- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 23, 2015

IDAHO FALLS, Idaho (AP) - Kailamai Hansen sat down to her first family dinner at 12 years old.

“I had been raised in such chaos it was all I knew,” Hansen said.

Hansen spent most of her young life bouncing from foster home to group home and back to her biological mother’s home. She was physically and emotionally abused from the time she was very young until she was about 16.

Now 26, Hansen uses her story of beating the odds as a message to the troubled youth of Idaho. Leading by example, Hansen is in her senior year at Lewis-Clark State College and said she plans on pursuing a law degree in 2017. Hansen grew up in Kellogg and now lives in Lewiston.

Hansen self-published a book in 2012 titled “Out of the Darkness, My Journey Through Foster Care,” detailing her rocky childhood. She has used her experiences in her speeches and presentations across the state during her work with the Juvenile Justice Council.

A June 6, 2011, article in the Coeur d’Alene Press detailed Hansen’s interactions with New York Times best-selling author Richard Paul Evans, who was so impressed by Hansen that he based a character in his book “Miles To Go” on her.

Evans is the author of “The Christmas Box” and founder of Christmas Box International, which “provides assistance to prevent child abuse and services to improve the quality of life for children who have been abused, neglected or abandoned,” according to its website.

“Of all the people we’ve met, and we’ve helped thousands of abused children, she stood out,” Evans told the Coeur d’Alene Press.

Hansen spoke to 16 teens Thursday at the 3B Juvenile Detention Center in Idaho Falls, the last stop on her eastern Idaho tour of juvenile justice system facilities and social welfare conferences where she spoke to officials and participants. After listening to her story, many of the kids, dressed in orange or blue prison garb, asked her questions such as how she turned her life around and how she paid for college.

Darin Burrell, council chairman, said Hansen’s book has been donated to juvenile detention centers and school counselors statewide.

“It really shows resilience; it’s an awesome story,” Burrell said.

In the book, Hansen depicts the violence she suffered, her thoughts and attempts at suicide, her mother’s sudden death, drug use and other difficult subjects. She summarized her experiences for the teens at 3B.

“Going to school and seeing the other kids, I realized something was different about them,” Hansen said.

They had families to relate to, while Hansen’s mother had many different and abusive men around and Hansen rarely was shown care. When she was 12, Hansen was taken by a social worker to live with foster parents. Her first night there, the foster parents asked Hansen to set the table, but she had no idea what that meant.

“We ate on floor or we ate in our bedroom, wherever we could,” Hansen said. “(A stable home) was the kind of life I wanted. I wanted to sit at a table and have my mom ask me how my day was.”

After 28 days with the foster family, Hansen was returned home to an unchanged, abusive environment.

Hansen’s short stay was similar to other children’s experience in foster care. Nationwide in 2013, 35 percent of children in foster care spent one to 11 months in a foster home, according to data collected by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. In Idaho, 1,034 children are in foster care.

After leaving her first foster home, Hansen bounced back-and-forth from a group home to foster care to her mother until her mother died from unknown causes.

“They didn’t do an autopsy, so I still don’t know how she died,” Hansen said. “Of course I felt it was my fault, that maybe she killed herself.”

The kids listened silently, staring directly at Hansen as she told her story. No comment was made until Hansen finished her story. Then hands shot up to ask her questions or express their own struggles. One boy said his mother was addicted to methamphetamine and that he spent time in foster care.

“It’s cool that you’ve gone through foster care too,” the boy said.

One girl asked Hansen how she came so far from where she started and if she still had fears.

“It’s scary to change,” Hansen said. “I still have doubts - about school, about a lot of things - but nobody is going to do it for me.”

Hansen encouraged the kids to make their own choices and told them that they can all be successful.

She addressed foster children directly in her book and wrote, “I hope that I have shown you not to be ashamed . All you have endured is for a reason.”

“You are not limited, and you can do ANYTHING!” Hansen wrote.

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Information from: Post Register, https://www.postregister.com

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