My Only Way Out

By Sixto Cancel

I was 11 months old when the state took me away from a home sixto-largewhere my mother used heroin and strange men paid the bills. How could a woman struggling with drug addiction possibly care for the fifth of her eight children? The state decided I would have a better life in foster care. They scattered my siblings. One brother was soon after buried, felled by a bullet to the chest when the streets became more of his home than school.

By age 9, I had been shuffled through seven foster homes, and landed in the home of a woman named Gladys. She adopted me, yet seemed to hate me. She called me “Nigger” and “Faggot.” She dressed me in donated clothes, shoes that didn’t fit, and bruises. By the time I turned 13, the sight of me made her “sick.” She would lock me out of the house for days at a time. I slept on the occasional couch or floor. Other times I slept in the street.

Two years passed like this. So did several unsuccessful investigations by child services and the police. Then one day Gladys moved. I came home after school to find the house empty. I landed back in foster care.

Imagine a childhood like mine. One in which you cannot touch the refrigerator; you sleep in a filthy room and are treated like a servant in a home where the family wants you only for the money you bring in. I was screamed at, beaten with a belt, and with fists. I have been choked, slapped and starved. How easily I could have slipped into the same life my mother lead.

But for some reason I didn’t. In spite of attending some of our nation’s worst schools, I learned that an education was my only way out. I was accepted into Virginia Commonwealth University. But that was just the beginning of my journey.

I was unprepared for college. An adult mentor took me to Target and grabbed two shopping carts. Two carts turned into 11 by the time we had assembled everything I would need: a book bag, sheets, towels, laundry bag, paper, pens, dishes, a pillow, a lamp, etc. I didn’t want a handout. I wanted to stand on my own two feet. But what kid at 17 is asked to stand alone? I realized how much this person believed in me. I was not a charity case. This family was investing in my future. They were providing me with the basic tools that I needed to start college right. In addition to the shopping spree, they had pooled their money and gave me $1,500 to rent a moving truck for the trip to my little apartment near campus. I was able to focus on my grades and adjust more quickly to my new environment.

I became a leader in campus organizations and still managed to get A’s and B’s. I may not have parents to answer to, but I found myself feeling accountable to those people who invested their time, trust and money in my success. When I did not feel like going to class or messed up on a test, I thought about the group of adults who went out of their way to help me build a better life.

Every young person in foster care needs support. When we don’t have the proper support — we are being set up to fail. I was lucky. A group of adults cared enough to help me grow. I know if my older brother had found a similar group of caring adults, his story might have ended up differently. He may have been alive. The smallest gestures have the power to knock down the highest, thickest barriers.

This post first appeared on Fostering Media Connections‘ “In My Own Words” blog.

Published on May 9, 2014 as part of Children’s Rights’ “Fostering the Future” campaign. The opinions expressed herein are those of the blog author and do not necessarily represent the views of Children’s Rights or its employees. Children’s Rights has not verified the author’s account.