Wellness & Wonder

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Sunday, Oct 14 2012 09:39 AM

Real Success Stories: Fostering hope

By Lisa Kimble

Bakersfield College track star Chris Schwartz has been sprinting through most of his young life running away from a painful past of abuse, group homes and foster families. Despite a decorated high school career that included two state championships, Schwartz never felt like a winner in life.

The oldest of nine children fathered by five different men, the Foothill High grad has never known his dad and has no communication with his mother or siblings. There are no warm and fuzzy childhood memories, just recollections of domestic discord and abuse, allegedly at the hands of his mother’s live-in boyfriend. “I couldn’t take it anymore, so I kept running away,” Schwartz told the Californian in a 2008 interview. But he never told anyone why. He was at the threshold of becoming a teenager. He entered the foster care system when he was 12.

Related Photos

Henry A. Barrios / The CalifornianThe boys 1600 meter race runs in a tight pack early in the race before Foothill High's Chris Schwartz, center, takes a commanding lead and wins the race at the Patriot Games at Liberty High.

“My mom said she couldn’t handle me and was overwhelmed,” Schwartz says. He was the only one of her children to be given up. “I felt like I was abandoned.” A misdiagnosis of schizophrenia led to mental hospitalizations. “All I knew was that my mom left me. I was angry,” Schwartz told the Californian.

And so began a cycle of detachment, loneliness and series of moves that included two group homes and five foster families, seven in all. “At first it was scary, but eventually I didn’t care who I was staying with. Eventually they would all give me up.”

Not everyone. Robert and Martha Gonzales took Chris in while he was a sophomore in high school. He was 16. Their loving, stable and structured environment helped him excel on the track, graduate and gain admission to Cal Poly. “They are great people. They treated me like family right off the bat, and they never gave up.”

Schwarz attended Cal Poly on a partial scholarship, but after one and a half quarters, the academic and financial strain became too much and he returned to Bakersfield where he was still haunted by his past - nearly a decade of being bounced from home to family which left him void of self-worth.

A year-and-a-half ago he decided to stop fleeing. In a cry for help, he drove a friend’s car off the Kern River Canyon into the river. Miraculously, he walked away with nothing more than a scar on his left finger, a permanent reminder of a failed suicide attempt and the gift of a second chance. “That was a big wake-up call for me,” he says. “Now I have a whole new outlook.”

In those harrowing moments as he was drowning and unable to get out of the car, he says he remembers hearing a voice say “don’t worry, it is okay.” No one was there, but he managed to escape the sinking vehicle and crawl to the roadway for help. “Life is worth living and I’m meant to do something better,” he says.

For older children like Chris Schwartz, the heartache of being treated ‘differently’ never goes away. “I felt like a second class citizen,” he recalls of the second-hand clothes and gifts of broken toys. But mentors, like Randy Martin of Covenant Care Services, a foster care non-profit, were his lifelines. “He’s [martin] the main reason why I am better, he has helped me out a lot.”

Martin, who employs Schwartz at the newly- opened Covenant Coffee, says the transformation in the young man is amazing. “Ten years ago, Chris was quiet, withdrawn and depressed,” Martin says.

Running has been his saving grace. He trains about ten hours a week, between 80 to 100 miles around the college campus. “Running is a big relief of stress and anxiety from everyday life,” Chris adds. “I want to run and clear my head and when I’m done I have a new point of view.” Last spring, as a freshman, he placed 3rd in the 1500 meter and 5,000 at the state track and field championship.

Today, at 22, Chris is a computer science major at BC. His goal is to place first in three events before receiving his AA degree and transferring to a four year university on an athletic scholarship. His network of friends, teammates and mentors are his ‘family’. Psalm 91:7 is tattooed on the inside of his right arm. “There’s a thousand problems and you can get through them, there will always be problems but take it one day at a time.”

Schwartz hopes his experience will resonate with others. “Go to a counselor or someone they can trust and talk to them,” he adds. “That’s all we can do is talk and be heard.”

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