When they lost their house after their mother’s divorce, Andrew Strachan and his brother moved with her from one friend’s home to another, then to hotels, then to seedy motels and, finally, they lived with the friend of a friend, a grumpy old man the boys did not know.
Nine-year-old Andrew was in the middle of a book, “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” when his brother said they needed to talk. The boys decided they should leave Michigan and visit a relative in Gulfport until their mother got situated. She was working at a gentleman’s club and would hopefully be able to afford an apartment soon.
In Gulfport, Andrew was enrolled in fourth grade at Anniston Elementary School — his 11th school in a year. A protracted custody battle ensued. The boys were unable to return home. Life was more predictable but radically different in the South, where the boys had to learn their manners and were excluded from decisions considered better left to adults.
They adjusted, but home life grew chaotic once the custody battle settled in their Gulfport guardian’s favor. When Andrew was 16, social workers showed up at Gulfport High School. They asked a lot of questions and, when they had their answers, took Andrew and his brother to the Harrison County Emergency Children’s Shelter, a simple house that is part of the county’s youth court compound in Gulfport.
Andrew talked to the Sun Herald before Bow Ties & Beignets + Bacon, a community fundraiser for the shelter that will be held Friday morning at the Island View Tower Hotel. The inaugural event in 2015, organized by Gulfport businessman Chad Riemann and City Councilman R.Lee Flowers, raised $18,000 for the shelter.
The shelter means a great deal to Andrew. There, a village of workers and volunteers surrounded him. Looking back, Andrew believes God was there, too. Andrew found the love and stability he needed to pursue his passion.
“He's very focused on his goals,” said Roddy Russell, Andrew’s foster father. “He's always wanted to be a doctor since I've known him and now he's in medical school.”
Home at last
Shortly before he was taken to the shelter, Andrew had attended the youth group at First Presbyterian Church in Gulfport, where Russell is director of youth and church administrator. The friend who invited Andrew to church asked Russell if he would visit the teenager at the shelter.
Russell, who has a background in psychology, went to the shelter and talked to Andrew, who before long said he wanted to live with the Russells and bring his brother, too. Roddy and Lucy Russell, who had two children of their own, prayed about it and became certified foster parents so they could take in the boys.
Andrew wanted to finish school in Gulfport because he was doing well and had his heart set on medical school.
Another key figure entered his life at the shelter, where most of the children were much younger than Andrew and his brother. Shelter volunteer Cecilia Pakron, married to a doctor, invited the boys into her home for visits and took them on outings. Andrew saw another life was possible. He ate dinner with the Strachans at Bayou Bluff Tennis Club, watched Saints games with die-hard fan Cecilia Pakron and absorbed advice from her husband, Frederick Pakron, about the path to medical school.
Andrew’s months in the shelter stayed with him. He remembers the steady stream of children — many of them babies, toddlers and pre-schoolers — who found safety in the arms of a loving staff and volunteers. The children were fed, clothed and nurtured.
“They really made it the best situation for us,” Andrew said. “They treated us with a lot of respect and made us feel like we had a welcoming family that was on our side.”
Dream in progress
The judge, court and shelter staff, along with his foster parents, went to work for Andrew to make sure he could get the education he wanted. Grants and scholarships put the young man through school at Mississippi College in Jackson, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry, certified by the American Chemical Society, plus biology and chemical sciences.
He started medical school last week at the University Medical Center in Jackson.
He still visits the youth shelter and volunteers there when he can.
“They never stopped supporting me,” Andrew said. “They're still in my life. They told me that they're proud of me and they're here for me.”
Roddy Russell says the young man he considers his son, now 23 years old, is a deep thinker. Andrew thought a long time before he announced a decision in the summer of 2015.
He and the Russells had been through a lot together by then. Andrew teared up, one of the only times Roddy Russell has seen him cry. The young man told the couple, ‘I just want to tell you and Lucy that I'm going to call you mom and dad because that's what you are to me now.’ From then on, he's called us mom and dad.”
Two weeks ago, the Russells were with Andrew at his white coat ceremony, his induction into medical school at UMC. He’s in the class of 2020. Because of all he’s been through, Andrew is a compassionate young man. The Russells know he will make a difference in many lives as a physician.
“We were very proud,” Roddy Russell said. “We were holding back emotions because of everything he's been through and we've been through and to realize the cycle can be broken, not only for his family but for the kids to come.”
How to help
Send donations for the Harrison County Emergency Children’s Shelter to P.O. Box 7017, Gulfport, MS, 39506. The shelter plans to use donations from this years Bow Ties & Beignets + Bacon fundraiser to buy new mattresses and bedding for the children. The shelter has 24 beds and nine cribs.