The statistics and vulnerabilities of former foster youth roll easily off my tongue. Homelessness, unemployment, incarceration, and lack of a college education are commonly known outcomes for those who have aged out of the foster care system.
I aged out of foster care at the age of 18, after 5 years in care.
I began telling my story and talking about foster care before aging out and continued as I attended college, worked hard, and avoided the obstacles ahead of me. By all accounts, I was a foster alumni success story. I hung my identity on having navigated the challenges of young adulthood when the odds were stacked against me.
We often uphold icons of success without considering their struggles or missteps. While I’m no icon, I did the same thing to myself. I compartmentalized the challenges of my adolescence and mistakenly believed that I had “made it.” I understood that everyone has bad days every now and then, but I imagined that I was out of the woods of hardship.
I eventually found myself deeply unhappy–struggling with almost every aspect of my life, treading water, and living in fear of when it would finally just all fall apart. It was then that I started to question what being a success really meant. I began thinking about the lives of my brothers and sisters of the foster care system, those I’d lived with, met, talked with, connected with, cried with. Not everyone was part of the small percentage of those that earn a college degree, or had exciting jobs, or had otherwise “made it”. Some do become a part of the statistics in some way; however, many of those people find happiness, stability, and health.
Parents, professionals, and society in general often have clearly defined parameters for what success really means. Our definition of success often overlooks well-being. With this in mind, I redefined what success meant for me, as an alumni of the foster care system. Here are four things that make me feel successful:
Managing my mental health
Last year, I was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. At first, I felt as though this was some kind of personal failing. I had overcome the depression and self-harm behavior that I had struggled with in my teen years, and having a new mental health diagnosis felt like a backslide. Fortunately, this diagnosis was more of a blessing than a failing. It gave me the tools to understand why I was struggling and gave me the power to combat my anxieties and fears. I had a new way of contextualizing my challenges, rather than seeing them as personality flaws. Treatment allowed me the ability to take steps every day to keep myself on track and monitor my mental health.
Application: Combat the stigma of mental health.
By talking about mental health and normalizing treatment, we empower youth and young adults to take control of their mental health without a sense of shame. If you have a child or adolescent in your care, help them to understand what their mental health diagnosis means. Help them to learn and identify for themselves when their mental health is taking a dip, and what steps they can take to address it.
Having a network of support
For those in foster care, permanence is a huge focus. Having a family that will love and support you is invaluable as you grow as a person and transition into independence. For many youth, this isn’t reality as they age out of foster care without formal support. It is important to not only have a place to call home but to have people you can rely on in times of trouble. Think about your own life. Do you go to the same person for advice in all areas of life? For encouragement? For a good laugh? To learn what to do with your finances or when your car is making that really weird noise? Over the years, it’s been immeasurably beneficial for me to have not only the support of my foster parents but that of friends, mentors, and extended family.
Application: If you’ve ever thought about being a foster parent, but not made the leap, I encourage you to find out more.
You could be an important part of the steady foundation that a child needs, throughout life. If fostering isn’t right for you, think about being a mentor or finding a way to help support a foster family in your community. If you’re already the support for a youth, help them think about who their network includes and how to grow their connections.
Knowing how to ask for and accept help
During this past year, I went through a divorce–another life event that had me feeling like I was failing and questioning whether I had really overcome my past. I suddenly needed a place to stay, furniture, and tons of support and advice. This challenged me to utilize my amazing support network and accept the help they offered. I struggled with what many do–some stubborn pride and fear of being a burden. My history in care made me nervous to rely on the kindness of others. When I let down my walls, I experienced an abundance of generosity and support. Though it sounds cliche, I began to fully realize that success isn’t defined by never experiencing failure but in how you handle the difficult seasons in life.
Application: Learning how to accept help is no easy task.
The best way to help someone else learn this is to model it for them. Think about how often we see our loved ones ask for help, and examine your own thoughts and feelings about asking for help. Process the fears and obstacles to asking for help with your child. Sometimes we all just need a little push to realize that asking for help isn’t the end of the world.
Finding self-worth outside of my accomplishments
Once you start basing your self-worth on things that you have accomplished, it becomes weak and conditional. Any perceived change in ability or holding yourself in comparison to others can send your sense of worth spinning. It’s okay proud of myself for the things I’ve accomplished and barriers I’ve surpassed without tying it to my worth as a person. I don’t have to be the best foster care advocate, or an author, or talented public speaker. I can be healthy and happy and good to myself and others. And I can have worth whether I am doing well at those things or not.
Application: What is it that we value in others?
I’m often disappointed by how we view certain jobs and paths as “less than.” If we value others based on their intrinsic worth rather than what we view as being good enough, this can shape the way our youth view themselves. Foster youth are often trying to find where they fit in and what makes them who they are. It’s important to send the message that who they are is good enough.Hearing the voices and experiences of current and former foster youth is important and empowering. – Gretta Weiss @imagineconfpgh Click To Tweet
Hearing the voices and experiences of current and former foster youth is important and empowering.
For more insight into foster care and what life after foster care looks like, follow the Pennsylvania Youth Advisory Board and Foster Focus Magazine. Check out the Foster Care Welcome Booklet, created by youth in care: http://www.independentlivingpa.org/FosterCareBook.htm and the What Foster Care Feels Like Campaign: https://www.fosterfocusmag.com/what-foster-care-feels-photo-gallery. The Youth Advisory Board is comprised of current and former foster youth across Pennsylvania, and Foster Focus Magazine is run by an alumni of the foster care system and is the nation’s only magazine dedicated to foster care.
To learn more about current foster care issues and important policies that impact the lives of foster youth, follow the work of the Foster Care Alumni of America: https://fostercarealumni.org/. The FCAA is a national organization developed by alumni of the foster care system and is dedicated to ensuring that those “in and from foster care are connected, empowered, and flourishing”.
Greta Weiss is an advocate, speaker, and post adoption specialist living in Pittsburgh. She obtained an MA in Clinical Mental Health Counseling in 2016 and works with adoptive children and families at Bethany Christian Services. Greta is a passionate advocate of all children finding positive and permanent connections, as well as older youth fostering and adoption.