15 units—with classes from English to math to computer science—and living in the dorms. On the weekends, he goes home to his foster family, with whom he has become very close. (His foster mother now calls him her son.)
De’Shan took advantage of California’s AB 12 law, which allows him to remain in foster care until he is 21. Rosemary expects to be taken off his case soon, but she says she’ll always be in touch with him. The two of them still get together for dinner on occasion and she checks on him with frequent texts.
“His responses are usually no more than one word when I ask, ‘How are you doing?'”