ALUMNI HALL OF FAME PROFILE:

Tom Corson has “a heart for kids that is made of gold”

Corson_presser

Tom Corson is executive director of the Kern County Network for Children, which identifies and addresses problems facing local children. Here he is speaking at a child-abuse prevention press event.

BY CHRISTINE BEDELL
Alumni Engagement Specialist
cbedell1@csub.edu

When the woman Sarah Bumgardner called mom couldn’t take care of her anymore due to dementia, she ended up in a foster home where the wife made her feel so unwanted she’d hide away in a bedroom.

As she was aging out of the system, Bumgardner wanted out of that house but had nowhere to go.  Her biological mother, who’d fallen into drugs and an abusive relationship, lost custody of her years before.

Then Bumgardner heard about the Dream Center in downtown Bakersfield, a place where current and former foster youth up to age 25 can get help finding housing, a job and transportation. They can grab a shower, do laundry and use the Internet. Or they can simply find respite from the stress of being thrust into adulthood with little support.

The Dream Center staff helped Bumgardner get a part-time receptionist job, move into an apartment and figure out how to buy a car.

Most there for her was Tom Corson, who conceptualized, expanded and works out of the Dream Center as executive director of the Kern County Network for Children. When Bumgardner needed someone to talk to, Corson took her calls. When her self-confidence waned, Corson told her – and others – how great she was.

And when she needed someone to walk her down the aisle, Corson did the honors.

“I’ve had a few other father figures, but they’re no longer in my life. They kinda went off and did their own thing,” said Bumgardner, 24, now an office service technician in Lerdo Jail’s medical facility. “But Tom, after all these years, he’s still there.”

Tom and Sarah 2

In December, Corson gave former Dream Center youth Sarah Bumgardner away when she married her now-husband, Elijah.

Bumgardner is just one of countless young people throughout Kern County whose lives are better off because of Corson’s 30 years working on behalf of children and families. He’s taught teens about the dangers of STDs, created problem-solving community collaboratives, helped develop a locally groundbreaking child abuse-prevention program and  spearheaded the Dream Center.

From the outside, this 5’11, 240-pound power lifter seems an unlikely child- and family-welfare advocate. But those close to him say it all comes together when you look into his heart.

“Tom is a very imposing person, a big guy, a power lifter and a very direct man when he needs to be,” said John Nilon, a friend of Corson’s and the Network for Children board president. “But out of this man who is so imposing comes a heart for kids that is made of gold.”

‘HE WAS A CHALLENGE’

Corson, 55, is the second child of John Corson, a retired United Methodist minister, and Sylvia Corson, a retired social worker and family therapist. The family moved around California a lot for John’s work; they came to Bakersfield in 1976 and all four Corson children graduated from West High School.

“Tom was a challenge,” Sylvia said with a smile. “He was a very sweet baby, but he was a challenge.”

Corson Family

The Corson family on the deck of their family cabin (l to r): John, Tom, Peter, Stephen, Sylvia and Mary.

When Tom was 12 and the Corsons were spending the summer in Yorkshire, England, he suddenly stopped eating. His parents feared he was ill until Sylvia found a chocolate cake under his bed.

“Tom had found the local bakery in the village, and was spending his grandparents’ gift money on his favorite British pastries,” Corson’s parents wrote in a collection of stories about their son.

Corson was gifted but struggled with learning disabilities including dyslexia and so was put in special ed. When the teacher gave students tokens for certain accomplishments, Tom gave his to his classmates.

“He’s the kind of guy who would give his coat to someone who needed a coat, and buy someone a meal if they were hungry,” John said.

Corson at age 8

Corson at age 8.

The grandson of an Olympic bronze medalist in discus, Corson excelled in sports, playing varsity football at West for three years. (He tried baseball but lost interest when he was told the catcher couldn’t tackle runners coming into home plate, his parents said.)

After high school, and while rehabilitating an injured shoulder, Corson started working out with a body builder and going down to Gold’s Gym in Venice. He got hooked into the 1980s body building subculture and competed in it for eight years.

“I call that my pretty years,” Corson said.

