I’ve been in foster care since I was a kid. I don’t want to get into all the reasons why. But living in the foster care system has not been easy. A few years ago, I was in a group home in West Los Angeles. It was a tough place to be. They had the strictest rules I had ever seen. Everything I did was wrong. If I just stepped outside to say hi to a friend, they’d say, "That’s AWOL." AWOL means Absent Without Leave—it’s like running away. If I said something to a friend at school, they’d send me back to my room.
So when my social worker told me I was going to be placed in a foster home, I was thrilled. I was tired of being in that damn group home. In a foster home, I thought I’d have my freedom. At the same time I was worried. Where was I going? When was I leaving? Who would be there? Would I get provoked by the other kids? My social worker didn’t know the answers to any of these questions.
Before I left, the staff and all the kids in my unit threw a big party for me in the teen lounge. We spent two days decorating the room. The theme was "A Dream Within a Dream." We drew on the blinds—a moon, a half-sun, stars—and we had blue, white, gray and black crepe paper. We put up almost 100 yellow stars.
Finally the time for the party rolled around. When I walked into the lounge, all the youth were there. The boys were wearing suits and the girls had on dresses and little masks. My staff was the deejay—he brought his stereo system from home. When he started playing the music, everyone changed their clothes and came out Adidas style. Backwards hats, baggy pants, tube tops and old-school style—they had it all on underneath the fancy suits and dresses. The girls did a special dance to "Gossip Folks" by Missy Elliott.
And the food—we had chocolate ice cream, cookies-and-cream ice cream, Coke, Pepsi and my favorite cake—a "whip" cake with whipped cream and nuts. The party was really excellent. It had everything. I felt so special—like a man Cinderella.
Then the bad news hit
But when it came time for me to leave, my social worker called me to say that I wouldn’t be going after all. He told me that they said I wasn’t suitable for the home because I had too many "incident reports." In foster care they fill out a report for every "incident" when you do something wrong, like talking back or watching TV when you’re not supposed to or even going AWOL.
Oh, I was mad. Why couldn’t they have told me that before I had a party and packed my stuff and said good-bye to everybody? I was mad, I was mad, I was mad. They were treating me like a string puppet, wanting me to jump to their rhythm. I had no say at all about anything. It hit me so hard.The next day I started getting sick, coughing with a runny nose. I cried every day. Sometimes I would hyperventilate and have panic attacks. I felt like I was an abandoned child.
All I wanted to do was eat. I didn’t come out of my room at all except for mealtimes. I always felt like I was starving. I needed three sandwiches to get through the day. I ate hamburgers, cake, everything that they served in the cafeteria. Then I felt happy for a couple hours. When I went home to visit my mom, she got mad because I ate all her Cup O’ Noodles.
I was eating so much that the staff put limits on my food. I could have only one serving. That just made me mad. So I’d steal orange juice and sandwiches and hide them in my room to eat by myself later on. In a few months, I went from 150 pounds to 214. I couldn’t fit in my clothes. The other kids called me "Fattie" but I didn’t care.
The staff would ask, "What’s going on?" and I said nothing. I didn’t feel like talking. I didn’t trust anybody. I didn’t care and I didn’t want to try to be good. I was just doing whatever I wanted to. Every rule I broke, I got consequences. The first consequence was usually work detail—you had to clean windows, floors or bathrooms for a certain period of time. I wouldn’t do it. I’d just go to sleep or go talk to my friends, and I would get another consequence for doing that—usually more work detail. I wouldn’t do that either, so I got placed in a separate room by myself called "the cottage." It was kind of like getting detention. You have to stay in the cottage all day and there is nothing to do. I just slept. They took away all kinds of privileges—my radio, magazines, TV time, I couldn’t even use the phone.
One time, for P.E. we jumped rope double-dutch on the tennis court. I was so weak I fell down. The staff just told me to get up. It seemed like they didn’t even care.
I was getting more and more depressed and felt like killing myself. I asked God, "Please take me away," but His answer seemed to be that no matter what, I was staying. I asked my staff why they didn’t take me to a mental hospital. I felt like I really needed help. But they told me to stay focused and work through it. I couldn’t understand why they wouldn’t help me. Looking back on it now, I guess the staff tried to support me and be there for me, but it didn’t help that much because I didn’t care at the time.
Then one day, one of the staff walked up to me as I was walking on the track. She asked me, "Are you comfortable with who you are?"
"Yeah," I said.
"No, but seriously," she said.
I thought about it. I realized I looked like a homeless bum. My hair was torn up and tangled like it had never been touched by shampoo, conditioner or human hands. I wore my favorite maroon sweater all the time because it was big and I didn’t want people to look at me. I hadn’t shaved for days. I was hairy, humongous and ugly. I felt like a walrus or an elephant.
"No," I told her.
"Do you want me to help you?" she asked me.
"OK," I told her, although I didn’t know exactly what she had in mind. But I was tired of being sad.
She helped me change my life
She turned into my personal trainer. Every day, I had to swim 50 laps, walk four miles and lift weights. Three days a week, she did yoga with me. And meals—omigod, I couldn’t eat anything. Just salad, no sandwiches, and only one serving at each meal.
But that wasn’t all. She bought me body wash, shampoo and everything. I asked her if she wanted me to pay for them, but she said no, it was a donation. She helped me surround myself with positive things. In my room, we changed my sheets. We took down my poster of the singer Trina in her bra and panties and put up Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, the Backstreet Boys and ‘N Sync. She threw away my big maroon sweater, and told me that if I didn’t come out of my room clean with my hair brushed, she wouldn’t talk to me.
With her help, I set out to change my attitude. Every morning I said to myself, "Today’s going to be a good day." I listened to confident songs like Christina Aguilera’s "I Turn to You," "Fighter," "Can’t Hold Us Down," and "Dirrty." Christina wears short skirts and doesn’t care what people think. I admire her self-respect. That inspired me to be more myself and not care what anybody thinks. I don’t have to be anybody’s Barbie doll or let them play with me.
With all that hard work, I lost 55 pounds. I felt like a supermodel, I was so happy. When I went on my next home visit, my mom almost fainted. She couldn’t thank my group home staff enough. That weekend, I watched Legally Blonde on my mom’s cable TV. I watched it over and over so I could grab onto that confidence that Elle Woods, the main character, had. I wanted to be like her or Cher Horowitz in Clueless. They were self-assured, ambitious and determined. Elle Woods wanted her boyfriend back. She did everything to get him and then she found out she didn’t want him. She walked through Harvard Law School in her cute little pink outfit and they called her Malibu Barbie and she didn’t care.
Things changed a lot for me and I felt like a different person. My grades went up and I was named best student in the yearbook. I also made some new friends—cool friends. We’d play hip-hop music and wear black-hooded sweatshirts and chill. If somebody picked on me, they’d stick up for me.
By going through all this, I learned a lot. Now I know that when you’re in foster care, the staff and the system make all the decisions. I don’t even argue and I do what they tell me, because if I don’t, there’s consequences, and things end up being a lot worse for me.
Looking back on it now, I guess I wanted to go the wrong way and make it hard for myself. I was so angry, I didn’t even care that I was always in trouble. But I forgive myself for making mistakes. You can’t do everything right. Even God’s not that perfect, He messes up once in a while. Like Christina Aguilera says in her song, "Sorry if I ain’t perfect… sorry I’m not a virgin, sorry I’m not a slut."
Somehow I survived, and now I’m in a new group home and I feel happier. It’s hard to always be moving around—I stop in a place and get connected and then I leave. In foster care, I have learned to just be strong.