Three Little Words, One Huge Impact


On Monday, Oct. 23, St. Norbert College welcomed New York Times bestselling author Ashley Rhodes-Courter on campus for a speaking engagement. During this time, she spoke about her life in the foster care system and where she is now. Her talk was based on her book “Three Little Words.”

Rhodes-Courter spent almost a decade in the foster care system in 14 different homes before being adopted at the age of 12. She is the author of “Three Little Words” and “Three More Words”; both are books that talk about her experiences with the foster care system.

Rhodes-Courter is also the founder of the nonprofit Foundation for Sustainable Families, which provides services, education, organic food gardens and outreach for communities, foster and adoptive families, mothers and children. She has earned a bachelor’s degree in communications and theatre from Eckerd College and a master’s degree in social work from the University of Southern California.

Rhodes-Courter was introduced by Judge Marc Hammer, a part-time instructor of business administration at St. Norbert. Hammer is a member of the Wisconsin State Bar Association and has served on the Brown County Circuit Court bench since 2008. He practiced law from 1989 to 2008, focusing on civil litigations and family law matters.

Rhodes-Courter’s speaking engagement was hosted in partnership with the St. Norbert College Honors Program and Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) of Brown County. CASA is a nonprofit organization that advocates for abused and neglected children who are under the legal protection of the court system. Its vision, according to its website, is to ensure that “every child feels safe and secure in their home and in their heart.”

In her speech, Rhodes-Courter  mentioned that CASA is in desperate need of volunteers, especially males, since it is a volunteer-run organization.

The Honors Program at St. Norbert provides students that work with CASA and describes the students as “of outstanding intellectual ability, high motivation and broad interests with a learning environment that empowers them to achieve their maximum potential when pursuing truth, during collaboration and when responding to the needs of the local community.”

All students at St. Norbert College are welcome to volunteer with CASA.

Rhodes-Courter began her advocacy at the age of 13. She and her brother were placed in the foster care system when she was three years old, her brother being only nine months old.

Overall, she ended up spending ten years in the foster care system, where she and her brother were not always together. She stated that she had spent as little as one day in one house and as long as one year in another. As previously mentioned, she ended up with 14 different placements in total.

Not all of these placements were ideal. Rhodes-Courter described her placements in homes with people who were engaged with drugs, alcohol, violence and even pedophilia. In fact, she mentioned that she had lived in a trailer park with about 14 other children where many of these events unfortunately took place.

Rhodes-Courter stated that she had shared with several of her teachers and school counselors about the problems she was having at home, only for her to be branded as a “liar” and “troublemaker,” since no one seemed to believe her.

The author gave a specific example of the adverse situations she faced in some placements: she, at the age of 16, sat with her adoptive parents in the living room, watching the news when two mugshots came up. She looked closely at the photos and realized it was the foster parents she had lived with in the trailer home. They were arrested on 42 accounts of felonies, including child abuse and torture.

Rhodes-Courter expressed that at the time she felt relief and happiness that something was finally done about these abuses and crimes, but she stated that she then wanted  to do more than just be happy: she wanted to make a change in the foster care system so that something like that would not happen to another child in a similar situation.

At 17, Rhodes-Courter decided to enroll in a writing competition put on by the New York Times. Given the prompt of a “life-changing day,” she decided to write about the day she was adopted.

Unlike most people would think, it was not all “flowers and sunshine and happy,” Rhodes-Courter stated. She was frightened, since she did not know how long she was going to stay at that place and had to deal with many other uncertainties, as well. She titled the essay “Three Little Words,” and for that essay she won first place in the competition. Publishers immediately started contacting her, wanting to know her full story.

Today, Rhodes-Courter and her husband have fostered more than 25 kids in their household. She says the most gratifying part about fostering children is the fact that she can see the kids she fostered go back to loving and caring families. She ended her speaking engagement with a quotation from the Lorax, the main character from the eponymous Dr. Seuss book: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

And that’s exactly what Rhodes-Courter did. Because she did a whole awful lot, everything started to get better. It did.


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