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Kitsap teen fights out of 'war zone' to graduate high school
A war zone is what 18-year-old Thomas Iman Jr. compares his childhood to, more violent than most could imagine.
The second-oldest of four siblings — two brothers and a sister — Iman spent his younger years coping with drugs, abuse and the chaos of his then-Pierce County home.
Iman remembers buying cigarettes for his father, who was abusive and addicted to drugs, at the age of 10. He also remembers “fighting for the hell of it” because abuse in the Iman household was commonplace.
“There was always violence in the house,” said Iman, who was often on the receiving end of closed fists, pots, pans and knives. “It wasn’t very nice to live.”
So he ran, spending some nights with friends — others on the street.
“I just kept running away,” he explained. “I felt safer on the streets.”
Iman’s troubled track record eventually landed him in a Pierce County foster care program, a chance for a clean start. But he’d been broken, physically and emotionally.
“Anger ran through me like it was in my blood,” he said.
That anger made coalescing with society impossible — at least in Pierce County. New homes, different programs and anger management classes weren’t enough.
“All I needed was for somebody to care for me,” Iman said.
That’s when Kitsap Mental Health Services (KMHS) received his case, willing to make an exception and take in a child from an “outside agency.”
Soon after joining KMHS, Iman met Kathy Rongholt, a KMHS “case aid” and the woman who would take him under her wing.
Rongholt, who joined the KMHS team two-and-a-half years ago after a friend and fellow church-goer suggested she become a case aid, chose to give Iman a chance.
“Kathy (Rongholt) has a way of taking kids who have been through a lot of trauma, chaos and pain, and see that there’s still a child in there,” said Kristine Clay-Welch of KMHS Intensive Children’s Services. “She’s really good at going back and letting (children) experience what they missed.”
Rongholt has lived in Kitsap County for 17 years and took “an affinity” to foster care after her first experience as a case aid.
“After my first shift as a case aid I was hooked, it was right up my ally,” she said. “These kids are extraordinary, I find.”
After meeting Iman, hearing his story from the KMHS team and mulling it over with her family, Rongholt chose to give the Pierce County child a chance.
“He was on his own as a kid,” Clay-Welch said of Iman. “He had been so on his own that we weren’t sure (if) he’d become comfortable inside four walls and a family.”
But Rongholt hashed out a plan with South Kitsap High School administration “to figure out what would work best” and soon enrolled Iman in classes.
“I believe it’s important to keep kids involved,” Rongholt said.
Slowly, Iman “expanded his circle” into the community, never missing a day of school.
He developed a sense of comfort, Rongholt said, and joined a basketball team and volunteered to attend Aggression Replacement Training (A.R.T.), a 10-week course designed to help adolescents manage anger, improve social skills and use moral reasoning.
“He actually taught some of the other kids through example,” Rongholt said. “Thomas added an interesting perspective.”
That ability to self-manage helped Iman understand real-life situations and decipher right from wrong.
“While he was here he developed independent living skills,” Rongholt said. “Thomas, I have to say, manages himself really well.”
On June 6, Iman became the first member of his family to graduate high school, walking with the South Kitsap High School class of 2008.
“It was probably one of the happiest (moments) I can remember,” Rongholt said. “It was very beautiful.”
“I never thought I would do it,” Iman added. “I proved (the non-believers) wrong.”
Stories like Iman’s are why Rongholt is a case aid.
“What drives me is passion. I think every child deserves to know they are worthy of being a part of the community,” she said. “They deserve a chance in life.
“I see them as human beings, in the middle of their development, who just need a little guidance and a helping hand. They are so resilient and they still have the ability to laugh, that joy for life.”
Day-to-day life in Rongholt’s home can at times be hectic, but that’s what she expects.
“The dynamics are different day-to-day, just like any other family,” she said. “While (the children) are here, they are sometimes going through the process of healing.”
Iman now lives in a KMHS-operated house and is learning the ins and outs of independent living. He hopes one day to work in carpentry or construction — jobs he never envisioned prior to meeting Rongholt.
“She helped me out ... in ways I never thought people could do,” he said. “If I wouldn’t have gone to her house, I would never have been here.”
Founded in 1978, KMHS, a nonprofit corporation, offers a wide range of child, family and adult services and served more than 5,400 clients in 2007, including 1,102 children ages 12-17.
The KMHS Child and Family Services center includes a Children’s Crisis Team (CCT), Community Support Team, home-based family services, specialized care and foster care.
The Multi-Dimensional Treatment Foster Care (MTFC) program provides 24-hour support for youth and families.
“That’s the bottom line for us, trying to help our foster parents help the children,” Clay-Welch said. “We really have a need, particularly for teenagers.”
Those interested in becoming a case aid should contact KMHS at (360) 479 4994. More information about KMHS can be found online at www.kitsapmentalhealth.org/.