Student finds hope at Trinidad State after troubled childhood
Trinidad Campus / April 25, 2016 / Written by Margaret Sanderson
Sammy Lopez knows what it’s like to be hungry. Before he was placed in foster care at age seven, he remembers his mother would trade her food stamps for beer. His dad was already out of the picture, so Lopez and his older brother, Miguel, would go out and steal food to feed themselves and their little sister. He would hide extra food around the home in case he needed it later --a habit he still hasn’t broken. “It just doesn’t go away,” said Lopez.
According to the FosterClub website (www.fosterclub.com), “Studies of youth who have left foster care have shown they are more likely than those in the general population to not finish high school, be unemployed, and be dependent on public assistance. Many find themselves in prison, homeless, or parents at an early age.” After age 18 one in five will become homeless, only half will be employed at age 24, and less than three per cent will earn a college degree.
But Lopez has beaten the odds. He came from Clovis, New Mexico to Trinidad State and enrolled in the diesel mechanics program. He is more hopeful than ever about his future. “Up to this point I don’t think I realized what I was doing. I think now that I’m here, I’m finally learning how to be an adult. This is me trying to better myself,” he said.
His first foster parents, Sharon and Bill, gave him the greatest thing he remembers - a childhood. “They took care of me.” said Lopez. “I remember being a kid, riding a bike, and playing with friends.” But that would only last three short years. Lopez was placed on Ritalin to control his hyperactivity. The addition of other drugs caused him to hallucinate. He was taken away from Sharon and Bill, who loved him, and placed in a psychiatric ward. Although his memory about that time is “fuzzy,” he remembers his confusion. “I had my friends and then it was all just gone one day,” Lopez said. “It was a place where time ceases, like prison.” From there he would be placed in other foster homes and occasionally returned to his biological mother who didn’t want to give up custody. “She was an alcoholic and had no intention of ever caring for me or my siblings.”
“The system doesn’t work,” he continued. “I was at one place and people show up and take you to another place. That’s what it is for a foster kid. You don’t have a home.” To this day Lopez sees Sharon and Bill as his parents and his biological parents simply as “Diane” and “Miguel.”
Though it is a blur now at age 29, he believes he was moved in and out of foster homes about 12 times. He was then placed in a group home at age 13. It was here that he developed “brother” deep friendships with two other guys, Cody and Cory. “Two years ago Cory was taken away from me. He was killed in Albuquerque. I’ll never know why,” Lopez said through tears. “I tried to help him. Part of what I’m doing now is to show…Cody that this is possible.”
His biological brother, Miguel, is in prison. He didn’t beat the odds. “It almost seems like people in prison cease to exist,” said Lopez who hasn’t seen his brother for years. Miguel spent most of his time as a foster child in psychiatric wards.
After the group home, at 17, Lopez was placed in semi-independent living where he had the option of going to school or working full time. He chose college and attended New Mexico Junior College in Hobbs, NM, for one semester. But he went wild. “I did nothing productive. I didn’t do things the right way,” he said. “Being a young teen-aged boy, you got a lot of problems to deal with. People don’t want to deal with you. You’re not their kid.”
“Transition from foster care to the real world is lacking,” added Lopez. “Even nowadays kids like me lack the skills to perform basic jobs, to complete a job fully, not half-assing stuff.”
Knowing he would need to get a job if he wasn’t in college, he found work at Ma Brown’s in Hobbs, NM, where he flipped hamburgers, listened to music and sang all day long. But he would soon return to Clovis to be closer to his sister Lisa who was still in foster care. (Today Lisa is 25, married, has two children and works as a medical technician.)
After his return to Clovis from Hobbs, Lopez bagged groceries at the military base with his sister and his first foster mom, Sharon. It was a happy time for him. But a friend in the service who was on recruiting duty asked Lopez if he would go talk to the recruiter. Lopez agreed and ended up enlisting with the Marine Corp on the spot. His first foster parent, Bill, was a Marine. “They don’t make them like that no more,” said Lopez. “Part of things that separated me from being something I didn’t want to be were the Marines in my life. They inspired me.” Unfortunately, after only six months, Lopez had to leave the Marines as a result of a debilitating knee injury he sustained there. He would begin civilian life working at an Allsup’s Convenience Store in Clovis, NM.
Across the street at a nursing home he would meet his future wife, Kayleigh.
He would move on to do landscaping and greenhouse work in the summer and cook during the winter. He progressed from flipping burgers and working at several fast-food restaurants to hiring on as an assistant chef for the civic center in Clovis, NM, where he would receive in-depth training about raising, cooking and serving good quality food. “It was good for me,” he said. He seriously considered culinary school and still loves to cook.
His training in the Marines served him well. With the addition of Law Enforcement Training, he secured a position as a Correctional Officer at the North East New Mexico Detention Facility in Clayton, New Mexico. He said, “Security mindedness comes from a battle background and from constantly being aware.” When he recognized several inmates in that facility that he knew from his foster care days, their initial reaction at first was to immediately reach for an embrace. But Lopez, recognizing the threat that could pose for everyone’s safety, struck a professional posture, quickly extended his arms straight out in front of him and said, “Step back. I’m not family. I’m Officer Lopez and you need to address me as Officer Lopez.”
He also worked as a Correctional Officer at PNM, the Penitentiary of NM in Santa Fe. “Whenever you’re there, you’re doing time with the inmates,” said Lopez. “You’re still locked in the same cage. Murderers, rapists, arsonists, baby killers, those that commit petty crimes – all are thrown in to the same pot. I did the same stupid s__t they did. I’m no better than anybody locked up. There was very little that separated me from them. I just didn’t get caught.”
To help support himself in Trinidad, he works weekends as a security guard for IPG (Iron Protection Group). They only employ veterans or people with law enforcement experience. He also creates tattoos whenever he can in the evenings. A tattoo lover with a talent for drawing, he’s an apprentice to a local tattoo artist. He created his first tattoo on his own leg.
His aspirations include the possibility of starting a martial arts program for youth, making a documentary about the plight of foster children and he definitely wants to get more schooling, maybe even try law school one day.