Brian Koonz: A girl -- and a night -- to treasure
Don't be fooled by the eyes that read like a Dickens novel.
Ilyssa is a 15-year-old girl who prefers to keep her smile -- and her heart -- tucked away under a gray, hooded sweatshirt.
Ilyssa sees them as gifts people have to earn. It hurts too much to give them away if people aren't going to treasure them. Or treasure her, for that matter.
But that's about to change -- in a big way -- for this teenage fan of the alternative rock band, Daughtry.
Chris Daughtry, the bald-headed front man with the platinum throat, will perform Tuesday at 8 p.m. at the Ives Concert Park in Danbury.
And Ilyssa -- the girl who deserves this night more than anyone -- will be right there, thanks to people in our city who do treasure her.
Phyllis Cortese, executive director of the Ives Concert Park, came up with a pair of tickets. Rich Minor, program director and morning show personality at 98Q radio, hatched a surprise to be named later.
And that's just the beginning.
"I'm very excited," said Ilyssa, one of 4,300 foster kids in the care of the state Department of Children and Families, a figure that includes 105 kids in the Danbury area. "I love Daughtry. It's going to be fun."
Of course, life hasn't always been fun for Ilyssa. Many times, it's been the opposite of fun.
Ilyssa has been with DCF since she was 6. Since then, she's had 15 different placements, an average of nearly 1.7 foster homes or group homes each year."Clearly, it's not ideal and it's not what we want for her or any of our kids," said Jennifer Bringman, Ilyssa's social worker. "But sometimes, placements don't work for a variety of reasons, including ones that have nothing to do with the child.
"It could be a relationship issue, a financial issue. We just don't want another disappointment for her," Bringman said. "Ilyssa holds a very special place in our hearts."
These days, Ilyssa lives in a group home in Danbury and attends Newtown High School. Like all foster care kids, but especially teenagers, she longs for a family of her own.
Sadly, Ilyssa's plight with DCF isn't so unusual for older children.
During fiscal year 2010 -- the most recent statistics available -- only 12.3 percent of all adoptions in Connecticut included kids from 11 to 15 years old, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The numbers dropped precipitously for kids from 16 to 18 years old. These older kids accounted for just 1.8 percent of all adoptions in the state that year, Health and Human Services reported.
"It's hard to keep putting yourself out there," Bringman said.
"I've always been given up," she said, with a raw honesty.
But know this: Ilyssa hasn't given up on herself, the treasure in the mirror.
She has suddenly become the face of Danbury's foster kids, the brave chameleon under that gray, hooded sweatshirt that swallows her vulnerability.
Ilyssa recently made a public service announcement for DCF. And she's spoken candidly and passionately at several DCF functions about life as a foster care child.
"She's just so heartfelt in everything she does," Bringman said.
Even if it hurts, Ilyssa will tell you.
It would be easy for her to surrender to the foster care carousel, to recede into Daughtry's music and hide inside her headphones, where no one can find her.
Instead, Ilyssa uses Daughtry's lyrics to help navigate this ever-changing map of her life.
In "Over You," Daughtry croons to Ilyssa, "I'm slowly getting closure, I guess it's really over; I'm finally getting better and now I'm picking up the pieces, spending all of these years putting my heart back together."
In "Crawling Back to You," Daughtry reveals, "Time can heal, but the scars only hide the way you feel."
After years of taking living room litmus tests with foster parents, Ilyssa has some advice for anyone thinking about foster care or adoption.
"We're just like you. We're you, but we're younger," Ilyssa said. "And we're not rebels, but we can be. We're scared, but we're still caring."
Ilyssa loves music, computers, penguins, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. She also loves European history, murder mysteries and kickball.
"She has a great sense of humor," Bringman said.
"I do," Ilyssa instantly agreed.
And for a moment, everyone in the room laughed.
"All she wants is for someone to love her," said Yvette Newton, a foster care/adoption recruiter for DCF. "That's all she has ever wanted."