Lucky No. 13

Nine years of foster care and a parade of homes couldn't keep Ashley down. Now she wants others to beat the odds.

Published May 24, 2007

Ashley Rhodes-Courter has red hair, a pretty smile and sharp eyes. She’s a senior at Eckerd College, a classic overachiever. Besides high grades and a double major (communications and theater), her resume bulges with volunteer work and community activism.

She’s also got something a lot of college kids don’t: a book contract.

Her mom, Gay Courter, is a writer, too, the author of several bestselling novels of historical fiction. She has helped Ashley with everything from negotiating the contract to editing photo captions.

Gay is Ashley’s 13th mother, and her last.Ashley entered the Florida foster care system when she was 2 1/2 and didn’t leave it until she was 12. She stayed in 14 homes. Some of the foster parents were kind; a few were awful. In one home, she was beaten with a paddle, denied food, forced to swallow hot sauce and made to run outside in the blistering sun.

In 1995, she moved into the Children’s Home of Tampa.

She’d almost given up hope of being adopted. But she loved theater and performing, so she participated in a talent show at the home. Ashley pulled back her red hair and performed in a comedy skit as Lucille Ball.

In the audience that night were Gay and Phil Courter of Crystal River. Gay was a novelist; Phil was a documentary filmmaker who flew his own planes. Gay volunteered as a guardian ad litem — someone who represents the best interests of a foster child in court — and had been touched by the need for adoptive parents. With two sons off at college, Gay and Phil decided to fill their empty nest by adopting an older child.

Caseworkers thought Ashley and the Courters would make a good match. Ashley had always been a high-achieving student who saw school as a refuge and a place where she could shine. Gay and Phil were professionals with a house full of books; their sons had gone to prep schools and private colleges.

The adoption was finalized on July 28, 1998. At the hearing, the judge asked Ashley if she wanted the adoption. She said, “I guess so.”

She was nervous that the adoption wouldn’t go well and she’d end up back at the Children’s Home. When Gay gave her a kiss that day, Ashley wiped it off.

“I saw my adoption as a business proposition,” Ashley said. “It wasn’t warm and fuzzy. I saw it as, here was a couple that was going to help me get to college and achieve the things I wanted to achieve.”

Later, Ashley wrote about life with the Courters:

I loved my new waterfront house, with my own room and a bathroom I didn’t have to share. For the first time, I could have friends over, and my all-star softball team came to swim after our games. Overnights are forbidden in foster care, but now I had and went to slumber parties. I could use the phone anytime I wanted, and lots of the calls were for me. I had my first pet, a kitten named Catchew that slept on my bed. There were no locks on the refrigerator or scheduled mealtimes. I could help myself to as many boxes of macaroni and cheese, bowls of ramen noodles or grilled-cheese sandwiches as I wanted.

Ashley threw herself into schoolwork and entering contests. She wrote an essay about how she identified with Harry Potter’s experiences as an orphan. It won a national contest, and Ashley met author J.K. Rowling.When she was 14, she gave her first speech before a large group, at the national convention for Court Appointed Special Advocates.

The response was immediate. “There were big men in the audience who were crying,” Ashley said. “People came up to me afterward and told me how inspiring it was and how wonderful that a kid like me could make it out. It made me think I could make a big difference.”

With Gay and Phil’s permission, she traveled to meetings of groups involved with foster care issues, visiting cities like Anchorage and Albuquerque.With their support, she sued DCF workers over her treatment in foster care and won a settlement.

During the summer before her senior year, she won a New York Times competition for high school students with her essay “Three Little Words,” about the day she was adopted. Simon & Schuster bought the rights for a full-length memoir, to be released next year.

Ashley hopes to graduate from Eckerd in December. This summer, she’ll work part time at the Heart Gallery of Pinellas and Pasco. The Heart Gallery is a traveling group of portraits of foster children awaiting adoption, photographed by professionals.Closing in on her final year of college, Ashley has won several awards for her grades and volunteer work. She was named to the USA Today All-USA College Academic First Team. She won the Brick Award from the Do Something Foundation for her work with the National Council on Adoptable Children.

In this month’s issue, she was named one of Glamour magazine’s Top 10 college women.Her mother tries to encourage her and sometimes slow her down, which she says is often a futile goal. Ashley drives herself harder than anyone.

“She’s been in touch with some of her friends from foster care,” Gay said, “and she’s really sad about some of their outcomes and personal situations. I think she feels survivor’s guilt. I think that’s a piece of it.“

But she also resents the implication that foster children are trashy in some way, when it’s not the kids’ fault. So she wants to be an example.

”Ashley says she doesn’t have a lot in common with some of the other foster care kids. She has a biological brother who went through the system whom she won’t talk about.

“I don’t know how to respond sometimes without seeming like I’m bragging,” she said.

She plans to keep up with advocacy after college, and she sounds impatient rather than idealistic when she talks about her reasons: “It would be selfish of me not to use my story to help others, when I believe I have the potential to really make a difference.”

• • •

A few weeks ago, Ashley drove up from Eckerd College for Mother’s Day. She and Gay sat down together to check photo captions for her book.Then they cooked up a triple batch of veggie soup for Ashley to take back to school with her. Phil read the paper while Ashley tried to figure out how to cut up onions without crying.

Ashley’s boyfriend of two years played on his computer, then helped with the soup.

Ashley still calls Gay and Phil by their first names, rather than Mom and Dad. But going away to college has paradoxically brought her closer to them, Ashley says. “They’re my best friends now,” she said.

fter the summer job and school, there will be a book tour next year, during which Ashley will be interviewed and give more speeches about foster children and adoption.

But what comes after that?

“I don’t really know where my life is going to go,” Ashley said. “I’m taking it a step at a time. I want a career and a position where I can make the most change and make the most difference, and be someone who is actually going to change lives.”

Angie Drobnic Holan can be reached at aholan@sptimes.com.