I’d like to share a story with you. It’s about a little boy, but it could as easily be about a little girl. Picture the following in your mind:
A baby boy has just been born. He should be wrapped in his loving mother’s arms with her scent all about him and with family gathering full of joy at his birth. But he doesn’t feel those loving arms nor hear the sounds of joy. The smells are those of a hospital ward. He is moved from one nursery to another. He is alone. Days, weeks and months pass…the calendar moves toward his first birthday…yet he still remains alone!
Finally at fourteen months of age he hears someone…a stranger…calling his name. Someone is picking him up and saying “they are taking him home.”
Years pass. He has heard strangers repeat his name and say “Pack your bag…you are leaving!” ten different times…he is only six years old. Each time he has heard it, he has just begun to make friends…now they are gone. He begins to feel comfortable where he is…now it’s time to move again.
Each move has brought him to unfamiliar surroundings and people. Each time he has had to pack his “brown grocery paper bag” with all his worldly possessions.
No one has yet called him Son…he is only called by his first name. He hears he is a foster child for the first time. He hears the word “bastard” in relation to him as well. He is also called names that cannot be repeated here.
No one loves him. He doesn’t belong wherever he has gone. He is treated differently than others. No one wants him. He has no permanent home. He walks home from school to his temporary home slowly, having developed a fear that it may no longer be his home when he gets there.
He suddenly finds himself in a home where things are different. He is treated with love. He is treated as part of the family. He starts to lose his fear of leaving school to go home. He is getting comfortable where he is at. He is in this home one year, two years, three years. He believes he has finally found a home. He has made and kept friends for longer than a few months. He passes a fourth year; he is half way through another year.
He arrives home from school one day and sees a stranger in the house. He slows down going up the walkway and begins to tremble. He sees the one he loves and calls MOM crying. He now knows that stranger in the room is a case worker from Catholic Charities. He goes to his Mom to hold her…to cry with her. He knows what this means. He packs his “paper bag” once again. Carrying it, he slowly is walking out of the house he has known for four and one half years as home. He looks back as he is slowly driven away…he knows in his heart he won’t be back to live here again.
He learns much later in life that this foster family, as well as their son and his wife, each attempted to adopt him…not once or twice, but thrice. Those responsible for making the decision each time gave a resounding NO! He is told the foster parents are denied because of age, though they are only in their mid 40s. The son and his wife are denied because she is not of the proper “Faith” for him to be raised in.
He has been placed in a juvenile detention center with young men who have committed every imaginable crime. His only crime is he has no parents or home to call his own. He is the youngest boy on the block, as well as the smallest. He is forced to learn how to fight quickly, he is savagely sexually abused. Feeling despair and worthless he attempts suicide. His bed is a thin mattress on the floor, as the block is overcrowded. He lives here for over two months while yet another temporary home is found for him.
He is in a strange place once again. He is in a new school. He has no friends. He is treated as a stranger at this place. He is not a part of this family. He is forced to eat alone. He is given but one meal a day which forces him to steal from classmates lunches to lessen his hunger pangs.
He does not sleep in the house, but on the unheated back porch. He is only allowed in the main portion of the house to use the bathroom.
Christmas comes…the only gifts he receives are the clothes that were given him by the St. Vincent de Paul Society a week earlier, as his semiannual clothing allotment. There is nothing from this family for him under the tree.
Months pass. He is told to “pack his bag.” They are coming for him in the morning. He is being moved yet again…and he doesn’t know where he is going.
He is asleep this last night, when suddenly he is jolted awake. Before him stands another person…exposing himself. He intends to have the boy remember his last night in this house. He screams out in terror. He lashes every way possible. He hears someone coming, asking, “What is going on?” He tells his story, but is not believed. He is told, “You no good, ungrateful, lying little bastard! No wonder no one wants you! Get your bag and get your ass out of this house!” He hears and feels the hard slap and sting of a hand across his reddened face. He is forced to sit on the outside stoop in the cold night, to await them coming to get him in the morning.
He is picked up. He is on a plane for the first time in his life and doesn’t know where he is being taken. The person taking him is not speaking to him. He lands in a place he has never heard of and has no idea where he is…only that he has been moved again.
You have been reading this for just a few minutes. In those few minutes this young boy has been moved fourteen times. He has been moved from the only place he considered home and the people he loved. He has made friends and lost them. He has changed schools. He has been made to feel a part of a family and as a stranger. He has been brutally sexually assaulted. He has at age ten attempted suicide. He is alone again.
These few minutes you have been reading this has actually been the course of the first eleven years of this young boy’s life.
Can you imagine how this young boy felt! If you have lived within the system you know the adjectives.
By age eleven system has already determined this young boy a failure and moved him to an orphanage out of state to let him be someone else‘s problem. They expect him to age out of the system and to join the ranks that statistics show he will continue to be a failure throughout his life.
At age eleven this young boy already reached a major crossroad in his young life. After fourteen moves, others making decisions about his life amongst other things; he faced a choice. He could whine about his childhood, accept others already declaring him a failure and proceed in that manner or he could assume responsibility for his own life, set goals & expectations and do all that was necessary to achieve them.
