Agency helps George Fox student get back on her feet

Pregnant and 16, Cassie Ashcraft was sure she could handle motherhood. After all, she’d taken care of her younger siblings since she was 8.

She would marry her unborn daughter’s teenage dad. Somehow, they’d scrape together enough money to care for the baby. They’d have to live with her family and endure her mother’s abusive boyfriends. And Ashcraft wouldn’t be offered help for her anorexia and depression. She’d regret giving up her dreams of going to college and becoming a teacher.

But somehow, it would all turn out OK. Photo Credit: GARY ALLEN - Back on track - Cassie Ashcraft is studying math as a student at George Fox University.

If she’d taken that path, Ashcraft reflected three years later, “I either wouldn’t be (alive) or I would have a horrible life. I wouldn’t have found hope again.”

Instead, Ashcraft found Saint Child maternity house in Hillsboro (formerly House of Ruth). She delivered her daughter. She took parenting classes and had counseling. She rediscovered her faith, graduated from high school and got into college.

She’s now living in Gaston, attending George Fox University, leading a Bible study at Gaston’s Wapato Valley Church, working at Forest Grove High School’s Community Learning Center — and raising a 2-year-old daughter.

Sitting outside on a sunny day in Newberg, dressed for gym class at George Fox, Ashcraft said she owes her new life to Cindy and Skip Sorum, who were the house parents at Saint Child while she lived there with her newborn daughter for two years.

“I was encouraged constantly,” Ashcraft said. “My life wasn’t over. ‘You can come back from this. You can be a good parent.’ That’s what you need to hear after everything you’ve been through.”

Saint Child recently moved to Beaverton, so the Sorums are now fundraising to start up a similar home, Saving Grace, in Hillsboro under West Valley Community Church, a nonprofit agency.

Most of the mothers Cindy Sorum worked with in Forest Grove were either homeless or living in abusive homes, she said. She’s seen many girls get back on their feet and maintains relationships with most, including Ashcraft.

“Cindy and Skip are my parents. My mom was there but she was never a mom,” said Ashcraft, now 19. “Cindy was the first person I told I was cutting myself. She was there with me when I realized my relationship with my mom wasn’t healthy or normal. She was there when my daughter was born. She taught me to drive. She helped me get into college and get a huge scholarship.”

A lot happened before Ashcraft came to know the Sorums. When she was in eighth-grade living with her family in eastern Oregon, Ashcraft’s dad was arrested and imprisoned. Ashcraft soon found herself in Washington, living with her family and her mom’s abusive boyfriend, Stan (Ashcraft requested that his real name be withheld for safety reasons).

The physical torment from Stan was limited — he pushed Ashcraft down the stairs once — but the threats and psychological punishments were constant, she said. She and her siblings weren’t allowed to talk. They had things thrown at them. They stood in a corner for days at a time as punishment, breaking only for school and the bathroom, she said.

By the time she was 16, Ashcraft said, she’d been anorexic for seven years. She was cutting herself and attempted suicide more than once. She’d also had a continuous string of boyfriends since seventh-grade. “I wanted a man’s approval,” she said.

But some of her interactions with men turned bad. Ashcraft said she was raped three times by three separate family acquaintances. Each time, her mom persuaded her not to report the crimes.

Ashcraft said she had planned to remain abstinent until she was married, but by the time she met Josh, a high school classmate who soon became her boyfriend, “there was nothing left to save.”

Ashcraft was a sophomore when she went to the hospital after hitting her head on the bathtub — and left knowing she was two-and-a-half months pregnant.

She was shocked. After all, she was on birth control pills. In addition, her cycle was irregular due to her eating disorder.

Ashcraft and Josh started “looking at baby stuff (they) couldn’t afford,” she said. “I was going to marry him and everything would turn out OK.”

But one night Ashcraft’s mom and Stan got into a dangerous fight. “I thought for sure he was going to kill her,” Ashcraft recalled.

That sparked her family to flee to a domestic-abuse refuge home in McMinnville.

Ashcraft was lonely there, even among other families. Being pregnant, she didn’t fit in with the girls her age. But she didn’t fit with the other pregnant women, either, because she was so much younger.

She couldn’t talk to Josh, who’d remained in Washington, because there was no phone reception at the home (a precaution for women escaping abusers).

She and Josh broke up on and off throughout her pregnancy, and eventually called it quits.

A woman at the refuge home made an appointment for Ashcraft at Saint Child, but she was reluctant to visit. She arrived there feeling scared and lost.

But after an introductory tour, “I loved it,” Ashcraft said. “I loved the house; I loved the environment.”

She took her bag of clothes and even bigger bag of books and left her family behind. “The thought of leaving my siblings behind with my mom was scary,” Ashcraft said. “I was worried about what would happen to them and still do, but I knew I needed to give my kid a better life than I’d had. If I stayed with my family I knew her life would be just like mine.”

When Ashcraft said goodbye to her mom and walked into Saint Child, Cindy Sorum said, “I remember thinking this girl was way too young to have that much on her shoulders. She needed someone to take care of her.”

Ashcraft still has the scar from her first night at Saint Child when she carved ‘useless’ into her thigh with a mechanical pencil. “You’re broken; you feel like you’re not worth anything,” she recalled. But that attitude changed after parenting classes, church, Bible study and counseling.

“You realize you’re important; your future is important; your baby is important ... Cindy taught me I needed to focus on me and my daughter and my dreams,” said Ashcraft, who always loved school and was a dedicated math team member before her pregnancy.

“I saw how much my life changed when I got away from my family and I thought, ‘I want this for my daughter.’”

After graduating from Century High School, where there’s a nursery for students with children, Ashcraft attended Pacific University for one year. She transferred to George Fox this fall seeking a more Christian-friendly environment and is majoring in math.

When Saving Grace gets off the ground, Ashcraft hopes to get involved in any way she can.

“These girls need a place; they don’t know how to be parents,” Ashcraft said. “It’s not just a place to eat and sleep. You mature so much. You need that stability and you need all the rules.”

On a sunny October day, Ashcraft grabbed her bookbag and left campus to pick up her daughter and plunge into her studies. Looking tired but happy, she sounds much older than she looks.

“Everything did turn out OK,” she said, “just in a totally different way.”

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