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Boys Town Grad, Moved Repeatedly as Child, Looks to Bright Future

Mikahla Russell graduated in May from Boys Town.

This article is written by Kevin Abourezk, Lincoln Journal Star. It was posted on on July 11, 2016.

Sirens startled the young partygoers that hot spring afternoon.

Mikahla Russell knew the sound of police sirens. These weren’t police sirens.

The 8-year-old stuck her head out the window of her friend’s Lincoln apartment, where she was attending a birthday party. Down the street, a fire truck pulled up to her apartment building.

She could see her mother standing outside beside her two younger sisters and brother … but not her youngest brother. She knew something was wrong.

She ran down the apartment’s stairs, out into the street and to her mom.

“Where’s Jordan?” she asked.

Her mother, who was drunk, didn’t answer and didn’t even seem to remember her children’s names.

Mikahla ran to a firefighter and tugged on his coat. “There’s someone else in there,” she said. He told her the apartment was empty.

Without a second thought, Mikahla ran inside.

She could see smoke from underneath her mother’s door. She ran into the back bedroom and found her little brother, still asleep in his crib, buried under some blankets and stuffed animals.

She grabbed him and ran back outside, into an uncertain future.

* * *

Mikahla can finally tell her own story.

For most of her life, the 18-year-old has listened as others have shared the details of her life in courtrooms. She's had to listen as they inform her where she’ll be living next.

First removed from her mother’s home at the age of 1, Mikahla estimates she’s been moved 40 to 50 times in her life, both by the state and by her mother.

She’ll soon be able to decide for herself where to go next.

And, boy, does she have plans.

In May she graduated from Boys Town, where she spent most of the previous five years.

At a year-end booster banquet, Mikahla received four awards, including one for outstanding female athlete of the year and most outstanding player in volleyball, basketball and track.

Sports taught her leadership and discipline and gave her the eloquence to speak for herself, she said.

While at Boys Town she broke three school records in shot put and discus, including two of her own, and three records in volleyball -- for single blocks, double blocks and attacks.

She also led the small schools in the Omaha area this past year in rebounding in basketball.

But her greatest accomplishment, she said, was becoming the first in her family to graduate from high school.

In May, she joined 86 other graduates from across the world walking across the stage at the Boys Town Music Hall.

When the ceremony was complete, news reporters stuck cameras and voice recorders in her face and asked her to share her story. Later, friends and teachers gave her gifts and hugs.

“It was really like overwhelming but an exciting overwhelming,” she said.

But it was also a sad day as she reflected on her past life and on a future away from the place she had come to know as home.

* * *

The oldest of her five siblings, Mikahla often had to be the parent as her own mother went to jail, got out and went back again.

Even when her mom was home, she was often too drunk or high to take care of her children.

“It kind of left me to take care of them,” she said.

Mikahla would have to ask neighbors for food.

Her family would move into neighbors’ homes, live with relatives or her mother’s friends. Her younger brothers and sisters suffered from malnutrition at times and often would walk around without shoes or clothes that fit.

Then her apartment caught fire.

Her 4-year-old brother had started the fire while playing with a lighter he had learned to use by watching his mother.

The day of the fire wouldn’t be the last time in her mother’s home, but a few months later the police arrived and removed the children for good.

“All of us kids were crying, and we couldn’t do anything about it,” she said.

Eventually, all her younger brothers and sisters found permanent homes -- everyone but Mikahla, who had begun demonstrating behavior problems.

Stealing, lying and being disruptive led to her being moved around over and over.

“I tried to push every limit that I could,” she said.

She knows now she was angry at not having been adopted, angry at having her childhood stolen from her. But even deeper than that, she was hurt and scared to let someone else in to her circle only to see them leave again.

So she built walls to protect herself, and in doing so ensured no one would get too close.

Eventually, her behavior led her to Boys Town.

* * *

It must have been raining.

She knows because later that day she said to her caseworker and foster mother: “All sad things happen on rainy days.”

Around 3 p.m. that day in July 2010, her caseworker arrived at her foster family’s home in Wahoo.

Mikahla could see the caseworker and her foster mother, Jayne, speaking in the kitchen. Jayne was crying and her face was red.

Her caseworker delivered the news. Mikahla would go to Boys Town.

“Your decisions and your actions have led you to the point where Jayne doesn’t want you anymore,” she told the seventh-grader.

Mikahla pleaded with the women to let her stay and promised to be better. She didn’t want to leave her younger sister, who was still living in the same home.

“I can do better this time,” she told them tearfully.

Two days later, Mikahla packed her belongings and went to visit her younger sister at her daycare center for the very last time.

The drive to Boys Town was a long one.

“I thought it was something much worse, like I was going to be sent to a little jail or Geneva or something like that,” she said, referring to the Geneva Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Center. “I knew nothing about Boys Town.”

Despite her misgivings, she was welcomed warmly. Strangers shook her hand and smiled, and girls she’d be living with sat with her at a dining room table and told her their stories.

“It was a good first day.”

* * *

Mikahla’s road to redemption was a long one, and she can’t say exactly when or how it began.

It was an incremental process, fed by the long talks she would have with her house parents and her love of sports.

She knows at some point she started listening. She listened to the teachers who told her she could use her past experiences to forge a brighter future.

She listened to the ministers who shared biblical stories with her, stories that eventually began to ring true.

And she listened to those who told her to let go and let God take over. She began to realize how poor her own choices had been.

“You can’t have control over everything,” she said. “You can’t fix everything.”

After nearly a year at Boys Town, she moved in with house parents Roberto and Leslie Lucero-Miner. Their connection was almost immediate.

The couple taught her faith, talking with Mikahla each Sunday after church services about the sermon. Mikahla began reading the Bible and would read scripture late into the night.

One verse in particular, Jeremiah 29:11, has become an anthem to her: “‘For I know the plans I have for you,' declares the Lord, 'plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’”

But even with the Lucero-Miners, Mikahla struggled at first. When she would misbehave at school, the couple would meet with her and tell her they loved her and there was nothing she could do to change that.

Others had said similar things to Mikahla, but the Lucero-Miners backed up their words. Rather than sending her to live with someone else when she acted out, they let her stay and even let Mikahla help watch their two daughters, who Mikahla now considers sisters.

When she refused to tell them what was wrong, the couple would sit for hours with her, waiting until she finally vented.

“I was able to take a deep breath and realize they weren’t going anywhere,” she said.

The couple had worn down her defenses, and Mikahla realized she was tired of fighting.

She tells her story while sitting beside Leslie Lucero-Miner at their dining room table at Boys Town.

Leslie Lucero-Miner reminds Mikahla to let herself be a kid, to stop taking on so many responsibilities.

When asked about Mikahla’s future, the two women become quiet. Leslie Lucero-Miner describes the squirrely eighth-grader she first met who was just starting to notice boys and the young woman she has become who taught Lucero-Miner’s daughter to walk using fruit snacks.

“We look at her as a daughter,” she said. “We have really loved having her.”

In August, Mikahla will exchange her room at Boys Town for a dorm room at Doane University in Crete, where she’ll play volleyball and compete in track and field.

Her college tuition will be mostly paid through a variety of scholarships, including several from Boys Town, as well as sports and academic scholarships from Doane.

She plans to study nursing and hopes to one day join the Navy or attend law school. Maybe both, she said, because the future will be what she decides to make of it.

“I want to set myself up for so much success,” she said. “I want to help people.”

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