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ISBN: 9781935552017
Making the Best Out of Foster Care

I grew up in New York, but when I was 13 my family moved to South Africa—where my parents are from. Then, at age 15, I returned to New York City on my own; my parents couldn’t afford to come. I wanted to get into an American college, so I was determined to return for my last two years of high school, even if it meant being separated from my parents. I bounced around from relative to relative. I was briefly in Albany, then Atlanta, then returned to New York City to be with my older brother, who had also returned from South Africa.

It was freezing when I got off the bus in Chinatown, a dry cold that made the skin on my cheeks feel tight. All my clothes, toiletries, and electronics—my whole life—was packed in two big suitcases. My brother was a block away from the bus stop waiting for me.

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He had just turned 21 and was moving from couch to couch. We thought we’d have a better chance of finding housing together. But first we needed a place for the night. We sat on a bench for 20 minutes researching shelters on our phones. Then we took the 4 train to PATH (Prevention Assistance and Temporary Housing), the office in the Bronx that you have to go through in order to be placed in a shelter.

We entered PATH through an X-ray and a metal detector and passed 10 police officers. Around us were pregnant women, some with two, three, and even five children, all clutching suitcases or plastic bags showing all their belongings; pots, pillows, clothing. There were men too, single fathers and those accompanying their girlfriends or wives. My brother and I could barely hear each other over the din of babies crying, children complaining, and their mothers’ yelling.

From Shelter to Shelter

We cracked jokes about some of the couples in line. We were forcing ourselves to make light of the sad stories around us. It didn’t feel real. What I had in common with all these families was homelessness. It seemed so far from my old life with my mother and father. Now my brother was playing the parent role. It was overwhelming, awkward—and inspiring. In that moment I told myself, “Do everything in your power to make sure your children never experience this.”

Within three months we went to three shelters and four overnights (a “hotel” they take you to when you first get to PATH) while caseworkers tried to find us a permanent housing. We would be woken up early in the morning or late at night and told to head to the Bronx with all our belongings because they kept finding us “ineligible.” We’d stay at PATH for hours while they repeated procedures again and again, like reviewing our documents and checking if we’d gotten new ones they’d asked for last time. Eventually, my brother and I were forced to split up.

I went to a youth shelter called Covenant House, and he went on the streets. He refused to go to Bellevue men’s shelter because of its horrible condition, and the only other available shelter was for gay men.

During this time I was in a program that helps students transition to college. It had a strict attendance policy that I tried hard to follow. But I kept missing my classes because of all the PATH appointments.

Wasted on Watches

I had to tell the program advisor that I was in a shelter. He seemed more traumatized than I was. His face was drowned in pity as I talked, and it made me uncomfortable. I hate being seen as a charity case. I felt so embarrassed, but I didn’t want to get kicked out of the program. If I wanted to stay on track with my goals I had to make sure I stayed in that class.

From Covenant House, I ended up going into foster care. During times like this I got upset with my parents. Normally, I was understanding about their financial troubles and grateful that they’d tried hard to give me whatever they could. But traveling from shelter to shelter, I resented them for not planning better. My father made good money when we all lived together, working at a golf course, but he spent it on things like expensive watches.

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His irresponsibility is why I was in a shelter and why I’m now in foster care, and for a short time I couldn’t stand him because of it. After working for years, he had nothing to show except a couple of Movado watches and a son on the streets and a daughter in foster care. My mother isn’t faultless either; I always wondered why she didn’t work when money was so tight. I take after my mom in many ways, but I will not be dependent on my spouse financially. I want to be self-sufficient.

Group Home Benefits

When I entered foster care, I asked to be placed in a group home—a setting where several foster kids live together with a staff of caregivers. I still loved my family, and a foster home felt like playing house—getting fake siblings and having some stranger as my fake parent who was paid to house me. I shared a floor with 60 girls and a room with three in Covenant House; I figured I could easily share a house with five girls and a bedroom with only one in a group home.

I quickly realized that foster care had more benefits than being in a shelter.

Every day I come home from school or work and walk into the kitchen and wash my hands. I take out a dinner that was carefully wrapped up for me. I take my plate to the dining area and sit where the kitchen light shines in and enjoy my home cooked meal—food that has seasoning, color, and is easily recognizable. It’s not the healthiest food, but it’s better than the reheated frozen chow in the shelters. And instead of sitting on a white bench attached to the table eating in a cafeteria, I sit at a table with four chairs, set with a table cloth, china, and either fruit or flowers as a centerpiece.

I often eat alone, but I like it because it gives me time to think. Sometimes I wonder what my brother is eating. That’s the only time I don’t enjoy my food because most likely he isn’t eating enough. If I know he’s visiting me the next day I save him my dinner and eat a bowl of cereal instead. It’s not easy being separated from family when you’ve been with them most of your life. It’s even harder to see them struggle as your life gets better but you don’t have enough to help them.

Now I Smile More

Foster care is far from perfect. Nobody from my agency helped me get into or stay in college or helped me get my job at Banana Republic. Those were my efforts. And it’s hard to study when the girls in the group home scream at each other and blast music. I hate having to share a bathroom with girls who think it’s somebody else’s job to wash the tub, or who throw away cutlery and complain that they have to eat cereal with a fork. There are times when I think, I shouldn’t have to deal with this.

On the bright side, getting a weekly allowance, monthly stipends, clothing money every season, and money for lunch daily isn’t something I can complain about. Foster care helps me in many parts of my life, like getting braces. My parents were never able to afford them and my mother taught me that a smile is your best accessory, so not feeling confident about my teeth weighed me down at times. Getting free dental care meant more than I thought it would.

I have a place to live, health insurance, and no bills while going to college full-time; I plan to take advantage of this until I graduate, which fortunately will be around the time I age out of foster care. I know that my parents won’t be able to return to America before I’m 21. In the four years that I’ll spend in care I plan to get my bachelor’s degree. When I’m on my own I hope to get my law degree and become a corporate attorney.

I’m actually glad that I came into foster care. Of course I miss my parents, but had I been living with them, I doubt I’d have been able to get my braces and pay for college.

I’ve changed a lot over the past two years. I’ve proven my ability to do for myself, and reaching my career goals seems more possible. I’m going to get my housing in order and then I’ll think about a boyfriend or my own family. Now there’s nothing to distract me, nobody to tell me, “You can’t go.” There is nothing in my way.

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