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A dream made reality

Rand Getlin, who was adopted by a prominent West Linn family, has made the most of a fairy tale opportunity
by: Vern Uyetake, Rand Getlin, a West Linn High School graduate and current USC Law School student, shows off family photos at his home in the Barrington Heights neighborhood.

The correlation may sound trivial, considering the sobering start to life for Rand Getlin.

But the West Linn High School graduate barely hesitates when offering the unique comparison while telling his story.

'Have you ever seen the show 'Fresh Prince of Bel Air?'' he said recently in a brief moment of relaxation during holiday break from his classes at the University of Southern California Law School. 'I felt exactly like that.'

Getlin's tale of growing up in North Portland - first in a dysfunctional household then in various foster homes - and ultimately being taken in by a prominent West Linn family, closely resembles the premise of the 1990s sitcom. In 'The Fresh Prince of Bel Air,' a young man is rescued from the Los Angeles ghetto by well-to-do relatives.

'It certainly was a step up,' Getlin said of his story line.

Getlin's life is certainly one of Hollywood-like conjure, a success story that has gone against all odds.

After spending the first 12 years of life in Los Angeles with his single father, Getlin, formerly Johnson, came to Portland to live with his mother and her new husband.

One bad turn after another - the all too common occurrences of life in underprivileged Portland - led to this ultimate rags to riches story.

Today, among Getlin's long list of accomplishments include his acceptance into USC Law, a congressional internship and becoming one of the founding members of an emerging libertarian think tank.

He was officially adopted by the West Linn couple of Jaye Taylor and Lon Getlin three years ago, completing a life transformation and providing a study in how almost unlimited resources and opportunity, combined with a realization of one's potential, can change a preordained destiny.

'The way I look at things is I've made it essentially through the fire, standing here today,' Getlin said. 'I think by not sharing my story I would be doing kids a disservice.'

Making the most of his opportunity

To say Getlin, 24, is a force to be reckoned with - perhaps even one of our nation's future leaders - is an understatement. The charisma and intelligence that has captured the attention of political leaders is coupled with the ability to relate to a struggling inner-city student who lives on the fringe of the law.

Getlin has used the foundation of his challenging upbringing and built upon it the framework to succeed. Along with his USC roommate, Matt Harrison, a graduate of the University of Miami, Getlin is one of the founding members of the Prometheus Institute, a libertarian public policy think tank. The organization calls itself 'the future of politics,' providing a discussion of ideas from both sides of the fence rather than engaging in the usual political bickering.

'I feel like my experiences have given me the ability to analyze all sides of a position, or at least more sides than the average person,' said Getlin, who serves as Prometheus' outreach director.

The organization is getting noticed, too.

Over the holiday break, Getlin and Harrison met with Lawrence Reed, the president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, in Naples, Fla. Prometheus also recently secured a $23,000 grant. And during the winter semester at USC, they are planning trips to Michigan, New York and Atlanta to meet with various other think tanks to continue their organization's drive to legitimacy.

'I could do this for the rest of my life,' he said.

Getlin's political transformation began when he accepted a congressional internship with former Republican Sen. Larry Craig, of all people, in 2004. Craig, of course, would later make dubious headlines after an incident in an airport bathroom. But at the time it was his 'political awakening' for Getlin.

'It opened my mind to both sides of the aisle,' Getlin said. 'I started realizing that republicans have some very important ideas and so do democrats. And that's where the libertarian ideals come from.'

Getlin was eventually offered a job with the Craig staff as a foreign relations assistant and spent three months in Washington, D.C.

Getlin has also worked as an assistant deputy political director for Sen. John Kerry's presidential campaign. And he has delivered speeches before various organizations such as the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute, the PEW Commission on Children in Foster Care and the U.S. Senate Black Legislative Staff Caucus.

'When he went back to D.C. to give the speech (at the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institution), it was a very expensive fund-raiser, and he's up on stage with a giant screen behind him, and he gave a talk about what it really means to have a family,' Taylor said. 'He had everybody in the audience in tears.'

But Getlin's future wasn't always so bright. Considering his early upbringing, Getlin says he is glad to even be alive.

'It's like a fairy tale,' he said. 'There's no way, if I were to sit down and write a script, that I could come up with something like this.'

An ominous start to a promising life

It started in Los Angeles, where Getlin spent the first 12 years of his life being raised by his single father, LaMont Johnson, a jazz musician who was often on the road. Getlin got in trouble frequently, and school was always an afterthought.

'That was a crazy, crazy time in my life,' Getlin said. 'My dad grew up in Harlem, and he was raised in a violent household. He thought he was taking it easy on me, but I would get whippings with belts. He was tough.'

One day, Johnson came home from a road trip and found that Getlin had dyed his hair. This didn't sit well with the old-fashioned Johnson, and it would become the tipping point in their relationship.

'I got the beating of my life that night,' Getlin said.

That was the first time protective services was involved in Getlin's life.

That set in motion Getlin's move to Portland, to be with his mother, whom he wished to keep anonymous, and her new husband and his children. Five people were crammed into a tiny house on North Interstate and Lombard, and Getlin was relegated to a cramped basement bedroom set off by plywood walls.

