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maria’s story

I've always believed, from a very young age, that it could always be worse.
There is always someone who will have it remarkably better than you.
There will always be someone wishing they could have it as good as you do now.

It may be because I never had another existence to compare it to.
Or maybe, it was just the perspective I chose.

Biologically, I was born the last of 9 children, 5 boys, 3 girls and a surprise...me.
Most, if not all, had been in and out of the "system" throughout their childhood.
My time started when I was just 6 months old, removed from the home under allegations of abuse and neglect.
I've heard the stories over the years... left unsupervised, dirty or malnourished. Questions about the relationships within the home.
Who knows the truth? Too many years and files long since lost.
That's not the point of the story.
The beginning never is. 
It is always temporary.

Regardless, in those days, the parents rights were not severed and adoption was not an option unless the parent gave permission. With a mother that spoke broken english, was deemed mentally ill and was in and out of the state, homeless shelters and the system herself, I was left in the foster care system my entire childhood— left to age out at eighteen.

I could tell you about the harsh realities of a life without a family of my own.
The seemingly endless placements, barrage of foster care workers, case workers, court visits, DES offices, counselors, psychologists, cars that resembled the police showing up at school or the meager belongings we were ever able to call "our own." There are the trash bags used to lug things from place to place, sharing "a drawer" or "a mattress" as was required by the state to be sufficient care. I could tell you about the other foster children, some who were battling demons of PTSD or ADHD or simply so afraid, the only thing left to do was act out. I could tell you about being exposed to very adult topics way before I should have been. That would all be a part of the fabric of foster care, however it would never be the whole story. 
That's not the point of the story.
The early parts never are.
They are temporary.

The truth is, I was beyond fortunate. 
I can't tell you how many times I moved by the time I was 2 years old, but I can tell you I landed on the doorstep of a home with 4 other children, one of which was my next youngest brother Joe. For just a little while, we were together. I can tell you that the senior-aged mother of the home was the only person I ever truly called Mom and felt completely in love with all that she was. I can tell you about fun birthday parties with loads of people, backyard cookouts, Mexican music and more tortillas than I could ever imagine being consumed by a toddler. I could tell you about Christmases with loads of lights, tons of gifts and a house filled with antiques. I could tell you about how bonded she was to me, that she gave up care of all the other children and forced her then 35 year old daughter who never wanted kids, to become a foster parent so I would not have to leave when she became too old. This would only be part of the story too.
It is all temporary.

My life was not without tragedy or pain. That same mom would die in my arms of a heart attack when I was only 9 years old. I couldn't save her from years of overeating, smoking and poor health or the heart attack that killed her. I would completely shut down for a time and learn how to fake being alright so the caseworkers and psychiatrists would leave me alone. I could fool them all. I became the perfect version of a foster child that was doing well. I just never quite smiled as bright as before.

When the emotional and sometimes physical abuse in that house would occur, I managed to keep it completely behind closed doors. 
After all, it could always be worse as my foster mother would remind me.
I could wind up in a crowded group home or with other children battling mental illness or I could lose any of the friends at school that I had managed to make.
Her favorite way of making that point was to send me to another home so I could see how "grateful" I should be for what I had.
Control was everything.
I would spend years perfecting the art of walking on eggshells to avoid the violence or abuse of a woman forced into a life she didn't want.
After "Mom" died, her daughter didn't want the checks to stop so she kept on being a foster parent.
I kept on giving the Oscar performance of the year. It could always be worse. 

From the outside, I had it all.
All the clothes or toys or books that any child could want.
There were always lots of "things" after one of her episodes.
I had my own room, a big house to play in and a safe neighborhood to live in.
I knew it could always be worse.
There will always be someone wishing they could have it as good as you do now.

The challenges in that foster home were getting harder to hide as I grew older.
I had a caseworker who was not as easily fooled by my performances and began to ask too many questions.
He never accepted that I really was as fortunate as I would say I was, or as lucky as my foster mother wanted him to believe.
He believed things could actually be better on my own, not worse than I knew.

