The youth-written stories in Represent give inspiration and information to teens in foster care while offering staff insight into those teens’ struggles.

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When a Staff You Love Leaves
Zariah Oliveras

Ten months ago, I moved into Our Sister’s Place (OSP), a house for pregnant and parenting young women in foster care. I had my daughter five months ago and hope to be leaving soon. I haven’t liked much about the place except for the youth advocate, Ms. Awilda.

When I was 14, I ran away from my mother’s house because she was abusive. Then I got pregnant and was crashing with friends until I realized that I had to be more responsible if I wanted to keep my child. So I put myself into care and was placed in OSP.

There are six girls and six babies in the house now. We all have our own rooms on the third and fourth floors, and our babies sleep in cribs in our rooms. On the main floor is the kitchen and living room. The second floor has the computer room and nurses’ offices, and the fifth floor has offices for the director and the supervisor and the caseworkers.

Two staff were on duty the night I arrived. My first impression was that they weren’t the brightest people. As time went on, I realized they were not only dumb, but also petty and mean. They’d whisper and laugh about the girls in the house, like they were teenagers themselves. They were supposed to take care of us, not gossip about us.

Ms. Awilda seemed different. She never fed into the drama: If one of the young moms talked about, say, fighting outside of the house, she wouldn’t ask questions. She’d just wait for them to stop. Other staff encouraged gossip about bad behavior and even spread it more.

Awilda was more mature, even though she was younger. From the way she dressed—ripped jeans, sexy shirts—she looked so young that I thought she might be one of the girls.

I didn’t like her at first, and maybe that’s why: I have had trouble getting along with girls my age. I get along with boys; I was raised with three brothers and a boy cousin in a house where boys were treated better.

I grew up judging new people I met. My mom used to call me a b-tch, and that made me feel bad about myself. A lot of people left me—family, friends—so I assume they found something wrong with me. Judging protects me: I judge people before they judge me.

But I’ve been trying to be less judgmental so I can be a better mom. I look harder for the good in people. That effort helped me see that Awilda was not a bad person.

Looking Out for Me

Awilda did her best to get OSP to pay for activities for the girls, and she offered to take us to them. No other staff did that for us, and the other girls did want to go to movies and out to eat. But they gave Awilda attitude, broke curfew, and disrespected her. So when Awilda tried to advocate for us, she looked stupid. The supervisor would ask, “Why should we do this for them? They’re not doing what they have to do.”

Staff complained about her when she wasn’t there. They’d whine about the time she got to work because Awilda made her own hours. They meanwhile had to punch a clock. Plus she made more money than they did. Basically, the staff there likes to complain all the damn time: That’s why I mostly stay in my room.

I know how it feels not to be liked, so I showed her I liked her. I talked to her when the other girls wouldn’t. I took her advice to heart and thanked her for it. We grew closer.

After living in the house for four months, one day I came home tired from seeing my baby’s father in the Bronx. I sat down with Awilda in the third floor living room. It was just us; the other girls weren’t home and staff were downstairs.

“Zariah, can I talk to you?” Awilda asked.

“Yeah, sure,” I said, looking at her, then back at my phone.

“Zariah, you really need to watch what you say to staff,” she said.

“I know.”

“No, really, Zariah, you need to watch what you say, because staff are writing down the stuff you say,” she said.

That got me thinking: Staff often quoted things I’d said when they hadn’t even been there. I had noticed that the staff were gossipy. They’d diss a young mom in front of the rest of us. I realized Awilda was trying to keep me out of trouble.

In My Shoes

Once I knew she was looking out for me, I started to appreciate her good personality. She always had a smile on her face—even when she walked into a house full of people who didn’t like her. She didn’t let it bother her, and she did her job well. And she let me know over and over that she cared about me. One day, before I had Arline, she told me something about herself that shocked me.

“I was in your shoes, Zariah. I was 13 and pregnant and I had my son at 14,” she told me. I wanted to cry with relief because I wasn’t alone. I was 14 when I got pregnant, and here was someone I looked up to who had sex and had a baby at a young age too.

“So, Zariah, I was there, and I want to see you do good and not fall back because you’re going to be a mom soon. You need to do good for your daughter and show her you made it even though you had her at a young age.”

Role Model

I never would have suspected that Awilda was a wild child until I got to know her. As a teenager, she was locked up for fighting. But she went from a reckless kid to an adult who supports herself and her son. She is my inspiration.

