Have you ever experienced what it feels like to not belong somewhere?
Not belonging to anyone or anywhere defined my entire childhood and young adult life. I grew up in foster care, with a father who was incarcerated and a mother who was severely mentally ill.
One of the most damaging consequences of being a child who grows up belonging to no one except for systems is what it did to my developing sense of worth and value as a human. The messages sent to me as a child (barely old enough to be called a teenager) when I was left in an adult holding cell for days, when I was hosed down and washed with lice shampoo during juvenile hall intakes, when I was made to wear underwear shared by other kids in shelters, when I was told I could not have a pencil to do homework because it was contraband, when I was told I was too damaged for a family, was that my very life and humanity mattered to no one.
I was warehoused throughout my childhood. I was supervised and monitored and placed in residential beds across the Bay Area, but never parented or given a family. The consequence is — before I understood the world — I had learned I could not trust adults with my body, mind or well-being. When I turned 18, and aged out of my last foster care facility, I ended up enrolling in San Jose Job Corps in order to get a GED and job training to survive, but with very little hope for the future. Luckily I found Gardner and met Cecily, my counselor.
Cecily counteracted the darkness of feeling like my life mattered to no one. Through hope, acceptance, and grace she helped me. She did not fixate on the parts of me that were broken and ugly. She did not see me as prior social workers, therapists and psychiatrists had: as a collection of the worst things I did on the worst days I ever had. Gardner saw me as Jennifer, not a foster child, not a juvenile delinquent. I was a whole person.
Cecily and Gardner never judged me.
Today as a lawyer and director of the Youth Law Center, I am leading the charge to change the same systems that I grew up in. I am now lucky enough to be in a position to ensure our systems actually heal and support youth through love, relationships and opportunity rather than incarceration, infusing systems with the same powerful hope that Gardner invested in me.
Your hope pushed me from GED to community college to law school to leader. Your hope for me resulted in a life for myself and my children that no one, including me, would have ever thought realistic or possible. The way I see youth today and advocate for them is exactly the way Gardner saw and advocated for me.
It is easy to see someone’s value once they have their life together, easy to be a member of the fan club when they look shiny and pretty. What is so extraordinary and CRITICAL are people like you who see the hearts, ideas and souls in all of us who are hard to see behind messy circumstances and behaviors due to our background, skin color, language, immigration status, criminal record, mental or physical health condition. Through your giving you had a different vision for me. Thank you for all that you have done for me even when you had no idea what your support was really doing. Thank you for supporting the love, kindness and real help that Gardner offers to children, families and community members. Love is justice in its truest form and there is no greater gift you could have given me. Thank you for giving!