One word springs to mind to describe local Coronado local, Ashley Linder: phenomenal!
It is phenomenal that Linder -- with her vibrant, positive personality and impressive achievements: CrossFit and CrossFit Kids certified coach, professional athlete, university graduate, Navy veteran, and founder of non-profit organization, LinderKids -- is a survivor of childhood trauma and abuse, and a former foster child.
LinderKids sponsors local foster kids with CrossFit gym memberships, with the intention to positively impact their lives. It was Linder’s time spent in the foster care system that helped inspire her to create LinderKids -- to help youth with a similar background.
Born in El Cajon, San Diego, Linder, 28, and her younger brother, 26, grew up in a turbulent family environment and were subjected to severe neglect at the hands of their biological parents, “My parents suffered from substance abuse,” Linder explains, and recalls the day she and her brother were removed from their parents’ custody for the first time, “I remember being left in a van; I was wearing this little, cute striped skirt and matching top. My brother was really young; I was maybe four or five. My parents had gotten into a fight and had left us in a park. A couple of hours later, police officers came.” Subsequently, Linder and her brother entered the foster care system and were placed in several foster homes over the next two years.
Photo: Ashley Linder. Photo credit: LinderKids
Whilst in foster care, Linder’s parents separated and divorced, “In the court proceeding for custody my father essentially lied about his substance abuse and he regained custody of me and my brother.” Linder and her brother returned to El Cajon to live with their father, where the abuse continued, “When our father got custody of us he slowly and progressively started abusing us. He’d do really bad things, especially to my brother in the form of torture. My father was awake at night with shady people, and then asleep during the day where we would have to tip toe around him.”
Despite the turbulent, stressful family environment, Linder, then nine years old, strived to maintain normalcy by taking on adult, care-giving roles, “I would take my brother grocery shopping. We would go to church; I’d put on my cute sun dress, and we would ride our bikes to church. That was actually the turning point for me when I got to that age. I’d had a couple of sleep overs and I started to become aware of other people’s living situations; I realized that ours was wrong. Around that time my father started being sexually abusive to me and I quickly realized that is not how a relationship between a father and child should be.” Amazingly, at the tender age of nine, Linder consciously took matters into her own hands to stop the abuse.
Linder recounts the sequence of events that led to moment the abuse from her father finally ended, “I made a plan to get my brother and me out. I didn’t know how else to do it other than to tell the police as the police are supposed to protect you. My brother and I used to ride our bicycles to school, so I ditched my brother on the way to school. It was a Friday and I went to my Mom’s apartment and told her she needed to call the police, and if she didn’t, I would. I thought the police would take an adult more serious than a kid, so I had her call. A female police officer came over and I told her the whole story. I remember walking through my school with the police officer to pick up my brother. I felt so proud and so safe. The morning that I left my father’s apartment, I knew it would be the last time I was ever there. As I was closing the door I remember thinking if I should take my pogo stick and my pet rat.”
Linder and her brother were sent to the Polinksy Children’s Center, a 24-hour facility in San Diego, which provides temporary emergency shelter to children who have been separated from their families for their own safety. There Linder and her brother went through an interview process with potential foster parents, “My brother and I went to a couple of foster homes in San Diego. Then my Mom’s twin sister and her husband, in New Hampshire, became our new foster parents. However, we were still wards of the State of California.”
It was in New Hampshire, Linder encountered the first adult to have a positive impact on her life, “I had a really good relationship with my uncle. He treated me like one of his kids. He was very supportive of me being involved in track and cross country. I’d never had the opportunity to participate in sports when I was younger.”
Despite a turbulent, traumatic childhood; multiple foster homes and schools, Linder was able to keep her grades up and eventually earn a university degree in Kinesiology from Arizona State University -- a truly extraordinary feat seeing as only 50% of foster children in the United States achieve a high school diploma, and less than 3% complete tertiary education.
After completing university, Linder worked as a nanny, which led her to Tuscon where she worked in a restaurant owned by a retired Navy Seal. Inspired by her boss and the local military community, at the age of 21, Linder joined the Navy for three years until she was medically retired. It was during her time in the Navy she discovered CrossFit.
CrossFit is a fitness regime which understands the power of community and the importance of human connection. It aims to improve muscular strength, cardio-respiratory endurance, and flexibility. CrossFit’s workout program is varied, taking inspiration from weight lifting, gymnastics, and aerobic exercise. CrossFit.com explains, “CrossFit is an education about movement, fitness, nutrition and community. All of these things require responsibility, common sense, and work to educate oneself using all the tools available in the community.”