The Independent Living Project was a new proposed pilot in those days. Many other states had already successfully built a program that would teach young adults in their final year of foster care (17-18) to write checks, balance a checkbook, cook, clean, stay in school and live on their own, instead of stay in a foster home. While my foster mother was completely against it for it meant no more checks, my caseworker was adamant. This is your life. What will YOU do with it? He taught me the fundamental lesson that I already knew. It IS ALL UP TO YOU.

I was only 16. 
I was a junior in high school.
One year below the limit they'd originally set and yet, there were so few youth at the time that showed any hope of being successful.
I did well in school.
I'd already had jobs for over a year.
I was responsible, polite, quiet and respectful.
I was an excellent candidate.

I told my caseworker I would do it but only if he was present when I let my foster parent know. 
I feared the retribution for going against her control.
I wasn't wrong and yet she knew that others were watching.
She gave me only a trash bag and a couple of boxes to take only the personal items I'd bought with my own money-nothing more after so many years in and out of that home.
Yet that's not the whole story.
The middle of the beginning never is.
It's all temporary.

I could tell you about the fear at night in beige furnished apartments for several years.
I could tell you about the multiple jobs in retail and food services I had to hold to keep an apartment while still graduating high school and beyond.
I could tell you about skateboarding to and from work late at night with only a flashlight to light the way while others had cars.
I could tell you about the endless boxes of mac and cheese or perfecting the art of making a burrito last several days.
But that would not be the whole story.

I was truly fortunate.
While on my own so young, I learned how to trust in myself COMPLETELY, over popular opinion, self-doubt and even if I make mistakes. I'm still the only one I answer to.
I built my confidence not on my looks or circumstances, but on how many times I could overcome various challenges to push through.
I learned how not to give up or feel sorry for myself when things seem to be so much harder than expected.
I learned that trauma is not something you have to endure, but that there are lessons in the darkness if you only try to find them.
I learned to love a strong work ethic not just because I had to, but because of all that it would reward me with.
I learned that freedom is not to be taken for granted.
I learned that I am so much more than my circumstances.
I managed to find not one person to help me find my way, but countless others to help guide my path.
They would always appear at just the right time.
Maybe only one conversation. Maybe just a safe place to stay. Maybe a wonderful meal or a holiday or a fun outing.
Maybe for years to come.
I learned that if you don't want to spend your holidays alone, you can always find a homeless shelter or food bank to help those with even less than you.
I learned that my friends with "so-called perfect" 2 parent families, were not any more immune to the threats of violence, abuse, financial struggle or addiction than any of the rest of us. I just knew how to handle it and could help them through.

I learned that when others expect so little of you, for whatever reason they come up with, it is incredible just how easy it is to exceed every expectation they will ever have.
Being underestimated is by far one of the most fun lessons of my youth.
It would help pave the way for making EVERYTHING possible.

I would go on to complete high school successfully on time.
I would go on to earn a bachelor's degree from ASU and not one, but 2 graduate degrees from UoPHX and GCU.
I would get married and have an incredible life filled with joy, beautiful holidays, international travel and fun.
I would build a successful 16 year career in higher education helping other adult students to achieve their degrees and later, building online divisions within schools to bring even more opportunities to others.

While life was decidedly better than what might have first been expected, it is not without its challenges still.
Divorce, unemployment, bankruptcy, health challenges are all part of the fabric too.
Yet that too, is not the whole story.

The truth is I am so incredibly fortunate for my youth.
I learned more in those first short years about just what I am capable of simply by keeping to the one fundamental belief.
Things could always be worse.
There will always be someone much better off than you are now.
There is always someone wishing to be at least where you are now.
You decide what the meaning of anything will be.
You decide what your circumstances will dictate.
The choice is yours.

What will you decide?


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