‘I awoke to three strangers standing in our living room, grave concern on their faces. ‘Their mom hasn’t been here.’ I was driven away by police car, anxious and confused.’: Former foster youth urges ‘you aren’t your circumstances’

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“When I think back to my early childhood, I don’t remember much. I have a few memories but not enough to string together a storybook. But that doesn’t matter. In life, you work with what you have.

At the age of five, I went into foster care. Before I was removed from my family, life seemed pretty regular. There are a few memories that stick out. Unfortunately, not of the good kind. I remember being hungry and spending a lot of unsupervised time with my siblings. What sticks out to me the most was the nothingness I often felt. Just pure boredom where the days seemed to drag on.

childhood pic
Courtesy of Jamerika Haynes-Lewis

One memory that is precious to me is when I went to a cousin’s birthday party. I believe she was turning three or four. My family didn’t have much growing up. But we had each other and a roof over our head. Attending my cousin’s party was very exciting time to me. There was food, games, and of course gifts. Even though I wasn’t the birthday girl, this experience still makes me smile. At the party, I had the chance to ride my cousin’s new Barbie pink convertible. While she screamed to have her car back, I ignored her and continued to ride around. I remember feeling so happy and free. For a moment, I had the chance to not think about the chaotic situation I was living in.

As time went on, I remember my mother being around less and less. I hadn’t heard of the word ‘drugs,’ but I would later learn how they impacted my family. During my mother’s absence, my 12-year-old-sister became my mom. She would take care of me my siblings and I. Whatever food was in the house, she would cook it for us. She would comfort us when we were sad. Sometimes, she even took care of our mom. I didn’t realize the burden she carried on her shoulders. In spite of, I felt loved by sister and even my mom. In return, I loved them. I never judged my mom or what she was experiencing. I just wanted her to be okay.

childhood pic
Courtesy of Jamerika Haynes-Lewis

The day when social services showed up is when I knew things were bad. It’s a day I’ll never forget. I woke up one morning and found three strangers standing in our living room. I had never seen them before. They seemed to stand 20 feet tall. As I looked up at them, I could see grave concern on their faces. I recall one of them saying, ‘She hasn’t been here.’ Before I knew it, I was being driven in a police car. I wasn’t sure where we were going. I felt anxious and confused. We finally arrived at our destination. It was a modest green house with a chain link fence. There was a sidewalk that led up to the front of the house. Standing there was a petite elderly woman with a white t-shirt, floral skirt, and her hair pulled up in a high bun. She greeted me with a smile.

‘Hi Jamerika,’ she said, as if she knew me her whole life. I had been feeling self-conscious up until that point; I was wearing a Christmas sweater, purple corduroy pants, and pink snow boots in the dead heat of summer. I began to relax and forgot about my appearance. I smiled at her in return and went into the house. This woman was named Mrs. Johnson and she would be my foster mom. I would later meet her husband Mr. Johnson. For the next five years, they would become my family. We shared meals together, attended church, and went on vacations. Even when I felt sad about my situation, I thought to myself how lucky I was to live with the Johnsons. They were my parents. I never wanted to leave.

Courtesy of Jamerika Haynes-Lewis

At the age of ten, I moved away from the Johnsons. It was one of the saddest days in my life. I would go on to live in other foster homes. Like most young people, I turned 18. I decided to move out and take control of my life. I knew if I wanted a different life than what I experienced, I was going to have to work for it. I also had the chance to reconnect with my mother. With so many years having passed by, I had few memories of her. I learned she was doing so much better; she had her own place and was in recovery from substance abuse. Like me, my mom had suffered trauma in her life. She didn’t have the support she needed which led to several crises. Though I missed not being with my family, I was grateful for the time we did have now. I was also able to reconnect and spend time with the Johnsons before they passed away.

