There is a sweetness to Bree Yager couched by a toughness hard-earned before she was 10 years old.
“I dated her older brother when he was 14 and got to know Bree,” sister-in-law Leanna Gatlin said. “She was never supervised when she lived with her mother. She was a good little kid, she just didn’t have much.”
What Bree had, throughout childhood, was perpetual conflict and change. How many transitions did she make? Sometimes even she can’t recall them all.
“I was a baby when I was first taken away from my mother and in foster care until kindergarten, then went back to Mom,” Bree said. “I was in sixth grade when she slapped me in the face, then told me not to tell anyone at school what happened.
“She said, ‘Say you fell.’ I was in class and my reading teacher asked about a bruise on my face and I said, ‘My mom hit me.’ The cops came. I told them my mom slapped me.”
Bree spent time with Leanna, then went home again when her mother was released from jail. Two years later, police removed Bree from the home for good.
“Bree went into 30-day child protective care, then to a friend’s family for six months or a year, then with an aunt for a month,” Leanna said. “Her brother, Tim, and I got guardianship when she was 14.”
Now 17, Bree Yager is about to do something no one in her family has done – graduate from high school. A Clover Park senior, she’d never considered college for obvious reasons – money.
“She always wanted to go, but none of her older siblings (there are four) ever graduated high school,” Leanna said. “My husband and I only had her for three years. There was no time to save for her college.”
A swim teacher at Clover Park, Jessica Wheeler, urged Bree to try – and Bree landed one of 50 Washington Governors’ Scholarships for Foster Youth. No, it won’t cover all her expenses, not even her tuition.
Still, it was a difference-maker.
“It’s somewhere around $3,200,” Bree said of the scholarship, which can be renewed for up to five years. “Tuition is over $11,000 at Washington State University, and with books, housing, food and everything else, my expenses could be about $28,000.
“I’ll probably be taking out a $10,000 loan and try to find work. But without the scholarship, I never would have committed to WSU.”
Captain of her swim team this year, Bree volunteered at Kindred Healthcare in Lakewood, working with senior citizens.
“Bree’s fantastic,” said Tanya Hamilton, a Kindred supervisor. “She’s always going above and beyond to improve the quality of life here.”
She has tried to create a normal life out of one that was anything but. In 2010, for instance, she learned who her father was.
“My dad was in prison. I didn’t know he was my dad, but blood tests proved it,” Bree said. “He wrote to me in July 2010. I guess he’d tried to rob a Shell station.
“I thought it was really cool, these letters promising once he was out he’d never leave me again. I wrote back for eight months, until he got out. I kept all his letters in a binder.”
A social worker set up a meeting, choosing the Tacoma Mall. Bree and her father walked and talked one March afternoon.
“I never heard from him again,” Bree said. “I’ve met some of his family, and they’re very nice. I’m glad for any family I do have. I have nothing to do with my mother or father.”
At WSU, Bree will major in neo-natal medicine.
“I always wanted to work with babies. Why? The bond between mother and child is so special,” she said. “On Mother’s Day 2009, my mom told me, ‘When I gave birth to you, you and I didn’t connect. There was nothing there.’ I started crying. I’d never tell my kid that.”
Asked, Bree will say she is proud of herself. Talking about her life, however, is nothing she’s comfortable with.
“I don’t want to tell friends, teachers,” she said. “I don’t want to be judged by what I’ve been through. I don’t want to be a joke. Child abuse is not funny.
“I’ll turn 18 two days after I start college, but I’m going to be dealing with these things my whole life, not through age 18. My mom didn’t raise me. I had to ask neighbors for food, I stole clothes to have clothes. I took care of my little brother. …”
The tears bother Bree, and she shakes them off.
“What I’ve been through will always be with me,” she said. “The worst is behind me, yes, but it’s who I am. It always will be.”
Larry LaRue: 253-597-8638