We launched a writing contest to see what former foster youth had to say about their time in care or their experiences with the justice system. The contest gave youth the opportunity to write on one of three themes: “What does home mean to you?” “What’s one thing the child welfare or juvenile justice system could have done to help you but didn’t?” and “How has the criminal justice and/or correctional system impacted your family and you personally?” Here is the winning essay for the “defining home” category.
As a child, all you want is a doll, or a fire truck, to play video games, and have tea parties with your dad. At 5 years old, you want your mom to braid your hair, make you cookies, run your bath, and take you to dance recital. At 8, you want to run outside your front yard in the sprinklers and when the day is finished, come inside and eat dessert first, no matter how many times your dad tells you that you need your vegetables.
At 3 years old, the world is your teacup at Disneyland. The ride is fascinating, colorful, dizzying and it takes your breath away.
With you, there are others holding on, sharing your joy and pulling you back when your world starts tipping off its axis. Yet, for a few, this kind of life was a fantasy. For some, that was just a dream that kept them alive and allowed them to breathe when the air supply was short. It was a scene that played in their minds and gave them hope, hope for home.
Growing up, I had a pertinent mindset. All I desired was to have a home because I was one of the few that lived in a much harsher reality. I was born into the foster care system due to my mother having schizophrenia and my real father walking away, taking his last name with him. I went through two other families before going back to my mother. I was beaten, underfed and loneliness was a constant companion of mine. I remember merely holding a fork the wrong way and being slapped for it. Spending my days in consistent aches and my nights with pillowcases soaked in tears were the only things I knew. As dramatic as that sounds, it’s the truth. Most days, I didn’t know what to do with it. Home was a word I couldn’t digest because it had zero meaning to me.
Nevertheless, “home” began to shape and take its form eventually. However, throughout the stages of my life, each form of “home” took a different appearance and sentiment. In the end, with each change, my perspective of it before has morphed into something more profound than the last.
In the second placement that I was in, “home” was in those who could understand me. While I was there, I had one friend who roomed with me as my foster sister. She was a little raven-haired girl with big almond eyes. We would talk about everything from our favorite dolls to cooties we were positive we caught from the red head sitting next to us in class. She was a comfort in the chaos, which was a big deal because comfort was such a hard thing to obtain where we were living. She would make me laugh and made me feel like I could be a kid.
More importantly, I knew I could be me. Since I was diagnosed with autism, my habits were strange for children my age. I was afraid of all the weirdest things, would cry at loud noises, put blocks together in the wrong order, and daydreamed about Armageddon. Yes, it is as it’s written. So, one can imagine how that looked to the other socially acceptable kids. Ultimately, I was the odd ball, the one that even adults questioned and second guessed. Yet, through giggles and hushed whispers, I was free. With my foster sister, even though we were so young, I knew she understood my weirdness. Better yet, she accepted me for what I wasn’t. She never asked me where my mom was. She never questioned my sadness. She just let me be me and that was enough to be “home.”
Eventually, I went back to my mom. During that time, I couldn’t define “home,” because after a while, the definition became blurred again. The clarity didn’t return until I was taken and put in my permanent place of living.
At 7, the system came in and uprooted my life once again. I was moved from my mother’s home to a cute little green and white house in West Covina. When the social worker dropped me off and kept going, a red-headed lady gave me food for the first time in over a week. She became my caretaker for the next 13 years.
During that time, I saw “home” as a comfortable cage. Now, I could talk about and discuss the physical abuse that I went through there. However, the emotional trauma was far worse. Every day, I strove to be accepted by a family that had already pledged me as their own. With passing years, by the time I was 16, I knew that my voice had been stolen from me. My voice, personality, and who I was had been morphed and changed into a woman that I grew to hate. I grew used to biting my tongue on how I felt until I was just another robot in line. While I was grateful for the things I had, nothing could make up for the hurt that was endured. Not quite rainbows and pots of gold. Yet, eventually these meanings of “home” continued to evolve into something better.
After a period of time, I discovered that “home” isn’t a place or the people around you. These things change all of the time, leave all of the time, and move all of the time. Before my eyes, I have watched humanity abandon what according to society, should be “home.” However, now, my vision of “home” is in whoever, wherever and whatever pushes me to be the best version of what I will eventually become.
For me, “home” is in expression, dancing to your favorite song, crying to lyrics that no one can comprehend, having dinner with your dog, snorting with your older brother to inside jokes, taking a drive down to Lake Tahoe, facing your biggest fears, reading your Bible, praying, making amends with a relative you probably had no intention of ever speaking to again, and just having an internal peace about right now. It took 21 years for me to realize this.
Nevertheless, I am happy that I have. I know that “home” will always be in quotations for me. Even so, I prefer it to be that way. In my eyes, living the life I live is more precious when it constantly changes. In the words of Matsuo Basho, “every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home.”
To me, there’s no place like being satisfied with where, what and who you are. Therefore, there’s no other place that comes close to that. There’s no place like “home.”
Angelique Russell is a college student majoring in communications at Mount San Antonio College. She aspires to be an editor of the New York Times and a public relations specialist. After being raised in the foster care community and being a woman with special needs, Russell has advocated for both demographics by speaking for a Black History Month celebration at the Department of Family Services in Los Angeles County and coaching for Special Olympics Cheer in the Special Olympics World Games in 2015 and the Special Olympics U.S. Games in 2018. In her free time, Russell enjoys dancing, hiking, trips to the beach after sunset, and writing poetry.
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