Christy Adams is a 20-year-old Earth science major hoping to graduate next year.
On March 25, she stood in front of almost 40 area business and community members and talked about her childhood.
Adams became a part of the foster care system when she was 12 or 13. She said she was mentally, physically and sexually abused as a child.
"At the time I was coming into foster care I was living in parks in Beaver Dam and stealing food from grocery stores just to get by," Adams said.
She said the foster system gave her a place "where I could pretty much heal."
"I've had tons of opportunities. I've been all around the world. I would never have had those opportunities if I wasn't in foster care," Adams said.
Adams said she still deals with issues including depression and money problems.
She was speaking to the group as part of "Journey Home," a program that gives community business people an opportunity to experience what life might be like for a child entering the foster care system.
"[Entering foster care] is never easy. There's nothing you can do to make it easier," Adams said.
"I think if you want to make it easier just give a kid time. Don't berate them and stand over their shoulders. They need room to just grow and come out of their shell."
The child welfare or foster care system has been around for almost 110 years, according to Ken Taylor, executive director of Wisconsin Council on Children and Families.
He said more than half the children come into foster care because of neglect. The second highest issue is sexual abuse.
"Journey Home" was sponsored by Adoption Resources of Wisconsin and Jockey Being Family.
Jockey International chairman and CEO Debra Waller said adoption is something very close to her heart because she was adopted as a child and her son is adopted.
"Adoption and foster care still has a stigma to it. It's not their fault that they're in the foster care system," Waller said. "For most of us here, we can't imagine what those experiences are because we haven't been through them ourselves. That's why I think it's incredible and important that we see things through the eyes of a child."
Oriana Carey, a program director for Adoption Resources of Wisconsin, led participants through a situation where they were asked to imagine they were children about to be taken into foster care.
"I have determined that the home you live in is no longer safe. You have that garbage bag and you have about 30 minutes to pick the things that you would like to take with you. Your new family doesn't have room for a pet, so you can forget about that," Carey said.
In Dodge County in 2009, there were 645 abuse allegations involving children. Of those allegations, 374 were investigated and 53 children were taken into foster care.
Of the 71 children in foster care in 2009, around 53 percent eventually returned home. Seven percent turned 18, 11 percent were adopted and 29 percent stayed in foster care.
The "Journey Home" group also heard from a pediatrician, a Beaver Dam detective, a group home manager, a judge, a foster family and an adoptive parent.
Judge Brian Pfitzinger said he tries to ask children who come through his court what they think.
"A lot of times, it's not their fault. Frankly it had nothing to do with them other than they happened to be born to certain parents who dropped the ball," Pfitzinger said.
Adoptive parent Jack Hankes said he has two adopted sons and a recently adopted daughter.
"A lot of these kids are like M&Ms. When you have a foster kid, they're kind of tough and colorful on the outside, but they're soft and they melt on the inside," Hankes said.
He spoke to the group about his two sons, now 18 and 20, who came into his life at ages 3 and 5.
He said he and his wife were the 5-year-old's sixth foster home.
"At the handoff, grandma described him as 'spirited.' We decided later that that was a woefully inadequate adjective. We quickly knew that we were in for quite an adventure. His opening act was to kick his kindergarten teacher," Hankes said.
He said one thing almost all adoptive parents have to do at some point in their lives is answer a question.
"It's a really neat question in a way, because well-answered, it takes the form of an executive summary. My wife and I have three adopted kids. The most recent is an adorable young lady with Hispanic features," Hankes said.
"Now nearly 5, it's only a matter of time before she asks the question."
He said despite years of preparation and thought on his part, his response will likely be "so lame, so incomplete that it will be laughable."
He said, "She and I will probably be doing something innocuous someday, like noshing on fruit loops or something, and out of the blue she will look up at me with those huge eyes and say, 'Dad, how come I don't look like you?'"