Cherokee McAlpine wanted to feel loved. She wanted a place to call home.
A childhood filled with sexual, emotional and physical abuse left her feeling angry and neglected, ultimately landing her at Abbott House in Mitchell.
McAlpine was born in Minnesota to parents suffering from addiction and she bounced from state-to-state, home-to-home, often filled with abusive aunts, uncles, grandparents or their friends. She also battled her own emotional struggles and finally landed at Abbott House in Mitchell nearly a decade ago.
Each night at Abbott House, when it came time for kids to make calls to family members or friends, McAlpine -- then 12 years old -- had no one to call. But after watching the Christian film Letters to God in school, McAlpine and a friend decided to pen their own letter to God.
She asked for a home, for someone to love her and care for her. Unbeknownst to her, the letter found its way to the Abbott House Board of Directors and they decided to build a therapeutic foster home and individual apartments -- dubbed Bridges -- in Mitchell to provide girls like McAlpine a proper home.
Now, Abbott House, which provides therapy for kids experiencing trauma or abuse, is on a mission to raise $1 million by the end of the year for a similar home for six boys in Mitchell that would also include four apartments for young adult males.
Abbott House has surpassed $700,000 and recently received a donation from Avera that will serve as a dollar-for-dollar match up to $20,000 to help pay for the building and renovations to the former Crystal Manor assisted nursing facility in Mitchell. Items such as athletic equipment, books, games and other items a typical child would desire in a nurturing home would also be covered.
For McAlpine, moving into a therapeutic foster home -- which includes a couple that is paid to live in the home as a full-time job -- allowed her to learn how to trust and love. On her first tour of the home, McAlpine knew it was going to provide a successful path.
She graduated from Mitchell Tech with a degree in human services and is set to begin online courses at Arizona State University in the fall, while working for Abbott House, where she was recently promoted to supervisor.
“I came out of a bedroom and I started bawling,” McAlpine said. “Someone asked if I was OK and I said, ‘This is my home.’ In the back of my head, I knew there was more to my life than treatment. I’m going to have a family, I’m going to have a home and that’s when I started to believe there was going to be more for me out there.”
Depression throughout her youth, led to McAlpine physically lashing out out at her two siblings, foster parents and herself, attempting to commit suicide at 7 years old. Continued struggles led her to run away from a foster home in Fort Pierre and she was sent for a short stint at the Human Services Center, a psychiatric hospital in Yankton.
McAlpine was sent back to Fort Pierre, only to run away again from what she called a verbally abusive foster mother. Physically attacking her foster mother led her to a juvenile services center in Pierre and eventually Abbott House for treatment.
Her grandparents, having adopted her and her siblings in 2001 before being separated upon being taken away by the Department of Social Services 10 years later, renounced their rights while she was there. McAlpine’s eventual placement after treatment was to be foster care and she vividly recalls seeing on her reviews that no one could or wanted to take her home.
Abbott House built three foster homes for girls and its average length of stay in treatment went from four years to 11 months. Since then, Abbott House has built three homes in Rapid City at the request of the state, with a fourth planned for 2021, but the plans for the new home in Mitchell would be the first for boys east of the Missouri River.
The new home, which has already opened as projected to be full by Aug. 17, will bring the number homes and families provided by Abbott House up to 42 children across the state.
“Crystal Manor is such a unique property, because it allowed us to add some apartments for boys as they turn 18 and age out of the therapeutic foster home,” said Eric Klooz, Abbott House Executive Director. “They can have a place to live, if they choose to. We can help them find jobs or sign up at MTI or work on their next goals for life.”
Not only are married couples and a home teacher hired to live in the home, but all of the kids are provided individual therapy, while the entire family also receives therapy once per week. A supervisor is also available to the home any time of the day.
Even after getting her new family, it was not initially smooth for McAlpine. Trust was a new concept and she had to learn that she could rely on her foster parents. Her first set of foster parents moved to Rapid City to open a boys home and once again had to build trust with her new parents from scratch.
“A lot of the adults in my life weren’t good people,” McAlpine said. “The people who are supposed to be my parents didn’t love me or care for me, so I didn’t know how to trust parents. … I didn’t trust them and I didn’t want to trust them. I had to re-learn how to trust people.”
McAlpine, now 21, eventually began to see her parents -- Kay and Jason Currey -- as her real parents. They taught her how to drive, how to manage her finances and developed a lifelong bond.
“We have girls from our homes, who after they’ve left, have asked their foster dads to walk them down the aisle at their wedding,” Klooz said. “... It’s a lifelong connection that (parents) make with these kids. Many of the kids coming into the foster care system, they don’t have that stable family for them. This is someone that can be there, that they can call and check in with.”
After graduating from Mitchell High School -- the state allows foster children to remain in care until they complete a high school diploma or GED -- she moved into one of Abbott House’s Bridges apartments, where McAlpine was required to have a job, pay rent and was provided a staff member to help create a budget.
While apartment residents have to pay rent based on income, it is all returned when they move out if they abide by the rules. So, when McAlpine decided in April 2019 that it would be more beneficial for someone else to take her place, she left with a considerable amount of money in her pocket.
She has already bucked foster care trends, as only 20 percent of children in foster care who graduate from high school go on to college, according to the nonprofit organization Foster Care to Success. Now, McAlpine is pursuing a bachelor’s degree, something only 2 to 9 percent of foster children achieve.
The goal is to earn her degree in political science from Arizona State, so she can help change laws and policies in the foster care system, helping kids reach a positive outcome.
“I learned that I was loved,” McAlpine said of her time at Abbott House. “I learned to forgive myself for a lot of things that I did when I was kid. I learned how to control my anger and other ways to handle being said, instead of automatically wanting to kill myself or self-harm. … They gave me my family.”