At the age of 19, I enrolled myself in the local community college. Even as a child, I knew I wanted to be a communicator of some kind. I would often tell people, ‘I want to be actress.’ I was met with stares of confusion. I didn’t care. I was determined to succeed. I graduated from Washington State University with a degree in Communication. Later, I would become a news reporter and eventually a motivational speaker. As a storyteller, I wanted to share the stories of those who are often unheard – the poor, marginalized, and anyone else whose identity isn’t valued by society.

Courtesy of Jamerika Haynes-Lewis

During college, I had the opportunity to compete in pageantry. Thirteen years later, I won my first national title. This past July, I was crowned USA Ambassador Ms. 2021. I decided to name my platform ‘A Chance to Succeed: Empowering Youth in Foster Care.’ After spending 13 years in the system, I wanted to improve it. At times, I felt ignored or not taken seriously. This impacted me. It led to me feeling unsure about myself and angry at the world. This is why I became an advocate. I didn’t want another young person to go through the system without having their needs met. It’s been an honor to share my story, speak at conferences, and partner with organizations who are working to create change.

Courtesy of Jamerika Haynes-Lewis
Courtesy of Jamerika Haynes-Lewis

I am immensely proud of the woman I have become and the accomplishments I’ve achieved. However, what makes me feel complete is having my family with me. Last October, I married my best friend Greg. Being married has given me the chance to love and be loved unconditionally. This wasn’t something that always happened when I was in foster care. Reconnecting with my mom and siblings has been a godsend. My mother and siblings are doing great. They now have children of their own and even grandchildren. Seeing my nieces and nephews grow up is a sign that life goes on. It’s also a reminder that people aren’t their circumstances. With the right support, I believe can go on to live happy and fulfilled lives. And they do. My family and I are proof of that.

People often ask me what helped me cope with being in foster care. I proudly tell them my faith. I found encouragement from people who experienced adversity in the bible. I often thought of the story of David and Goliath. At times, foster care felt like a giant in my life. I wasn’t sure how to fight it but I knew how to pray. I would remind myself David was afraid, but he had trust that he would prevail. I felt that if David could rise above his situation, so could I. Any ridicule I experienced would become immaterial. And it would be because I trusted myself and God that I would make it.

Courtesy of Jamerika Haynes-Lewis
Courtesy of Jamerika Haynes-Lewis

For any young person going through foster care – please know that it’s not your fault or that you did something wrong. Know that you aren’t your circumstances and you deserve respect. It may seem hard, but you can’t give up. A quote that a friend constantly shares is, ‘You don’t fail until you quit.’ I was able to get through foster care by staying connected to others. You don’t need a ton of friends or to have the latest and greatest. When you isolate, it can further your sadness and cut you off from valuable information. Learn what your rights are and know that you’re entitled to being safe.

For parents who have children in the system, you are worthy of your children. Yes, you may be judged but that doesn’t stop you from being your child’s parent. Do what you can to get your children back. If they’re not able to come back to you, continue to work on you. Most people I know who were in foster care still loved their family and wanted to connect with them. Use this time to go back to school, obtain employment, and secure housing. Your children would want you to succeed. Find a community that will support you through both good and bad times. I have faith in you!

If you want to be an ally for those in the system, listen. Be willing to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. Not everyone can be a foster parent but everyone can pitch in somehow. Consider hosting a donation drive, mentoring, or providing respite care to foster parents. If you come across a young person who’s in foster care, treat them like other kids. If you’re not sure how to help, ask how you can. Some young people may take you up on your offer and others may not. That’s okay. As long as they see you are a trustworthy person, that’s what matters. If you meet a parent whose child is in the system, also extend support to them as well.

For many years, I wished away my past of being in the system. Now I realize this chapter in my life is a part of my story. What I do wish for is for the stigma of being a foster child to be eliminated. No family expects the bottom of their lives to fall out. It’s imperative as a nation we provide support for families during their time of need. My family needed help. Tomorrow it could be yours. No matter how insignificant it may seem, we all play in part in strengthening our communities.”

Courtesy of Jamerika Haynes-Lewis

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Jamerika Haynes-Lewis of Seattle, Washington. You can follow her journey on Instagram , Facebook, and her blog. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

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