'My step dad basically saw me as this imposition,' Getlin said.

Looking back now, as Getlin surveys the expansive house, where he lives now when not in school, in the Barrington Heights neighborhood of West Linn, and says, 'my bedroom here is probably as big as the entire top floor of that house.'

Getlin said the area where he grew up could have been worse. He attended Jefferson High School and was on the wrestling team.

'We had bullet holes in the house,' he said. 'I had a buddy who was stabbed to death right after a wrestling match. My half brother just turned 19, and he's been shot at. It's Portland, so it's not a war zone. But we lived in what you would call the 'hood.''

It was his home life that was the worst. There would be times when Getlin would watch his stepfather take his children to eat, while he would be left at home hungry.

But Getlin rebelled.

'I would get my butt kicked a lot by the guy,' he said of his stepfather. 'And my mom wouldn't do anything.'

One day, while his wrestling coach at Jefferson High School, Montrell Brazielle, happened to be outside, Getlin was knocked unconscious by his stepfather. So Getlin went to live with Brazielle and his family for a short time.

But when he came back and told his mother he wanted to report the incident, he said his mother instead called the police on him.

'It was a summer day and everyone was outside in our neighborhood because the houses were so small,' Getlin said. 'And here I was, a kid being led down the sidewalk in handcuffs in front of everyone.'

That led to time spent in juvenile detention and a hearing in front of a judge, where Getlin had his first experience with the law. And he took full advantage of it, describing his living situation and explaining to the judge why he wanted to be in foster care.

'The judge said, 'Wait a minute. It's not often I hear kids say they want to be in foster care.' And I started listing off the reasons,' Getlin said. 'My bedroom has a leak in the ceiling above my bed. A dog lives in the basement with me that has never been bathed. There are cockroaches on the floor next to my bed. At that point my mom slammed her hand on the table and yelled '(expletive) Rand, they're not cockroaches! They're beetles.' At this point, the judge said OK.'

And Getlin was placed in the system.

He first went back to live with Brazielle, but the wrestling coach was 23 at the time raising his own children, and the state wouldn't certify him as a foster parent. Brazielle could not be reached for comment.

So Getlin was placed at a home in the nearby Fremont neighborhood, headed by an elderly woman, along with four other kids.

He was getting by in school and working two jobs to buy the necessities, 'Things you wouldn't think a kid would have to worry about like toothpaste and food and clothes,' Getlin said.

He said his foster 'mother' would cook for the kids, but not much else was expected of them.

'We just had to stay out of trouble,' he said.

At one point, he was assaulted in the middle of the night by one of his foster brothers for a reason he still is unsure about.

'At the time, I had become accustomed to weird stuff that people outside of Northest Portland wouldn't know,' Getlin said.

And this is when the people he now calls his parents, Taylor and Getlin, changed his life. Getlin had come to know the family through their biological son, Mike, who was also a wrestler. They had become good friends almost from the time Getlin moved to Portland while the two were members of the Peninsula Wrestling Club.

'Looking back on it now, there was no reason we should have ever met,' Getlin said. 'We would go to tournaments, and I didn't have any food. So they'd feed me. And they'd find me waiting after practice at 9:30 at night with no ride home. So they'd take me home. They basically took a vested interest in getting to know me. So I started coming over on the weekends, and then weekends turned into weeks.'

When Mike learned of Getlin's living situation in November 1999, he stepped in.

'Mike said why don't you come live with us,' Getlin said. 'It really did sound like a joke. But the next day, Lon gives me a call and said 'Hey Rand, how would you like to come live with us? The next day he picked me up on the steps of Jefferson High School.'

Not an easy transformation

But the transition from Jefferson High School to West Linn High School wasn't easy.

Part of the agreement was for Getlin to move back a grade to help make up for lost classroom time.

'It was a tough adjustment period,' he said. 'My mom and dad and brother worked their tails off to help me. I literally thought at Jefferson that I could just walk up to a college and say 'I'm here,' and they would just let me in. I never knew about applications, SATs. At Jefferson, they would spend half the class trying to get the kids to stop throwing quarters at the parrot.'

But Getlin made it, graduating in 2001.

'All the normal things that I would expect to happen as they're growing up doesn't happen for these guys,' Taylor said. 'You have to sort of make up for lost time.'

Taylor, president of the Lake Oswego law firm Buckley LeChevallier, and Getlin, CEO of CashCo Financial Services Inc., have fostered seven children. In fact, they are currently fostering child No. 8, Nico, who now attends West Linn High School.

'All the kids we've had have all had great qualities about them. The question is how to bring it out,' Taylor said. 'I always think about them like they have chains around them. … What you're trying to do is figure out how to set them free so they can really be the person they were born to be.'

At the University of Oregon, much like at West Linn, Getlin also struggled.

'These kids spend a portion of their lives just surviving when everybody else was learning. So they're almost always behind the eight ball in school,' Taylor said. 'When he went off to U of O, we still had a lot of worries about how that was going to work out. He was still insecure, about his relationships, ability to get good grades and all of that. He came home a lot, kept really close ties. We were still parenting very actively while he was in college. A lot of ways he grew up and figured out who he was.'

