When Starcia Ague speaks to youth groups, she usually starts like this:
“If you had told me – when I was six years old and living in homeless shelter after homeless shelter; or when I was 12 years old and living in a meth lab; or when I was 15 and facing felony charges for robbery and kidnapping; or when I was 20 and still fighting the system to get the education I knew was my only hope for a decent life – that I would one day describe my life as a success story, well, I guess saying, ‘That is just plain crazy,’ doesn’t quite go far enough. But here I am.”
No question the 26-year-old program coordinator for the UW School of Medicine’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences had a dangerous and dysfunctional childhood. Her mother was a drug-addicted and often homeless prostitute, who beat Starcia whenever she tried to get help.
Starcia left her mother’s house when she was 11 to move in with her dad, who ran a meth lab. She slept on the couch in the living room, and watched the parade of users wander in and out. “I thought that if they wanted to see my dad badly enough they’d pay for it,” says Starcia. “So I started charging them at the door.” $1 to get in, $5 more to see her father. Starcia saw even then that education was her ticket to a better life. Fleecing her father’s clients seemed like a good way to start a college fund.
When Starcia was 15, drug dealers tore up her mother’s house looking for the $5,000 she’d stolen from them. The owner of the house took a pay-up-or-get-out stand. Starcia’s mother, who was in rehab at the time, ordered her daughter to fix up the house. Starcia talked three acquaintenances into robbing her father’s clients. When things went south – the clients were unexpectedly home – she was charged with felony robbery. She spent six years in juvenile detention.
Starcia arrived at the Juvenile Rehabilitation Administration’s Naselle Youth Camp in remote southwestern Washington with a third grade reading level, a fourth grade math level and monster chip on her shoulder. “I lashed out at everyone, refused to communicate,” she recalls. “I burned a lot of bridges.”
Then one day a woman visited Naselle to speak about her life. She’d been raped, addicted to drugs and alcohol, committed to a mental health facility. But she’d turned her life around. Her story was harrowing. Starcia was inspired. “I thought: If this woman could do it, so can I.”
From that moment, Starcia Ague was a woman possessed. After earning her high school diploma, she approached the prison school’s principal about taking college classes. “He just laughed at me,” she says. So she went over his head, agitating within the system, and then outside the system, writing letters to a counselor, to her middle school math teacher, the Tumwater police officer who had befriended her, the governor, Oprah. “I got myself in trouble,” she says. But JRA officials finally relented and Starcia had almost completed her Associate’s Degree by the time she was released at age 21. (She went on to finish her bachelor’s degree – in criminal justice – at Washington State University.)
Starcia received the 2009 Spirit of Youth Award for her efforts to rehabilitate juvenile offenders, and was part of the MacArthur Foundation's Models for Change, a juvenile justice reform initiative. Governor Chris Gregoire eventually pardoned Starcia, the first juvenile offender ever pardoned in Washington State. She was on a roll.
After graduation, she applied for 35 jobs. She got calls from two prospective employers and an offer from one. But when that firm learned of her felony conviction, they rescinded the job offer. It was the same story with housing: Three landlords refused to rent to Starcia because she couldn’t pass their background check.
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