Ex-drug pusher reaches the NFL, with some help
August 24, 1999
From Correspondent Leon Harris
FLAGSTAFF, Arizona (CNN) -- The transition to independence can be daunting for foster care teen-agers, who are expected to live on their own at age 18. But independent living programs have helped many teens navigate the change, including one reformed drug dealer now on the roster of a professional football team.
Paris Johnson used to run with street gangs and push drugs, thinking school was not worth his time. Now the fifth-round draft pick pushes himself to make the Arizona Cardinals.
"I want to be a hard rock in someone's life, so they can really look up to me as a role model, and as an example how to steer the right way," he said.
Johnson, 22, was a classic foster care case. He grew up on the mean streets of Chicago's West Side without his father. His mother, a crack addict, was taken away by authorities when he was 14.
Three years later he decided, "I was tired of being on the streets, selling drugs, gang-banging."
A ward of the state, he voluntarily steered himself into New Directions, a program designed to help foster care youths make the transition from government dependency to independent living.
The 20,000 18-year-olds who "age out" of foster care each year face many challenges. Only half complete high school. Fewer than that are employed. One-quarter are homeless. And 60 percent of the females have given birth.
Washington has taken notice. A bipartisan bill, supported by the Clinton Administration and recently passed the House, would add $500 million for independent living programs over five years.
Olivia Golden, the assistant secretary of health and human services for children and families, told CNN Tuesday that such programs have not had a budget increase since 1992.
Johnson knows first-hand that such programs work. Through New Directions, he was able to live in his own apartment and transfer to a high school in a better neighborhood.
Johnson played football at North Iowa Community College, unable to attend a Division I school because of his grades. Later he transferred to Miami University of Ohio, convincing the football coaches to let him play.
Johnson was drafted in the spring by the Cardinals, who were impressed by the 6-foot-2, 213-pound defensive safety's ability to hit, and his resolve to succeed.
Working out in the Arizona heat, the new Cardinal thinks often of home, where he hopes to make a difference. He plans to spend some of his earnings to help his teen-age brother and sister, who live in foster homes.
And when he is finished playing football, or when football is finished with him, he would like to work for the program that turned his life around. Recalling a conversation with New Directions President Gordon Johnson, he said:
"I told him I hope you have a job open for me, and he said, 'Oh yeah, we have a job for you,'.... That reassured me, so I know that once I'm done with football I have a job."
Life after foster care can be harsh
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