Ka Wai Ola

Billie-Ann Bruce isn’t sure how many foster homes she has lived in. Originally from Puna, Billie was placed into foster care at birth and was in and out of the system her entire childhood.

She “aged out” of the system while still in high school, so Billie enrolled in Imua Kākou, a Salvation Army program which offers assistance for youth transitioning out of foster care. They helped Billie rent a room from a friend so she could finish at Pāhoa High School.

After graduating, Billie moved to Hilo, determined to go to college. “I always knew I wanted to go to college,” said Billie. She had a job and applied for scholarships to cover tuition. Academic success her first year at HCC opened the door to additional scholarships. Now a junior at UH Hilo, Billie is working on degrees in Administration of Justice and Psychology, while concurrently working on a pre-law certificate. She dreams of attending law school at UH Mānoa.

At 17 Billie joined EPIC ʻOhana’s HI HOPES, a Youth Leadership Board for youth ages 14-26 who are, or have been, in foster care. Through HI HOPES Billie is able to provide a voice of experience for the board and its mission to educate, advocate and collaborate with community partners to help improve outcomes for current and former foster youth. Today Billie is president of East Hawaiʻi’s HI HOPES Youth Leadership Board. “I see myself as a bridge. This helps community leaders see foster care from the perspective of young people receiving services to understand what isn’t working.”

Photo :Billie-Ann Bruce with hānai grandpa
Billie-Ann Bruce with hānai grandpa “Uncle Mabel”
(Noboru Kajiyama). – Photos: Courtesy

Billie now works for EPIC ʻOhana as a Youth Partner and has become a peer-certified specialist providing mentoring and support to foster children. This includes working with the Department of Health because many young people in foster care are coping with traumatic experiences. Says Billie, “youth are more able to open up and connect with people closer to their age who understand what they are going through. They don’t feel judged which allows for honest conversations and the realization that what happened to us wasn’t our fault. It was just a bad situation.”

In terms of her own journey and exceptional resilience Billie says she just always believed that there was a better way to live. “I knew I just needed to take a step back, look at the situation, and proceed in a way that made sense.”

Photo: Billie-Ann Bruce
With a passion for helping others, Billie-Ann Bruce hopes to use her education to give back and inspire change in her community.

A huge positive influence in Billie’s life when she was in elementary school was her father’s “hānai” dad, who they affectionately called “Uncle Mable.” Uncle Mable was Noboru Kajiyama, an elderly man with no children who took in Billie’s family until he passed away.

Those were wonderful years for Billie. Uncle Mabel loved to spend time with her and even helped Billie learn to read. “Through Uncle Mabel I experienced giving and love,” smiles Billie. “He was the most amazing guy. He let a whole family move in with him so they wouldn’t be homeless. Because of him I am able, in turn, to give that love out.”

Another positive influence in Billie’s life has been foster mom “Julie” who Billie lived with during her last two years of high school until aging out of the foster care system.

Billie is Hawaiian on her mom’s side, but she never knew much about Hawaiian culture. None of her foster parents were Hawaiian. “If Hawaiian families are able to help foster kids keep connected to their culture it could mean everything,” Billie emphasized. “For me that was a missing link.”

Photo: HI HOPES Youth Leadership Board
The HI HOPES. Youth Leadership Board, comprised of current and former foster youth, helps to educate others on the experiences and needs of those affected by foster care and advocate for improvements in the child welfare system.

Showing wisdom and grace beyond her years, Billie said, “As you get older you gain perspective. You understand that your parents are just humans who needed to survive. Things that seemed cut and dry actually have more substance. It’s forgiveness, but it’s also understanding that people just don’t know. It’s trying to learn from that person. There is always a reason for the actions we choose.”

Billie sees herself becoming a foster parent some day. “I want to give back. Part of my kuleana is to do that too. I’ve been blessed in spite of everything that wasn’t amazing in my life. I had people who helped me. I want to help young people coming up.”

EPIC ʻOhana received grants from OHA in FY 18-19 and again in FY 20-21 to support the program’s ʻImi ʻIke Learning Centers on Oʻahu and in Hilo which use culture-based pedagogy to help Native Hawaiian youth in foster care meet or exceed reading and math standards, achieve yearly grade promotion, and graduate on schedule.