Getlin said it was a series of reading-intensive classes that a friend convinced him to take that finally opened his eyes to his potential. The courses were focused around international politics and history on issues such as the Civil Rights Movement, Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Middle Eastern politics. And the reading was not for the feint of heart, between 650 to 800 pages a week. Getlin would go on to take several of these courses from professor Ken Debevoise, and he began to excel in school.

That's also when his interest in politics was peaked. The internship with Craig followed.

'And that really was a life changing experience for him,' Taylor said. 'He really started to see himself as exceptional and able to excel in complex situations. That's the kind of thing, that for most parents, they're looking for something like that. Something they can do to convince themselves that they are unique and define who they are.'

A family dedicated to giving something back

Taylor said while all their foster children may not have had the success of Getlin, her family hopes to have at least some impact on all of their foster children's lives. Taylor said that if Getlin had one attribute that set him apart from the rest of their foster children, it was his devotion to the family.

'First of all he is passionately loyal, and he was passionately loyal to our family and our biological son (Mike),' Taylor said. 'I am always very sensitive about trying to replace the biological parents. I would never want to put him in that spot. … He came to me one time and he said you know there's still one thing missing in my life, and he had this great ability to express himself, and he said I always feel like a second class citizen because I'm not you're real son.'

Taylor consulted with Lon and Mike and the decision to adopt Getlin was made. Taylor thought the hardest person to convince would have been Mike, a graduate of Harvard and now an account manager at a precious metals brokerage firm in Los Angeles. But when Taylor and Lon approached him, his response was anything but hesitant.

'He said, 'It's about time,'' Taylor said.

And in 2004, Rand became a Getlin. The state director of the Kerry campaign, Paige Richardson, was even present at the adoption ceremony.

'We didn't have Mike until we were kind of older,' Taylor added. 'And we always knew the day would come when we weren't around anymore. The idea of him having a brother who he is devoted to and close to is really important to us. It wasn't always like that. They had their problems at first. But they're true brothers now.'

The kind of success Getlin has had is extremely rare, considering the beginning.

National figures show that just more than 30 percent of children in foster care go on to graduate from high school. Greg Parker, communications director with the Children, Adult and Families Division of the Oregon Department of Human Services said graduating from a four-year university and then moving on to an elite law school is extremely unique.

'Foster child or not, that's an extraordinary achievement,' Parker said. 'We hope and work for the best outcome with many of our children. Every child is unique and different. And for many of them, their highest goals may be quite modest by everyday standards.'

Parker said many foster children battle pasts marred by extreme physical abuse, drug addiction, effects from drug use while in the womb and emotional distress.

'For a lot of them, it's not a matter of graduating law school, in some cases it's a matter of literally learning how to speak,' Parker said.

A world of potential awaits

Getlin has certainly made the most of his miraculous situation. And while he's at a time in his life when people are beginning to heap on praise, he said he is always aware of his origins and who he has to thank.

'It's hard for me. I know I have a really special skill set. I know I'm gifted in ways I can't explain,' he said. 'Having said that, I owe so many people. All those people in my life, I feel like they put together the collage that I am now.'

Getlin also knows he can give a lot back to those in situations similar to the one in which he started life.

'I'm never arrogant even to think that I was the most talented kid at Jefferson High School,' he said. 'Because there were so many talented kids who just didn't get the opportunities.'

Which is why Taylor and her husband do what they do.

'I honestly think the jails are full of charismatic guys who have the ambition and even the drive but have no idea how to channel that,' Taylor said.

From here, the sky is the limit for Getlin. He'll finish at USC in spring next year and said he plans to work at taking the Prometheus Institute to the next level.

'Rand, to me, has a lot of intellectual capacity,' said Dan Heine, president of Bank of Oswego, who met Getlin in 2004 as a friend of Taylor and Lon. 'At a young age, he's full of ideas. I think with continuing education, surrounding himself with the right friends and family and mentors, I think he's got a long ways to go to reach his fullest potential. In what that's going to be, in what field, it's too early to tell. Every year he's growing professionally, emotionally.'

Heine has become a mentor of sorts for Getlin, most recently getting together for a Portland Trail Blazers game during the winter break.

'I just respect and admire his positive energy he puts forth to make a positive difference in people's lives,' Heine said. 'Knowing where he came from, it's his way of giving back I think. Passing it on, I guess you could call it.'

Also during the holiday break, Getlin met with his mother for the first time in several years. He said, while the two have not yet reconciled, he wanted her to know that he doesn't blame her for everything.

'After what my mom and dad did, I feel like I have to do this,' Getlin said of his work in politics. 'I'm super lucky to be here today. I could have gone in any number of directions. All of my old friends are either drug addicts, incarcerated, have been stabbed.'

Getlin said he feels like he has a lot to live up to with his new family name. He also said he plans to adopt and foster children once he establishes himself.

'To this day, I never take this for granted,' he said. 'I have the most incredible resources. And every time I tried to fail, they picked me off the ground and said you're not going to do it. And I never want to disappoint them.'