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Former Boys Town North Florida Youth Finds Her Calling in Advocacy

Ashley Jackson had a story to tell about growing up as a foster child.

When the opportunity to share that story came along, it put the former Boys Town North Florida youth on a national stage as an advocate for children.

Ashely traveled to Washington, D.C., last year to speak as a Young Advocate as part of a national panel briefing before the House of Representatives. The briefing was hosted by the Campaign for Youth Justice and the Coalition for Juvenile Justice.

For Ashley, it was a totally new experience.

"When Mr. Ken (Bender, Executive Director of Boys Town North Florida) called me and asked if I wanted to advocate for youth by telling my story in Washington, D.C., of course I jumped on the opportunity and couldn't wait for the trip," she said. "I had never been on an airplane before and this would be my first time in a new state."

During the briefing, Ashley spoke for just under 10 minutes. She described how she had bounced from one foster home to another for about 13 years, from 1995 to 2008. She recounted being incarcerated for six months for running away from one of her foster homes. And, she made it very clear that placing kids in a juvenile detention center is not the answer to teaching them right from wrong.

"It was a traumatic experience for me," Ashley said of her time in the detention center. "You have to understand the types of people you have in the system. I was incarcerated because I ran away. But I was a lot different type of kid than the others there. You have lots of gang-influenced people in there. That could have been a very bad thing for me. I became very angry being in that situation. I feel very fortunate that when I got out, I found someone that could help me. I found Boys Town."

Jackson said the people at Boys Town North Florida were different. They listened to her concerns, and she finally was able to trust someone.

"I had trust issues long before I was placed in juvenile detention," she said. "Being in 15 different foster homes will do that to you. Boys Town changed my life."

Ashley graduated from high school and then went on to Florida A&M University, where she earned a bachelor's degree in social work. She is now pursuing a master's degree in clinical social work and public administration at Florida State University.

She said being asked to speak in the nation's capital was a dream come true.

"The experience was motivational and inspirational. I got to experience advocating on a national level, and when I told my story, I realized public speaking and advocating for the rights of our youth is a path I want to take with my life. Also, it made me admire Boys Town even more than I already did."

Ashley said she feels she is just beginning to make a difference.

"The best part of the trip for me was being told, 'I know we will see you here again soon,'" she said proudly. "Being told that I belong there confirmed for me that I can make an impact on the system, and that's exactly what I plan to do."