"Alisa" tugs at her fingers and politely shrugs off belated condolences regarding the death of her mother four years ago.
"That's OK," the teen says.
Her mother was addicted to drugs and alcohol, the 17-year-old says, almost apologetically, and she and her siblings were forced to fend for themselves.
"She was not the best person. She really wasn't a very good mom," Alisa says quietly.("Alisa" is an alias the girl selected to protect her identity in this story.)
Alisa is one of five teens enrolled in the Community Works Treatment Foster Care program.
The program has space for 16 kids. But it desperately needs 10 more therapeutic foster families, says Gabe Dawson, program manager.
"We've got kids in need out there," Dawson says.
"We need to give these kids a chance, for themselves and for the next generation of kids. It's all about breaking the cycle."
Alisa's father is somewhere in Oklahoma, she thinks. At any rate, he did not have stable relationships with his dozen children, she says. When Alisa's mother died in 2005, the courts placed her in the foster-care system.
Neglected by her user mother and absentee father, Alisa's lack of proper parenting left her feeling socially awkward and struggling to connect.
"I had no boundaries," she says. "I was always hugging people when they didn't want to be hugged."
Alisa ran away from some of the foster homes in which she was placed prior to coming to the Community Works Treatment Foster Care program. She credits the combined efforts of the therapists and teachers at Lithia Springs school — and life in a new foster family — for helping her discover her self worth.
"I found a lot of my qualities in this program," Alisa says.
Currently a volunteer at three different locations, Alisa plans to attend college and become a nurse after she graduates high school.
"I always wanted to fill a need," she says. "I like to help people a lot."
Alisa and the other teens attend year-round classes and therapy at Lithia Springs school in Ashland. The foster parents and teens have 24-hour crisis support available from the treatment staff. Still, it is the teens who do the daily work to heal their lives, Dawson says.
"Each one of these kids is a hero," Dawson says. "The level of courage these kids exhibit every day is inspiring. They're doing the work. We just give them the skills."
Jenell Sattar, 29, along with her husband, Shireef, and two young daughters, are providing a foster family for two other teen girls in the Treatment Foster Care Program.
She and her husband admit they had initial fears about taking in troubled girls.
"I was worried about my girls. I was worried if they would fit in. I had fears all the way around," Jenell Sattar says.
But Shireef's mother, Liz Pyke, has been a foster parent for decades. The Sattars tested the waters by offering respite foster care, taking in teens when other foster parents would take the occasional weekend off. Now, as full-time treatment foster parents, they understand Pike's passion.
"The biggest surprise is how nice it feels," Jenell Sattar says.
The Sattar house rules are the same for her own two daughters and the two foster girls.
"They all have big hearts," Jenell Sattar says. "They want and need this structure and love."
A self-described bad girl in her own youth, Sattar says helping troubled youths navigate difficult teen years is her way of giving back to the community — and a way of acknowledging she was one of the lucky ones.
"I did drugs. I ran away. I can't imagine going through adolescence without a loving family to come home to."
One of Sattar's foster teens, a victim of emotional and physical abuse, struggles with honesty issues. Teaching the girl to be truthful is an exercise in trust, she says.
"(The teen) told lies to get out of trouble because if she got in trouble, she got hit," says Sattar. "We are teaching her that lies have consequences. But she won't get physically or psychologically wounded from it."
Eventually the girl told Sattar that she had been sexually abused.
"That was so sad. So, so sad," says Sattar.
The revelation forced Sattar to come to terms with her own history of sexual abuse. Subsequent counseling sessions provided insights into her own acting-out behaviors when she was a teen, she says.
"The program stepped right in and helped me so I could help her," Sattar says. "God forbid anything like that happen to my children. But I've gained skills to help them through traumatic experiences throughout their lives. I cannot say enough about this program."
Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 776-4497 or e-mail email@example.com.