Corson bodybuilding

Corson was a competitive body builder for eight years, including while attending CSUB.

Around 1991, Corson transitioned to power lifting. He loved his first meet because the judging was less subjective and the community more inclusive. Corson still works out at a private power-lifting gym called the Hog Pit nearly every day.

“It’s been my mental health therapy,” Corson said.

WORKING FOR KIDS

Corson remembers people at school calling him stupid and saying college wasn’t for him. Out to prove them wrong and make his parents proud, he enrolled at the University of La Verne following high school. After a year he returned to Bakersfield and took a few semesters at Bakersfield College before transferring to CSUB and graduating with a bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1988.

 Corson Graduation

Corson graduated from CSUB with a bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1988.

Corson’s first job out of college was as a health educator at Clinica Sierra Vista, teaching teens about sexually transmitted diseases and other health issues. Clinica’s CEO let Corson be entrepreneurial and so he wrote grants for new programs that he then coordinated.

Corson got to be known as someone who could organize communities and wade through bureaucracy and so in 1992 was pulled into meetings between the County of Kern and Superintendent of Schools office about creating the Network for Children.

The Network identifies and addresses issues facing Kern children and now serves as the county’s Child Abuse Prevention Council.

During his remaining years at Clinica and then as a project manager at the Network, Corson helped organize community partnerships that then tackled problems unique to those communities.

“We were charged with bringing agencies and community members together and coming out with a plan that had outcomes based on what the community wanted, not what the agencies wanted. And here was the catch: There was going to be no new money,” Corson recalled.

For example, agency officials were saying southeast Bakersfield needed substance abuse and social service programs. The community was saying it needed sidewalks, streetlamps and jobs.

The local collaborative pushed for sidewalks and streetlamps on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and held a massive job fair. When 70 percent of job fair attendees had a dirty drug test, however, the community acknowledged it did need more substance abuse programs.

“You learn from each other,” Corson said.

There are 17 collaboratives throughout Kern County today and they are a “huge driving force” in their communities, Corson said.

Steve Sanders, executive director of the Network at the time, credited Corson with saying what needed to be said as those early collaboratives were being formed.

“He wasn’t afraid to say to the mayor of a small town, ‘Hey, you need to do a better job of this, this and this,’” Sanders said. “But he did it in a way that was authentic and wasn’t about Tom and his ego, it was about just wanting to do the best thing for kids and families.”

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Steve Sanders, right, chief of staff at the Kern County Superintendent of Schools office, co-nominated Corson for the CSUB Alumni Hall of Fame. At left is Isaiah Mosley, a former foster youth Corson has mentored.

PREVENTING ABUSE

One day in 2004, after Corson became the Network’s executive director, Bakersfield Police Chief Bill Rector showed him a GIS map full of red dots representing substantiated cases of child abuse.

“Look at these red dots,” Rector said. “They tell you something.”

The majority of dots was in the 93308 zip code – Oildale. So Corson brought the map to the area’s county supervisor, Barbara Patrick, and said child abuse prevention clearly needed to be done differently.

“What do you need?” Corson recalled Patrick asking.

It was the beginning of Differential Response in Kern County. Now when a reported case of child abuse turns out not to meet the official definition of abuse, the family is offered help with whatever challenges it is facing. Sixty-eight percent of families accept the services.

“I’d rather mom be on methadone, going to parenting classes and making sure the kids are clean, well-fed and going to school than pull the kids because mom had a heroin addiction and no one was willing to help her,” Corson said.

Differential Response is now countywide thanks largely to Corson’s leadership, Nilon and Sanders said. It serves about 4,300 Kern kids a year. The last time the Department of Human Services pulled numbers, 90 percent of families aided through Differential Response were not re-referred to Child Protective Services, Corson said.

DREAMING UP THE DREAM CENTER

In 2007 when the Network for Children took over the county foster youth services  program, Corson asked emancipated foster kids what they needed. Their answer? Jobs and a place where they felt safe.

The result was the first Dream Center, a one-stop shop where the kids could meet with a social worker, get counseling or work on a job application. Next door was a Dagny’s coffee shop where some could work and all could hang out.

