Vol. 9, No. 1• November 2004

No Reason to Fail: The George Duvall Story

As a child, George Duvall’s own family told him he would be dead or in prison by the time he was 13. By the time he was six, he was a thief, frequently truant from school, and involved with gangs. Then he spent 15 years in foster care and in boys facilities.

Often when children have experiences like these, they continue to struggle long after they reach adulthood. Some even meet the fates George’s family predicted: incarceration and untimely death.

But not George Duvall. Today he is a college graduate, the director of programs for youth in foster care, and a nationally recognized motivational speaker, comedian, and trainer. He is also a devoted father and husband.

George Duvall

Here, in his own words, is his story and some of the lessons he has learned.

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My mother had five children and was on welfare. My father was not present in my life. I was about four years old when I began to get into trouble in the ghetto streets of Lexington, Kentucky. By the time I was eight, I had been in and out of juvenile detention centers for years. Finally the judge told my mother I was out of control and she was unfit to be a parent. I was sent to an all-boys facility for delinquents.

I spent a year and a half at that place and then got into trouble again, this time for stealing money from the Director. After that I was sent to another boys facility 90 miles away from Lexington. For me, that was a turning point in my life: I had never been so far away from my mother.

When I first arrived at this boys home, I heard some of the staff members talking about how “bad” a kid I was. So, I acted just as they suspected. After several months, I realized my actions would not help me get back to my mother or siblings. So, I decided to make a change. I decided I would do whatever I had to do to gain respect, no matter what!

The boys facility started a foster care program several months after I became a resident. After my attitude change, I was one of the first to be on the possible foster care list because for good behavior. Interested community families would come on weekends and tour the facilities to help get to know some of the boys who lived there. The boys in the home would dress up in their best gear in hopes of being the one they would pick to go home with them.

I lucked out. After many visits, this family picked me to be their foster kid. To me, it didn’t matter who this family was. My plan was to get back to my family in Lexington, 90 miles away. I was about 11 or 12 at this time.

I spent six years with this family despite the fact that my foster family was white and I am black. I grew up in the hood where black people were all around me. Now I was living in the “sticks,” where the nearest neighbor was a “holler” away. I was one of the first black kids to attend my elementary school and the only African-American kid in the community. Now, I was going to face a whole new problem other than foster care…Racism!

Being a foster kid was hard, but the racism I encountered in rural Kentucky was out of this world. There were five black people in my high school. Three of them lived in my home.

The racism I faced from members of this community was echoed by discrimination from the black community when I would go on home visits. After spending six years with a different family (culturally) you take on their actions and life styles—the way they walk, dress, and talk. So when I went home on visits, people noticed that I was not talking black, acting black, or being the “badass” kid everyone was used to seeing. The same kids I used to get in trouble with were telling me I was “acting white.”

I didn’t fit in at home in Lexington. I didn’t fit in the community where my foster parents lived. I didn’t fit in anywhere!

However, during high school I made a positive name for myself as a college-bound football star. On the football field I was “George Duvall.” Not foster care George. Not black George. Just George. I saw how “people”— not just my foster parents or social workers, but the community where I lived—looked at me when I scored four or five touchdowns or ran for 200 or 300 yards on Friday nights. That look told me that I was going to be something great.

But I knew that football wasn’t going to be my out. I knew I had to educate myself. So when I graduated from high school, I went to college to pursue my degree instead of football. I was an LD/BD (Learning Disability/Behavior Disability) student, and I knew I needed extra help with my studies. I sacrificed my dream of playing in the NFL to gain my dream of becoming the first person in my family to graduate from college.

Today I am a college graduate, youth advocate, nationally recognized speaker, comedian, trainer, father, and husband.

I would not be where I am today if it were not for the sacrifices of my foster parents Melanie and Greg Harris. From the moment I walked into their home my family showed me they didn’t care about me being a foster kid. They allowed me to make mistakes and they didn’t hold those mistakes against me.

More importantly, they didn’t give up on me, even during my worst choices. All they cared about was that I received my education. They also never blamed my biological mother or my family history. (One of the photos I look at the most in my wedding album is the photo of my foster mother on one side, my biological mother on the other, and me in the middle.)

These actions built pride within me as a foster kid and as a young African American.

As I have traveled across the U.S. I have tried to share with people the things my foster parents taught me and the other things I learned on my journey. One of them is this: we have to believe in the youth voice. We have to be honest with our youth. We have to put them in real-life situations to help them understand what it takes to become successful life long learners as they transition into adulthood.

Another is that although foster parents don’t get enough credit, they need to understand that they have the chance to be champions of the youth who enter and leave their homes. The true rewards of their hard work are most often seen long after a youth has left their home, but they are still real. Just look at me.

The people closest to me as a child would not have thought in a million years I would be where I am today. But thanks to the support of my families—foster and biological—and the sacrifices they made for me, I have no reason to fail.

George Duvall directs two programs designed to empower youth in foster care in Kentucky to speak up for themselves and other youth in care. He is also a motivational speaker and a comedian. To contact him, call 859/257-4094 or send an e-mail to [email protected].

Copyright 2004 Jordan Institute for Families