By Alison Bell
When Briana Cushman, 26, volunteers with the children who reside at Hillsides, she tells them something that’s guaranteed to elicit a big reaction: She once lived there, too.
“At first, the kids don’t believe it,” says Briana, who is events co-chair for Hillsides Volunteer Network (HVN), a support group that puts on monthly activities for the children. “But then I explain that they can pursue everything they want in life. They can move on from the past and find success.”
Briana is living proof of this.
She entered the foster care system at age three, and cycled through 10 different foster homes, group homes, and relatives’ homes. She suffered from extreme mental and physical trauma. “During this time I lost sight of hope,” she says. “I didn't know who was there to protect me and I didn't trust anyone.”
In 2003 when Briana was 13, she came to live at Hillsides Residential Treatment Services, which serves 125 children annually. There, she immediately felt the difference between Hillsides and her other placements.
“From day one, I was refreshed by the friendly staff that was real and loving,” she says.
Where before the only message she’d received from adults was that she wasn’t worth anything, “The staff gave me the guidance I needed to learn that I am good, that I can be somebody,” she remembers. “It was the first place where I felt like I could grow in a positive, not negative, way.”
She specifically remembers one staff member, campus supervisor Joseph “Jo Jo” White, who still works at Hillsides. “He had this incredibly calm presence,” she says. “You could yell and scream and he’d stay cool, never get upset. He was also a good listener, and that’s hard to find.”
In 2005, Hillsides helped arrange for Briana to live with a caring aunt who provided Briana with love and stability. She went on to attend U.C. Irvine and work as a nanny.
Two years ago, Hillsides contacted Briana to profile her in a feature on former residents for the donor newsletter. The call was “perfect timing,” says Briana. “I had been wanting to reconnect, and I knew it would be a positive, healing experience.”
After being featured in the newsletter, Hillsides invited Briana to speak at an HVN event in the fall of 2014. For the first time in almost 10 years, Briana stepped foot on campus again.
Walking around the cottages where she once lived, she was flooded with positive memories. She ran into a few staff members she knew, and recognized several of the HVN volunteers from her days as a resident.
She turned to her then-fiancé and now-husband Brady and said, “We should join HVN.” He agreed, and they signed up that night.
Briana and Brady immediately became close friends with many of the HVN members, who threw her a bridal shower last fall. “It feels so wonderful for both of us to be part of this group,” says Briana. “They are like a second family to me.”
A lot has happened to Briana since she got back in touch with Hillsides. In February, 2015, she was the speaker at Hillsides annual gala where she told her story in front of 400 guests. Following the gala, she became the HVN events co-chair and Brady stepped up to become the chairman of the group. In November, 2015, she and Brady were married in a beautiful ceremony attended by several HVN members, and now she’s pregnant with her first child.
Briana says she looks forward to nurturing her child the way she was nurtured at Hillsides – with caring, compassion, and understanding.
And while she can’t begin to predict what career her child – and the three others she eventually hopes to have -- will pursue in life, she does have a plan for where they will volunteer: Hillsides.