Former Hillsides Resident Converts Positive Memories into Giving Back

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Young woman who found peace and stability at a residential treatment home when in the foster care system now volunteers with children where she once lived.

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From day one, I was refreshed by the friendly staff that was real and loving.

When Briana Cushman, 26, volunteers with the children who reside at Hillsides, she tells them something that’s guaranteed to elicit a big reaction: She once lived there, too.

“At first, the kids don’t believe it,” said Cushman, who is events co-chair for Hillsides Volunteer Network (HVN), a support group that puts on monthly activities for the children. “But then I explain that they can pursue everything they want in life. They can move on from the past and find success.”

Cushman is living proof of this.

She entered the foster care system at age three, and cycled through 10 different foster homes, group homes, and relatives’ homes. She suffered from extreme mental and physical trauma. “During this time I lost sight of hope,” she said. “I didn't know who was there to protect me and I didn't trust anyone.”

In 2003 when Cushman was 13, she came to live at Hillsides Residential Treatment Services, which annually serves 125 children who are in the foster care system or unable to live at home for other reasons. There, she immediately felt the difference between Hillsides and her other homes.

“From day one, I was refreshed by the friendly staff that was real and loving,” she said.

Where before, she’d been told she wasn’t worth anything, at Hillsides, the staff gave her the message that she was valued and could be anything she wanted in life. “It was the first place where I felt like I could grow in a positive, not negative, way,” she said.

She fondly remembers one staff member, campus supervisor Joseph “Jo Jo” White, who still works at Hillsides. “He had this incredibly calm presence,” she said. “You could yell and scream and he’d never get upset. He was also a good listener, and that’s hard to find.”

In 2005, Hillsides helped arrange for Cushman to live with a caring aunt who provided her with love and stability. She went on to attend U.C. Irvine, majoring in history.

Two years ago, Hillsides contacted Cushman to profile her in a feature on former residents for the donor newsletter.

The call was “perfect timing,” she said. “I had been wanting to reconnect, and I knew it would be a positive, healing experience.”

After being featured in the newsletter, Hillsides invited Cushman to speak at an HVN event in the fall of 2014. For the first time in almost 10 years, she stepped foot on campus again.

Walking around the cottages where she once lived, she was flooded with positive memories. She ran into a few staff members she knew, and recognized several of the HVN volunteers from her days as a resident.

She turned to her then-fiancé and now-husband Brady and said, “We should join HVN.” He agreed, and they signed up that night.

A lot has happened to Cushman since she got back in touch with Hillsides. In February, 2015, she was the speaker at Hillsides annual gala where she told her story in front of 400 guests. Following the gala, she became the HVN events co-chair and Brady stepped up to become the chairman of the group. In November, 2015, she and Brady were married in a ceremony attended by several HVN members, and now she’s pregnant with her first child.

Cushman said she looks forward to nurturing her child the way she was nurtured at Hillsides – with caring, compassion, and understanding.

And while she can’t begin to predict what career her child – and the three others she eventually hopes to have -- will pursue in life, she does have a plan for where they will volunteer: Hillsides.

Hillsides Residential Treatment Services program is one of Hillsides four core programs. Hillsides, founded in 1913, is a premier provider of child welfare services serving more than 6,200 children, youth, and families throughout Los Angeles County, including Echo Park, Baldwin Park, and the San Gabriel Valley. For more information, please visit http://www.hillsides.org.

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CONTACT: Alison Bell
Office: (323) 543-2800 ext. 226
Cell: (626) 390-1640
E-mail: abell2(at)hillsides(dot)org

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Alison Bell
Hillsides
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