Cards were dealt at birth. Rather than being dealt a royal flush he was dealt maybe a pair of twos and told to play it the best he possibly could as he could not throw any cards away and hope for a better hand. He, with the help of others along the way, was ultimately responsible for how the game turned out. He could whimper and whine and just say deal me out or he could somehow attempt to make that pair of twos look like a royal flush…the choice was his and his alone.
He chose not to take the already crowded road of whining nor accept what others had already determined about him. He was going to make something of himself not because of the system but rather despite it. He began setting goals for himself and charting the course necessary to achieve them.
Over the years he wanted to graduate high school…he achieved that. He wanted to obtain a college degree…he achieved that. He wanted to become a public speaker…he achieved that speaking to audiences of as few of twenty to as many as five thousand, including three international conferences. He wanted to found foundations to help other youth…he achieved that starting two foundations as well as serving as Executive Director of another foundation and currently serving on the Board of Directors for an international foundation today. He also wanted to be a writer…he achieved that by authoring two books, writing a number of articles for newspapers & magazines as well as today maintaining a well visited web site and blog. He has goals he is still reaching to achieve.
Bear in mind life has dealt him many setbacks along the way, but he learned at an early age to view them as opportunities and know that no matter how bad things seemed to be….they could be worse, as it is for some.
Within every person there is a rose. These qualities planted in us at birth grow amid the thorns of our faults. He, in early life, had looked at himself and saw only the thorns; the defects. He despaired, thinking that nothing good can possibly come from him. He neglected to water the good within him when he was very young, and eventually that good could have died. He might never realize his potential and see the rose within himself had he not been forced to at age eleven.
The card game of life is yet to be completed, but no matter where the winding road of life may yet take him he believes victory has already been won!
Why do I share this story with you?
I want all foster youth and foster care alumni to realize you do not need to accept what others tell you about you, you can overcome any negative caused to you while in the foster care system. I won’t say the road will be an easy one. The road will require determination and hard work as well as overcoming stumbles along the way. I also want foster care alumni who have overcome to realize they have an obligation to help others within the system today as well as those who have aged out but yet still struggle on their road of life. Those still struggling to overcome need to also help those in the system as by helping others you will also be helping yourself! The statistics of failure that run rampant amongst foster care alumni must be changed!
One of the greatest gifts a person can possess is to be able to reach past the thorns and find the rose within another. This is the characteristic of love, to look at a person, and knowing his/her faults, recognize the nobility in their soul, and help them realize that they can overcome their faults. If we show them the rose, they will conquer the thorns. Then will they blossom, blooming forth thirty, sixty, a hundred-fold as it is given to them. This is the challenge to all who have gone through the foster care system. They must realize their full potential and also let those still within the system know theirs!
There are many ways one can do this. You can join national organizations whose mission is to advocate for youth in care or connect them with alumni as mentors. One such organization is Foster Care Alumni or America (http://www.fostercarealumni.org/ ). You can join local organizations whose mission is to make life a little better while youth remain in care. You can mentor a foster youth, especially one where the system has decided will age out of it. There are so many groups out there just waiting for volunteers to walk through the door…be the one! Each must help youth in care avoid many of the struggles they may have had while in care or avoid the pitfalls encountered after care. I say again; as one helps others we will help ourselves!
May is National Foster Care month. Though it would be good for one to get involved any day or month of the year, if you are not involved as yet then May is a good time to start. Over 450,000 current foster youth need you, the almost 29,000 who will age out during this year need you. I am sure with over 12 million foster care alumni across the country everyone can find at least one who would love a stretched out hand, a restive shoulder to lean on as they may continue to battle to overcome.
To those who read this and have or will face some crosses and tribulations in your life, please………Remember….when you feel your life’s crosses seem overwhelming…. it helps to look around and see what other people are coping with. Many bear crosses that we can only begin to fathom. There are those with disabilities, some face terminal illness, others live poor or under dictatorships….the list is endless! You may, in the end, consider yourself far more fortunate than you imagined. Whatever your cross…. whatever your pain…. there will always be sunshine after the rain.
The story I shared above is not an imaginary one. It is my story. I share it not to trumpet my own horn but rather to let youth in care or those who have aged out and are having trouble overcoming things endured in their youth before/after care can overcome them.
Yes, I have faced many crosses in my life, I have stumbled and fallen many times trying to carry them. Each time however, I have been able to pick myself up and move a step forward. I will be honest, it has not always been easy nor has it been through my own strength but combined with my own desires, work as well has helping hands of others. There will be crosses for me to bear in whatever life I have remaining…but I will not allow them to overburden or defeat me. I also know that many have far bigger and heavier crosses to me to bear…mine are small and light in comparison. I know if I can do it so can each youth in care today and those who have already aged out…no matter how many years ago you aged out.
It won’t , as I said before “be easy” but if we reach out to each other we can all make it.
People may have failed you in the past, the system may have failed you and there will others along your path who will fail you as has happened to me. All one hopefully can and will do is accept it and move on. But PLEASE….DO NOT ALLOW YOU TO FAIL YOU!!
I now conclude this with a final word of advise for ALL of us: Don’t live in your yesterdays, as they are done and gone. Nothing you did then or others did to you can be changed. Don’t live for your tomorrow’s for they were never promised to you. Live for TODAY…for today you have complete control over what you do, live it and live it to your fullest potential! Help others to do the same!