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Corson hugs former foster youth at the grand opening of the first Dream Center.

The goal back in 2008 was to see 200 foster youth a year. Today the expanded Dream Center, occupying an old Lightspeed building on 19th Street complete with meeting rooms, showers, laundry facilities, a kitchen for cooking classes and more, sees 200 kids a week.

They include Isaiah Mosley, 21, who ended up in foster care at age 7 after his mom was sent to prison for attempted murder and his father was killed in gang violence. He lived in four foster homes before exiting the system at 18.

When he first started going to the Dream Center, Mosley would sit in the corner by himself and watch people come and go. Corson noticed and began chit-chatting with him and giving him candy.

Today, with help from the Dream Center and Corson, Mosley works as a janitor at Kern Medical. He shares an apartment with a roommate, got his driver’s license and just bought his first car, a 2015 Honda Sonata.

“Tom is just a good person,” Mosley said. “He’s the type of guy who does things for people and doesn’t want anything in return.

“I tell this to him all the time: He’s like a dad to me. He gives me advice, he tells me corny jokes.”

Not every Dream Center story is a happy one.

Last fall a young man came in high on spice and, from a standing position, jumped over a front counter, Corson said. He had his shirt off and his hands and arms were trashed from multiple suicide attempts.

Corson evacuated the building and the kid escaped out the back door. Corson and a colleague stopped him from leaving the parking structure and called the police.

“We have some real success stories. We actually have an employee that was a Dream Center youth who has come back,” Corson said. “But some of our kids are lost. Our system is not perfect.”

The Dream Center may not save every kid who comes through its doors. But many former foster youth would be in a much darker place were it not for the work of Corson and the team there, Nilon said.

“They’d be homeless. They’d be incarcerated. They would be without hope,” he said. “They would be in all those places that none of us would like these kids to be.

“They are some of the most unfortunate of our population through no fault of their own.”

MEETING MICHELLE

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Michelle and Tom Corson have been married for five years.

Michelle Corson first crossed paths with her future husband 20 years ago when she was a social worker.

“Everyone knew who Tom Corson at the Network was because he was so respected by the people in social services,” she said. …”He commanded a room, he commanded attention like I’d never seen anybody else do.”

They continued to cross paths professionally and their passion for community service kept bringing them closer. They married five years ago.

Their children are their dogs, a yellow Labrador and cairn terrier. Their time off is usually spent hiking, fishing and otherwise enjoying the outdoors; every year they vacation at Pine Crest Lake past Yosemite, site of the Corson family cabin.

Corson treats his wife like a queen, his parents say and Michelle admits. He does all the grocery shopping, cooking and cleaning.

“I say, ‘Honey, let me cook,’” Michelle said. “He’ll say, ‘No, honey, sit back and relax with your wine and let me take care of you.’”

Corson rarely sits but when he does, Michelle said, he’s usually reading. He devours books about astrophysics and other science-based readings that help him understand the world.

Corson is passionate about his work, but it does wear on him, Michelle said.

“I will tell him he’s making a difference and he doesn’t accept it,” Michelle said. “It’s never enough. He says there’s so much more to do. He’s never able to feel content with what he’s done.”

Corson acknowledged the rigors of the work. He credited Michelle with helping him keep going.

“There are days you come home from this job and you’re done,” Corson said. “You’ve lost a kid and you review that kid’s death review and you know somewhere down the way, we screwed up. Or the kids you see in here (the Dream Center), they’ve given up.

“…Fortunately I have someone at home who is the biggest cheerleader – a (former) Cal State cheerleader – to pump me back up and say, ‘They need you. Get back in there and help.’”



CSUB Alumni Hall of Fame

Tom Corson is one of four people who will be inducted into the CSUB Alumni Hall of Fame Feb. 15, 2019, at Seven Oaks Country Club in Bakersfield.

The other members of the 2019 Alumni Hall of Fame class are Charlotte Brandt, Jeff Huckaby and Gene Tackett. Tackett's profile will be published in February.

Learn more about the gala, including sponsorship opportunities.