EDMONDS — As a kid Adam Cornell learned some tough lessons.
Even before he started kindergarten he found out that alcohol, drugs and domestic violence can tear families apart. He learned that parents don’t always do what’s best for their children. The same goes for other adults, even if they
have good intentions.
Cornell grew up in the state’s foster care system. He had obstacles, sure. There were years of uncertainty, moments of rejection and countless times when it would have been easier to take a wrong turn.
Yet, there also were people who fought for the boy. They saw what he needed and found a way to give it to him. There were the moms who loved him fiercely. There were men who believed in his ability to succeed and gave him advice that still rings true.
They were foster parents, teachers, coaches and mentors.
“All these people loved me so much, taught me so much,” Cornell said. “I owe my success to them. Nobody gets through life on their own. We are a product of the people who show us the way.”
Cornell, a Snohomish County deputy prosecutor, will be the keynote speaker at tonight’s Youth Challenge awards ceremony at Edmonds Community College. The ceremony will honor young people who have made a difference through their leadership, courage, integrity, creativity, environmental service or ability to inspire others. Many have faced their own obstacles.
“We want to recognize kids for being outstanding. Many of them have extraordinary stories,” said Mike Neumeister, director of the Alderwood Boys & Girls Club.
The award program, now in its 21st year, is sponsored by the Rotary Club of Lynnwood, Journal Newspapers and Whidbey Island Bank. Local schools and parks departments also have contributed to the ceremony.
For the past two months, community members have been nominating middle and high schoolers they believe deserve recognition. The awards will be handed out tonight at 7 in Woodway Hall. The public is invited.
Over the years Cornell, 38, has shared his story with numerous community groups, often as part of their efforts to raise money or build awareness for child advocacy services. He never gives the same speech twice, but often talks about his own experiences in foster care.
Cornell, the oldest of four siblings, was turned over to the state at 8 after years of failed attempts to be reunited with his parents. They had hard-core addictions.
He and his siblings were split up. The state found permanent homes for his brothers and sister fairly quickly. Cornell’s path was rockier. He lived with one family for about a year with the understanding that they planned to adopt him.
“They were everything I never had,” Cornell said.
For reasons unknown to him at the time, they decided not to adopt Cornell, sending him back into foster care. He’d later learn that the couple was having marital problems and divorced. At the age of 14, Cornell was adopted by a single man in the Kenmore area. Three weeks before Cornell was to graduate from Woodinville High School, the man committed suicide.
Cornell had been accepted to Georgetown University. He considered not going. He had no financial support and no home.
That’s when his history teacher, Stebbins Rohrback, offered some advice that Cornell remembers even now.
“He said ‘What’s in the way is the way,'” Cornell recalled. “To me that meant you don’t run from challenges. You go through those challenges. You can’t run from or alter the past. You have to face it head on.”
With the support of his friends, Cornell attended college.
He also was adopted again. This time at the age of 23.
He’d met his mom at a United Way luncheon in King County. Cornell was speaking at the event in his role of as the Boys & Girls Club National Youth of the Year. After his adoptive father died, the woman reached out to Cornell. Six years later she made him her son.
“I tell people never to give up, always have faith,” Cornell said. “You’re never too old to have a happy childhood.”
Cornell recounts various other people who gave him love and support along the years. They weren’t his parents but they cared about a kid who needed parenting.
There was Stella Mae Carmichael, a foster mom who’d opened her home to more than 500 kids, many with troubled backgrounds.
Cornell went to live with her right after his mom gave him up.
“Stella wasn’t going to let me feel sorry for myself. She would never let me see myself as a victim,” Cornell said.
She made him do his homework, signed him up for Little League and introduced him to church.
“She loved me like crazy,” Cornell said.
There was Michael Johnson, his sixth-grade teacher.
“He was the first one to show me I could succeed,” Cornell said.
After college, Cornell spent time with the Peace Corps. He went on to attend law school, and helped write legislation in Oregon to get scholarships for former foster children attending college. He has worked for the prosecutors office for nearly a decade. He served as a special assistant U.S. attorney, prosecuting federal drug and weapons crimes from Snohomish County. He now works in the prosecutor office’s special assault unit, handling crimes against children and sexual assault cases.
Cornell continues to volunteer with child advocacy groups, giving back to the people who helped him.
Cornell recently spoked at a fundraiser, sharing a story about one of the federal cases he prosecuted. He told the audience that if it weren’t for Stella Mae Carmichael, Michael Johnson, Stebbins Rohrback and the others who supported him, he could have been the man on trial that day.
Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463; firstname.lastname@example.org.
For a list of the Youth Challenge award nominees and recipients, go to Heraldnet.com on Friday.