After she said that, I thought, “Damn, I really need to be on my sh-t once my daughter is born.” This seems like basic advice, but no other adults were telling me that. “You’re right,” I told her. “Once she’s here, Ima be about school and not fall behind.”

After that day I started to talk to Awilda more often. I told her when the other staff came at me in an unfair way, blaming me for things I didn’t do. A lot of times, she’d already noticed it. I told her what the staff said about her behind her back, but she already knew that too.

I asked her, “How can you work with people who are always talking about you and then smiling in your face?” She told me she’s killing them with kindness and just ignoring them when they’re petty. Staff would ask Awilda, “So, are you tired?” and it was clearly a dig because Ms. Awilda works on her own schedule. Awilda just smiled and nodded.

Seeing her handle them made me realize that there will be petty people in everyone’s life. She showed me how to bite my tongue and walk away: Not all actions need a reaction. Now when one of the other girls or staff tries to get me mad, I just go to my room.

When I was eight months pregnant, Awilda and I went to the beach. We talked a lot about the house. It felt good that she saw the things going on there too. I’d been feeling like I was crazy because everyone else acted like the back-stabbing and meanness was normal. Hearing that someone as together as Ms. Awilda saw it all too was a relief.

“I just want to AWOL and never come back,” I said.

“Zariah, no. Don’t do that. You came way too far to do that,” she said.

image by YC-Art Dept

“I know, but, living in this house is too much to handle.”

“I know, Zariah. But it’s not about you anymore; it’s about you and Arline,” she said.

These talks brought us closer. I would feel happy when she got to work. She’d ask me what I’d been doing and we talked about anything. It felt good to have someone like her around.

She Didn’t Tell Me

One day she took me into the living room and she was telling me about the great foster home that she was in until she aged out and got her own apartment. She said it would be way better for Arline and me to be in a family setting. She said she would have suggested her old foster home sooner, but she wanted to wait until she really got to know me.

For Awilda to say, “Zariah, I think the foster mother I had would be great for you” really touched my heart.

The funny thing was that the director had told me about the same home the day before Awilda did! But I was convinced by the bad stories about foster homes that I should avoid them. But after Awilda told me about her experience, I opened my mind to the possibility. Maybe a foster home would be better for Arline and me than this group home—or couch surfing with friends. That Awilda had had a good experience made a big difference.

Unfortunately, there was a mix-up, and Awilda’s old foster mother took in another girl, thinking she was me. I was disappointed because Awilda had gotten me excited about that house. She tried to cheer me up: “But Zariah, there are other great houses.”

In the middle of November, Ms. Awilda didn’t show up at the house for a few days. I knew she wasn’t going on vacation until the following month, so it was weird.

Finally I texted her:

Z: *Hayy*

Z: *Hey how you doing?*

She wrote back: *Good hbu*

Z: *I’m good also.*

A: *I miss you and Arline and how is she doing?*

Z: *She’s good, Why haven’t you come back?*

A: *Sorry but I quit as of last week*

So many things ran through my mind. Why would she leave me? She had told me she was gonna stay until I left.

Z: *Wtf, Why you left*

A tear ran down my face.

She wrote back quickly, *I felt so bad because I had a good relationship with you but that job just wasn’t for me. I’ll still be there for you trust me!*

Z: *You didn’t even tell me*

A: *Because I didn’t know how to tell you.*

Z: *You could have still told me like I’m so heartbroken right now.*

She told me that she was going to stay with me until I left the house, but she left me. She was the only good thing in that place. I couldn’t believe that the one person I let in left me behind. I wondered if I should have let her into my heart.

But if it wasn’t for Awilda, I might have run away and gotten Arline taken away from me. I’m grateful that Awilda convinced me to stay. She showed me that I can’t only think about me. I have to think about my beautiful daughter.

I’m grateful that I met Awilda, even if I’m hurt she left without saying goodbye. I know she’s busy, but I do think she cares about me. When I text her it takes her a day or two to answer, but she eventually replies. We are getting together this weekend. I think she’s someone I’ll be able to count on.

Zariah’s Rules For Staff

Don’t gossip about the youth.

Don’t gossip about the other staff.

Share your relevant experience and advice with youth.

Offer support and help.

If you are leaving your job, give the foster youth you’re close with as much notice as you can. Goodbyes are hard, and you may feel guilty, but it’s your responsibility to make it a good ending.

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