Seven years ago, I was sitting on the Piazza Michelangelo in Florence, Italy sipping wine and watching the most beautiful sunset with my friends. Years prior to that I was a foster child, experiencing years of neglect. I had lost both of my parents, and had zero direction of where I wanted to go in life. I had made a complete 180 in my life. What changed?
I took ownership of my life — and you can too!
Growing up my life was incredibly unstable. I went through abuse, neglect, poverty, unstable housing, living with relatives, becoming a foster kid, then eventually turning into an orphan. Both of my parents had their struggles with substance abuse of their different liking. I lived with my mom off and on until I was eleven. While I was in foster care she overdosed, though no one told me this for years. The courts moved me one thousand miles away from my siblings to live in Arkansas with my alcoholic, abusive father. I didn’t understand how the system could fail a child like that. Maybe they were so desperate to find me a home, or maybe no one truly wanted me and that was the last option. My father died a few years later of a heart attack. I always said it was his lifestyle of cigarettes and overconsuming alcohol that killed him.
Seventeen years of trauma. It felt like my mom dying was a door opening to a whole new experience of trauma. I should’ve fallen back into the addiction cycle…except this whole time, some things kept me going: my faith, my friends, and sports.
Faith: I’ve always had a deep spiritual connection to God. From a young age I had the confidence that I’d be okay. When tough times come I remember the words of the Bible that tells us that “God is before us and after us, working everything out for MY good.” Those words meant to me that I will be okay, I will survive.
Friends: Though some may say “blood is thicker than water,” I have to disagree. This statement protects those who are toxic and hurtful in your family. If you are in those situations you need to recognize that it’s okay to set boundaries for your own health. With that in mind, I’ve always found friends that I would consider my family. Many times, I’ve gravitated to friends that were a few years older than me; in a way they were mentors to me. These friends showed up for me at my darkest, cried with me, welcomed me into their homes. They showed me the love my family should’ve, they taught me how to show up for myself, to love myself, and to show up well for others.
Sports: As a foster child you don’t have control over much; unfortunately, I found that my opinion didn’t really matter. I was too young to say who and where I wanted to live. But I did have sports. During the years of trauma, sports were my outlet. I could leave all the pain and anger on the track field. If I was upset, I would lift heavier, run faster (although still at a slow pace!), push my physical body to go to and exceed its limits. Sports took up my time to help me stay out of trouble as well. I learned how to work well with others, how to power through each event for a common goal – to win.
I graduated high school while living with my best friend and her family; a week later I moved my stuff to Florida to begin college. I wasn’t the smartest person, so I didn’t get into state schools and had to go to a private college. Having the opportunity to play track and field on a collegiate level was the greatest opportunity for me. Eventually I transferred to a state school (much cheaper), which gave me the opportunity to study abroad, and I became a first-generation college graduate.
I started this story by sharing with you all the greatest experience of my life: living in Italy during college. I don’t believe in luck, nor do I believe things in life happen at random. When thinking about this trip and the planning, there was very little done. It was fall semester of my sophomore year, I had just transferred, and joined a sorority. I looked into “study abroad” programs; at this point most of the deadlines had passed to apply, except for Florence, Italy.
Going to Italy changed everything for me. Growing up my grandparents traveled the world, while I endured trauma at home. They would always bring me beautiful gifts from around the world, and I loved their photos of Italy. During my time there, I was able to separate myself from everyone and everything I had ever known and immerse myself into a new culture (where they spoke minimal English).
I statistically never should’ve gone to Italy, yet I did. It changed my perspective on life: I realized all the things I thought I couldn’t achieve was simply my limiting mindset. Italy taught me that amidst the heartache, trauma, pain that life has brought me for 17 years, I still have so much joy, beauty and life to experience in my future.
Let me say to other former foster kids out there: what you’ve gone through up until now as a foster child you did not deserve. In life there are successful people – those who make it to places no one has before. You know how they do that? Well, sometimes they have a little privilege in their lives, but mostly it’s because they don’t make excuses — they take ownership of their life. Unfortunately, in the corporate world, no one will give you a free pass because of your hard life and no one will accept your excuses. You will have the same expectations as your colleagues.
How can you do that and succeed? By resolving that beginning today, you will own your story — every single part of it, the good and the bad. Many former foster children hold their head down, they don’t have confidence in their story. I don’t believe in that. Own your story with pride, because you have overcome more in 18 years than others will face in their whole lifetime.
You and your story matter, and here’s how you can make that work for you:
- Take an overview look of your life; are the actions you’re making today going to support where you want to be in five years? Are the people you’re surrounding yourself with a good influence, or are they living a lifestyle you want to run away from?
- If you and your surroundings don’t support where you want to be, redirect your course. Change is not an easy thing, but you cannot let life pass you by. You are never too far along to redirect your life and begin living out the lifestyle you want.
- Next, take action. You’ve done a lot of thinking and writing your story out. Life happens with small actions. Maybe you want to go to college, but have no idea how to get started; begin with Google. Figure out what college you want to go to, what financial aid they have for former foster youth, what grade requirements, etc. From there you have an overview of what you need to do next to get into college.
All that I’ve shared above has been my recipe for personal success. By taking accountability of my life I was able to graduate high school, live in Italy, become a first-generation college graduate, pay off over $20,000 worth of student loan debt, and have a successful career in corporate America. As I look at my life today, I tell myself every single thing I experienced in the past was worth it to be where I am. My life is incredibly beautiful, truly nothing I would’ve expected as a child facing all the trauma I did.
You’ve endured trauma that you didn’t ask for. You never deserved to go through what you did. For many years you were a victim, but now you’re a victor. You are going to utilize your story to empower yourself each day, to build your next steps, to build a lifestyle that you dreamed about as a child. When the going gets tough, remind yourself of where you’ve come from. You are much further along in life than you ever imagined. Keep going.