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.