FARGO-For nearly 10 years, Ashley Rhodes-Courter bounced around the Florida foster care system, enduring situations where she was beaten or starved and often separated from her younger brother.

Only when school counselors and a few helpful mentors truly listened to her did her life begin to change, and she was adopted at the age of 12. By the time she was 13, Rhodes-Courter decided to become an advocate for children in foster care.

Proper child care as well as early intervention and mental health services were not available to her at the time, but she said they could have made a significant difference in her life.

Rhodes-Courter shared her message of perseverance with an audience of more than 800 women at the 17th annual United Way Women United Luncheon Thursday, Nov. 2, at the Delta Hotels by Marriott Fargo, 1635 42nd St. S.

Rhodes-Courter described what her life looked like after her mother lost custody of her and her 9-month-old brother - moving from home to home, staying with a new family for as little as one day to perhaps a few months. She said she changed schools twice a year until seventh grade and briefly moved to North Carolina to live with her violent, alcoholic grandfather.

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Rhodes-Courter and her brother once lived with 16 children in a two-bedroom mobile home with foster parents who would later be charged with more than 40 counts of felony child abuse and torture.

Yet despite the terrible circumstances of her childhood, Rhodes-Courter found hope and a purpose. After she was adopted, Rhodes-Courter convinced her parents to hire a child rights attorney to file a class action lawsuit on her behalf, which resulted in several foster care system laws being changed.

"I am grateful for the women who stood up for me and gave me the confidence to take on that challenge," she said.

Thanks to those women and her adopted family, Rhodes-Courter experienced many "typical" childhood milestones like playing sports, being embarrassed by her parents, attending prom. She went to college, was walked down the aisle by her father and welcomed her first baby with her mother in the room. She had found her community - the people who would be by her side forever.

"The reality of kids not finding a community is that 50 percent or less graduate from high school, and less than 3 percent go on to higher education," Rhodes-Courter said.

Several times, she referenced United Way's work to help children succeed through early intervention programs, mental health services and access to child care, and the critical importance of those necessities at an early age.

"Stories like mine are possible because of the work you are doing," Rhodes-Courter said. She sadly reported that her brother's story didn't unfold like hers - last month she learned he overdosed and died at the age of 29.

"So when I tell you how profound your work is, I'm not saying that because I have to," she said. "What you have done, are doing and, most importantly, will do saves lives."

Following Rhodes-Courter's keynote, a short video highlighted Irma Ciber, a Fargo woman who escaped a gas explosion in Bosnia with her younger sister. She volunteered with her employer, Border States Electric, during the school supply drive only to realize she and her sister were recipients of backpacks during the inaugural event 19 years ago.

"This community has given us so much," Ciber said in the video. "It's not just about a backpack - it's about seeing a kid's face light up when they have what they need for school. We have so much power to make a difference and help the younger generation do well."

All proceeds from the lunch and silent auction will be directed toward United Way's effort to meet its bold goal of preparing children to succeed.