FACES: Passion to help: Nathan Gawlik's five words to live by are ambition, integrity, empathy, passion and inspiration
Growing up without a mentor inspired Nathan Gawlik to be one. The UND student was removed from his home when he was 4 years old because his mother, who is bipolar and schizophrenic, was addicted to prescription drugs and his father was a drug dealer.
Growing up without a mentor inspired Nathan Gawlik to be one.
The UND student was removed from his home when he was 4 years old because his mother, who is bipolar and schizophrenic, was addicted to prescription drugs and his father was a drug dealer.
For the next 17 years Gawlik lived in more than two dozen Missouri foster homes, some of them infested with cockroaches and maggots, he said. Occasionally, he returned home to a Chicago suburb to live with his mother, only to be removed a short time later because she continued to abuse prescription drugs.
To this day, Gawlik has limited contact with his family, which includes three sisters.
"It was difficult, obviously," Gawlik said. "I had a lot of examples of what not to do."
But instead of becoming another statistic -- former foster children make up a majority of the prison population -- he is working to improve the lives of youth in foster care. Gawlik is on the board of the Chafee Independent Living Youth Leadership Board in North Dakota and 4ND Youth, a local youth leadership organization.
This month, the FosterClub, a national youth advocacy board, named Gawlik one of its 2011 outstanding young leaders. Gawlik is one of 100 youth across the United States, and the only from North Dakota, to receive this year's award.
Gawlik, who is earning a mass communication major and a minor in educational leadership at UND, hopes to manage a nonprofit organization that advocates for foster youth after graduation from UND. In the meantime, he is advocating for youth and mentoring them through his volunteer work for the Chafee Independent Youth Leadership Board and 4ND Youth. Meanwhile, he also works at the UND Parking Office.
Next summer, Gawlik plans to organize a Brighter Future Youth Awareness Picnic that will raise awareness about adoption. He and another former foster youth want to open the eyes of the public about foster and youth concerns, construct support networks, and recognize people, including foster youth, foster parents and social workers who have strived to make a difference, he said.
"I'm running away from what could have been," Gawlik said. Witnessing his mother shed tears about the situation she was in and hearing his dad complain about how much he was costing him in child support made Gawlik vow not to follow in their footsteps, he said.
"I do a lot of speaking engagements." For example, for the past few semesters he has talked to UND social work students about his experiences in foster care. He also has spoken in Atlanta at a conference called Federation of Families for Children's Mental Health and frequently talks to local youth about his foster care experience.
"I often use my personal story of adversity to talk about why I'm advocating for change," he said. "A lot of people that I speak to, I'm very empathic with. I try to be a mentor to anyone. They don't necessarily have to be in foster care." For example, because Gawlik only has limited contact with his mother, father and three sisters, he can relate to others who are estranged from their families.
His life is better now that he has "aged" out of the foster system and is living on his own, he said.
"I'm doing really good. I like what I'm doing. I like my job . I like school. I have a lot of good things going for me," he said.
Gawlik's five words to live by are ambition, integrity, empathy, passion and inspiration, he said.
"That is my passion, to help others."
Dawnita Niles, Region IV Independent Living Coordinator in Grand Forks, nominated Gawlik for the FosterClub award.
"He is an amazing young person who does countless hours of volunteering. If it's a cause that somehow impacts youth, particularly children at risk, he's the first one to sign up.
Foster youth in North Dakota wouldn't have exactly the same experience as Gawlik because the state's system strives to limit placements to maximize youth success, but they can still relate to him, Niles said. Meanwhile, Gawlik is striving to better their lives.
"He's working to make sure North Dakota youth have a positive experience and leave with all of the supports that are possible," she said.
Besides his volunteer work for foster youth, Gawlik also has been involved in supporting federal legislation to improve the lives of foster children.
"I'd like to pass a national bill to help foster youth," he said. "I'd like to be in front of Congress someday, be on C-span."
Gawlik knows that getting a bill passed won't be easy, especially given the severe economic problems the United States is facing. However, he isn't giving up on his goal.
"I have a necklace I wear all of the time," he said, pulling out a medal of St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes, from under his T-shirt.
"It's just a reminder. It's not a lost cause."
Reach Bailey at (701) 787-6753; (800) 477-6572, ext. 753; or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org .