Photo: Ashley Linder. Photo credit: LinderKids.
With a love for CrossFit ignited in her heart, Linder bought a motorcycle and returned to California to be closer to her brother. She moved to Coronado, choosing it because it was safe. Linder joined the local CrossFit gym to maintain her fitness and meet people.
Linder’s personal experience in the foster care system, combined with her resilient, determined nature, her desire to “put love into the world and make a difference,” and her love of CrossFit influenced her decision to create non-profit organization, LinderKids. The group's mission is to “positively impact the lives of eligible foster children” through fitness and community. Exercise, in addition to its physical benefits, is known to improve cognitive function, self esteem, and mental and emotional health. The vast majority of foster youth experience a deficit in these areas due to their traumatic backgrounds.
Linder describes the organization’s function, saying “LinderKids connects foster kids with gyms and pays their membership. We vet the gym; make sure they have the appropriate background checks and certifications required for working with children; and check that they are a good gym.” Linder Kids sponsorship comes with strict conditions for the beneficiaries, too. “They [eligible foster youth] have to earn it, and respect themselves. They have to keep their grades up at school, and do community service hours -- designed on an individual basis, something very manageable. In return, just like other sponsored athletes, everything is paid for, they are given the right equipment [clothing and athletic shoes] and we make sure they are looked after.” The reasoning behind the community service component of the sponsorship is that it enables foster youth to make a contribution and positively impact their community, which ultimately is empowering.
Issues facing foster youth are alarming. Many foster kids are victims of trauma and abuse; having been denied a loving, healthy and structured environment in their original family setting. Many foster youth have not been taught basic life skills, usually modeled to children by their parents. Frequent moves between foster homes and multiple schools allow little opportunity to maintain lasting relationships and friendships. Life continues to be challenging when foster youth age out of the foster care system into adulthood. They are left to fend for themselves in a world they have not been adequately prepared to navigate. Research shows that teens with at least one supportive adult or mentor have a greater chance at success in life, and this is where LinderKids makes a difference.
“Foster kids need support and they don’t get it from a lot of avenues. Through the support of LinderKids, they can walk into a CrossFit gym…they think they are just going to work out for an hour, but what they are really doing is building relationships, improving interpersonal skills, setting goals for themselves, learning their strengths and weaknesses and working on them. They are learning about integrity: putting the right weight on their bar, putting the right time up on the board, and being honest with themselves and other people.They are part of a team, a team they can be part of year round. When they walk in [the gym] they are not a foster kid, they are an athlete. They have unlimited potential. It’s a challenge [for them] over a long period of time, but they have little victories along the way- a PR [personal record] here, a new time there. The kids are high-fiving and fist-bumping. It’s an overall positive experience where they learn life skills that are applicable to the outside world. The community aspect is the biggest thing, I think, the kids take away from Crossfit.”
Foster parents receive minimal funding for extra curricular activities. They typically have multiple foster children and also children of their own, “It would take somebody to have no job…it would be very time consuming to drive all their children to games and practice. It is a luxury that many kids don’t have. We want to make it as easy as possible for the foster parents and for the foster children,” Linder explains.
Photo Credit: LinderKids
With Linder’s drive and infectious determination, it is no doubt that LinderKids will continue to grow and succeed, ultimately improving the lives of foster youth. LinderKids' 501(c)(3) is currently pending, but as a non-profit organization, LinderKids relies on donations from the community. If you feel inclined to help, donations can be made can made on the LinderKids website here. Additionally, readers can spread the word about LinderKids’ selfless work by buying a shirt, or following and sharing the organization on Facebook and Instagram.
LinderKids has several of upcoming fundraiser events, the first being a silent auction in Coronado scheduled for January 2015. The second event, in affiliation with Guinness World Records, an attempt at setting the female world record for pull-ups in 24 hours, as a way to raise awareness for foster youth and to help raise funds to sponsor LinderKids athletes.
Linder is open to making connections with people or organizations who may be able to donate their time, skills and advice to help improve and promote LinderKids, “I have only gotten this far by asking,” says Linder.
LinderKids finds athletes via social workers, group homes, schools and other non-profit organizations. Aspiring athletes can make contact with LinderKids here, to apply for sponsorship.
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