‘I feel blessed and very thankful that I’m here’

(Video / Marc Lester, Anchorage Daily News)

Like many teens, Devon Hilts was anxious about moving out on her own and starting college after her high school graduation in Seldovia. What she overcame was less commonplace.

Hilts, now 19, carries unpleasant memories of her early childhood — homelessness on the streets of Seattle, abusive men and a birth mother addicted to drugs and alcohol, she says. She learned to speak years later than most children. No one, it seemed, had time to help her.

“People would get angry at me, and they would show so much hurt.”

When Devon moved to Yakutat in 2001, school teacher Laurel Hilts recognized the symptoms of fetal alcohol syndrome in the new student.

FAS and other fetal alcohol spectrum disorders are a birth defects caused by a mother drinking while pregnant. For some children, like Devon, they cause sensory problems such as an over-sensitivity to touch, along with a slew of other potential physical and developmental difficulties.

State health officials believe Alaska has the highest rate of FASD in the nation. A resolution urging the governor to amplify efforts to prevent the disability unanimously passed the state Senate on Monday.

Devon’s teacher, Laurel, had family members with the disability and knew what to look for. When Devon’s foster family decided they couldn’t care for her, Laurel stepped in, eventually adopting the child.

In this video, Devon and Laurel discuss the challenges FAS presented in Devon’s formative years and those that will continue into adulthood. Both discuss an abusive situation they say happened just months after she left home, and whether it affects their optimism about Devon’s ability to live independently.

Both say they hope sharing Devon’s experience will inspire compassion and understanding.

“For people who have FASD, don’t be afraid to ask for help,” Devon said. “Because you’ll need it.”

Originally published March 19, 2014 by Marc Lester in Anchorage Daily News.