WINDHAM — On Saturday, I walked in graduation ceremonies to receive my master’s degree in social work from the University of Southern Maine.

Like other students on graduation day, I reflected on all the people who supported me and felt some pride in my achievement. Because I grew up in and aged out of foster care, I know that my story today could have been a much different one.

All of the approximately 400,000 children and youths in out-of-home foster care today in the United States are there through no fault of their own, but because their parents are unable to care for them or provide a safe home environment.

The trauma of separation from their parents, siblings and communities often means that as they grow up and become adults, these young people are at a higher risk of physical health problems, depression, drug use or suicide.

SCARY, LONELY EXPERIENCE

I went into foster care at age 11, separated from my family, my brothers and the only life that I knew. I was placed with a family that I was supposed to call “home.” To me, home was a place with my siblings. Home meant being safe and not having to worry about being harmed again. However, my first foster care experience was scary and lonely.

I later moved into a home with my brother and was cared for, but it didn’t feel like a place where I belonged, even though the family tried hard to care for me.

I soon pushed that family away because of a feeling within me that I could not even explain.

I slept on many sofas as I finished high school, graduating on my 19th birthday. Because friends and teachers supported me, I began to believe I could do more.

I became involved with the Youth Leadership Advisory Team at USM’s Muskie School of Public Service and participated in leadership opportunities for youths in care – camping trips, retreats, team-building activities and national foster care conferences.

FEELING AT HOME

These activities inspired me and helped me feel I had a voice. I knew I could create positive changes in my own state. Youth Leadership Advisory Team members made me feel at home. This work was the start of my calling to become a social worker.

Despite being on my own, I received extended educational support from the Maine Department of Health and Human Services past the age of 18, which helped me understand that college was possible!

During college I continued with the Youth Leadership Advisory Team and the School-to-Career Partnership, another program that helps youths in their transition to adulthood after they age out of foster care. School-to-Career helped me get my first full-time job, at Home Depot.

SUPPORT OF STAFF, MENTORS

Home Depot was like a family to me. The support of the staff propelled me toward my future and supported me through tough times: being a single mom, dropping out of college, being homeless and struggling with addiction. From my experiences and my mentors, I learned management, budgeting and customer service skills.

After 11 years at Home Depot, I went back to USM and in 2014 – after a 13-year pursuit – I graduated with my bachelor’s degree in social work. A combination of my hard work and supportive relationships helped me believe I could attain my master’s degree. I graduated Saturday, with full-time employment already secured.

I write this to ask that we not give up on our youths who are in foster care, homeless or on a wrong track. Along my journey I was aided by mentors, supportive programs and my own determination.

As you reflect on your life’s journey, what opportunities or challenges have influenced your success? Can you mentor a youth? Can you support programs that help youths? Youths need people who believe in them, who believe they can do great things.

I hope that all youths in care will have people in their lives who believe in and support them, as I had. It takes just one person to make a difference in someone’s life. That person could be you.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.