Youth Voice Writing Contest 2021 — Finalist, Essay
I have Post-it notes all around my living space that remind me in bold lettering, “Things that matter are hard.” I find endless inspiration in these simple words because my life experiences have proven their truth. Transitioning from being a chronic child abuse victim to an empowered survivor mattered, and it was hard. The same can be said of enduring a decade of all the worst parts of foster care: educational interruptions, housing instability, sexual and emotional abuse from certain placements. Although these events were all painful and difficult, they inspire me. I know things could be better. I know I can be the one to shed light on some of the cracks in the system that children and youth slip through.
Inspiration, for me, is simply the knowledge that there are children in our country who do not believe they are worthy of love. As if that were not heartbreaking enough, the circumstances of their lives often confirm these beliefs. A biological mother, who chooses an abuser over her children; foster parents beloved by the children but who have ultimately decided that fostering is no longer a good fit for their family; a teenage girl having an open conversation with her social worker about being unable to find a new placement because “no one wants teens.” All of this is happening while a child’s self-worth is in its formative stages. How can they ever feel worthy when everyone rejects them for one reason or another?
Choosing to love these children and youth, advocate for them and provide them a stable and safe home are some of the most difficult tasks facing society. But these actions matter more than words can convey. Not only in the eyes of a specific child, but from the perspective of every person whose life will one day be touched by that child. I cannot personally think of anything more inspiring than that. It has fueled my passion in my personal and professional life. The tears I’ve shed over the years are my motivation. When I aged out, it was terrifying. I was on my own and I had to make everything work with virtually no family and only myself to depend upon. I had no safety net and failure was not an option. That paralyzing anxiety only made me work harder because I knew my situation is not unique and many others are suffering.
Despite plenty of self-doubt, imposter syndrome and generalized feelings of inadequacy, I decided to pursue one of my lifelong dreams to become a lawyer on the frontlines of child welfare law and policy. The word “hard” could not begin to describe the journey it took to become one of the roughly 2% of former foster youth to graduate college. I graduated magna cum laude with my bachelor’s degree in 2018 after four years of balancing full course loads, working close to full-time hours and managing conflicts in my personal life. On the days I felt like I couldn’t go on, I reflected on my time in the system. I remembered times when I was hungry, scared or hopeless, and it reminded me that someone out there is walking that same worn-out path I once tread in the same hand-me-down shoes. I also took seriously the fact that I was in a position to do something about it. I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but I knew firsthand just how much it mattered.
I am still a work in progress. I am still learning to cope with the pain of my present reality. I once believed that when I was an adult, not having parents wouldn’t matter to me; similar to how children often believe that when they turn 18, they will magically know everything and be competent enough to be completely in charge of their own lives. My assumptions were wrong. I am 24 years old, and I still feel like the child who was never adopted. Relying on romantic partners for the sense of family I’m missing is uncomfortable at best and toxic at worst. At this stage in my life, the collateral physical and emotional consequences of aging out of foster care with no support are exceedingly apparent to me, and they further inspire me to do my part to help create a better system.
I have been told on occasion that my story itself is inspiring. While I would like to think that it could provide a glimmer of hope to those who may need it, I believe the term “success story” is premature. There is so much more work to be done. I am currently a second-year law student and some days the gravity of the path I’ve chosen leaves me shaken. Law school, especially in a pandemic, is one of the most difficult challenges I’ve ever faced. One night recently, I felt so stressed and overwhelmed by everything that I found myself frozen in a mirror, paralyzed except for the progression of tears down my cheeks. I made myself remember, through the cloud of uncertainty and hurt, that I was living in a season that I used to only dream of. That was the night I systematically covered my apartment in reminder notes. “Things that matter are hard.” Everything I’m doing feels next to impossible sometimes. If it didn’t feel that way, I would wonder how much it truly mattered.
Most days I still doubt the power of my own voice and my capacity to take on the deeply complex set of issues faced by the child welfare system. However, even if I’m not a “success story” and I never accomplish all of the goals I have set for myself, I will always be inspired by the little girl I once was. She walked through hell to give me the amazing life I have now, full of love, friendship and opportunities. I will always be inspired by those who open their hearts to disenfranchised children for all the right reasons, and those who speak out on their behalf even when it is uncomfortable and difficult. Most of all, I will always be inspired by the child who looks at me with eyes that can’t quite hide a lifetime of pain and says, “I can do anything.”