For some teenagers, turning 18 comes with going to college, getting a car, or perhaps getting a tattoo. We seldom worry about a place to live, our next meal, or being incarcerated. However, teens who age out of foster-care are faced with those issues every day. As a driven, aged-out foster care advocate, Tony Lodge understands the problems that come with a lack of resources for these teens and strives to better the conditions for underprivileged youth.
One of the main reasons for Lodge’s passionate focus on aged-out foster care is because he grew up in the system. While he faced a multitude of challenges in foster care, he learned many important life lessons from the diverse families he lived with as well.
“My time in foster-care was really unique. I had a lot of cultural experiences... I had a relationship with an African American family, and a deep south white Caucasian family, and I was adopted by an evangelical family… Each experience was not only just a new chapter for me but it was as if I went into a different room each time, [and I gained] a lot of empathy [by] being able to see how inequality and equity works.”
However, when Lodge turned 18, he aged out of foster care in Kentucky and did not have the money or connections to support himself. Even with so many uncertainties, he never gave up and kept moving forward with his life.
“I ran out of money, and the [college I attended] didn't open until three months [later]. So, I'm sitting in the 1993 Toyota Camry eating Rally’s apple pies, and I'll never forget that. I was also applying for jobs, and when you get a job, it takes three weeks before you get your first paycheck. So now, I'm still homeless while working and sleeping in a car. You're waiting for things to happen. You're waiting for that time to shine.”
Even though Lodge had housing insecurities, he still pursued an education at West Kentucky University in order to create a better life for himself. However, attending college was a difficult transition from a foster background.
“Going to college was tough, and there were times where I started to see the struggle the foster youth who don't make it to college or don't even graduate had when they started because there are not enough resources… I didn't have the same experiences [as everyone else]... I didn't have any money, and it was harder for me to get a job. I didn't have the connection to the elite.”
Unfortunately, unlike Lodge, many foster youths do not have a chance to graduate or even go to college. They have endless odds that do not play in their favor that heavily weigh on their ability to receive an education and live a better life. With the COVID-19 pandemic, life has become harder for foster youth who are already struggling.
“For foster youth, there's only 2% that graduate college, and it's lower now because of COVID-19. It may not even be 1% at this point. When universities shut down, they cut off the living arrangements. Now you have a high end of incarceration rates. You're about to have a high end of crime. You're about to have a high end of homelessness. All these things are swirling, and sex trafficking has increased: 74% of foster youth are sex trafficking victims. You see the world view that is shifting, and you have a large inequality.”
As for Lodge, who persevered despite the ineffable odds thrown at him, he admittedly did not excel in college. He had a 2.3 average GPA, but the reason lies not in his ability to study, but in the resources available to help him improve. As a blessing and stroke of luck, he received a full scholarship to graduate school with housing arrangements.
“I was the only one who graduated from a four year [college] within my district… After I had the resources, I graduated Magna Cum Laude with my Masters [and] a 3.6 GPA… It was like, oh, so when the resources are in place these people can actually succeed. They can actually achieve their full potential.”
Although he was given some resources to excel in his education later in life, Lodge still relied on his strong motivation to do better. He was able to learn from other people’s failures to get to where he wanted to be.
“Although we don't wish for people's failures, if you sit back you observe a lot of things, [and you can learn a lot]. And for my brothers, they failed. But they didn't all fail because they were just horrible human beings. They failed because [of] the system. But you'd see where they fail and then, you think, I better not do that.”
Because he witnessed how his brothers and sisters in foster care failed to make a better life for themselves without the resources, Lodge wanted to be able to help them by advocating for improvements to the aged-out foster care system. However, he didn’t have the money or resources to do so. One day, a Harvard alumnus approached Lodge and saw his determination and commitment to wanting to make a change.
“[The Harvard alumnus] says, ‘Here's $5,000’. He writes a check right there. And he says, ‘I'm gonna need you to pack your stuff, I paid your lease off too’... And I knew as soon as you get into those rooms in D.C., you're able to advocate and you're really able to push your agenda... I really started making a focal point for foster youth when I got my chain. I was in front of a lot of senators in Congress and...most people try to butter up these people. [But] what's the point? We rarely see them. And so I just drilled all of them, right there.”
While his fervent advocacy turned heads and changed perspectives, Lodge’s financial situation took a downturn after he ran out of funds to sustain himself in the new city. To remedy his situation, Lodge found a job as a Starbucks barista right by Capitol Hill, where he also did a fellowship with a congressman.
“It was a very humbling experience because I have three degrees, another Master's, and I’m working as a barista in a Starbucks... And [it] created a lot of that humility. But out of that humility, you need to find those areas to grow and it was beautiful because all these politicians were coming in and I was giving them cards and I was meeting up with them and I was like wow!”
Although working as a barista was humbling for Lodge, not everyone around him had the same humility.
“[In] the firm that I just got out of, there were a lot of people who were very much well taken care of. They had all the opportunities and they went to the best schools. Everybody there thought I was so ambitious and so motivated. I didn't have the best talents like they had... But when I got to the top firm, I was just really pushing it and they were like, ‘Man, why are you working so hard?’... Sometimes at the top, there is no motivation, and I had to explain to them where I came from, and I had to explain that this is [one of] the top five firms in DC. They were so privileged that they didn't understand what that meant, that people back home would kill for this. And you didn't have a lot of humility [there]; you had a lot of people cutting corners. But I was doing everything right and the partners loved me, the CEO loved [me], but it was because they understood where I came from.”
From foster care to his professional work experiences, Lodge has been able to not only grasp the concept of grit to make it through tough situations in life but also make sense of the privilege as well as humility in the people around him. Although his diverse background taught him how to interact and appeal to people of higher status than him, it has also been vital to governing the way he lives. Lodge is only 28 years old, but he already understands his purpose in life--to reduce the inequalities people in foster care face. As for other youth who perhaps are still looking to discover their passion, he leaves this piece of advice about higher education and growing as a person.
“What’s the point of going to Harvard if you don’t have a dream? I don’t see the point of going to a top school if you don’t want to achieve something big. [I think] the number one thing is putting yourself in situations where even you say: ‘Man, this stinks.’ Because once you say it stinks, that means you have an obligation to do something about it.”