A Foster Care Alum Offers Kids Life Skills… and Hope

latasha_wattsThis weekend, 200 current and former foster youth will come together in Cleveland for the Purple Project’s 2nd Annual Youth and Adult Foster Care Conference (PDF). They’ll learn vital living skills. They’ll listen to motivational speakers — including hip hop legend and former foster youth Darryl “DMC” McDaniels, also a vocal ally of Children’s Rights. Perhaps most importantly, they’ll connect with each other and gain a greater sense that they’re not alone in the struggle to move forward, survive, and succeed in their lives beyond foster care.

It wasn’t that long ago that LaTasha Watts, founder of The Purple Project, felt buried beneath her own troubled history in foster care. Her process of self-discovery spanned many years, but LaTasha ultimately learned that the key to freeing herself from the past lay with the very things to which she’d clung for so long.

LaTasha spent her early years in a scramble of kinship and foster homes in Ohio. After a childhood marked by abuse and neglect, love and support, good luck and bad, she emerged into adulthood confused and unmotivated. But deep inside her a greater sense of purpose smoldered, sparked by an English teacher who recognized her talent with and affinity for words and stories.

Many years passed before the embers turned into fire. She had fleeting contact with her birth mother’s family throughout her childhood. In her teens, she found out that her birth father’s family had spent years trying to track her down. Caught between the two families — with neither one feeling like her family — LaTasha struggled to gain a sense of identity and, with it, stability.

Outside of her chaotic, frustrating family life, she didn’t fare much better. A succession of short-lived jobs yielded little satisfaction. She found out that she suffered from obsessive compulsive disorder. To top it all off, she was stricken by thyroid cancer.

She won the battle against cancer but couldn’t heal herself of the damage inflicted by a rootless childhood that deprived her of the love and support that only a permanent family can provide. The building disappointment and aggravation culminated in a physical breakdown that required a medical leave from her job. The cause? Massive stress.

At home, LaTasha embarked on some rigorous — and therapeutic — house cleaning. Sorting through her old belongings, LaTasha came upon a pink journal she started when she was eight years old. She began to read. And read. She found more notebooks, more entries, stretching all the way through her battle with cancer. LaTasha realized her life was its own story, that she didn’t need to change for the sake of the families who didn’t care for her when she needed it most — that, as she says, “I didn’t need their approval for anything,” and that “it was okay to talk about this.”

LaTasha turned the challenges she faced into the life lessons that form the foundation of the Purple Project. Launched in 2009, the group is named after a purple pair of pants LaTasha cherished while she was in foster care, worn until they were threadbare and restyled to shorts. She described them as a symbol of the desperation kids in foster care feel to have a constant in their lives.

With the help and encouragement of McDaniels and others, the Purple Project has flourished. And this weekend’s conference is the annual high point — a networking and educational event for foster youth aged 14-21, along with recent alumni, local caseworkers, and a host of speakers to talk about what comes next.

“I want to get them into the mode of getting their lives going,” said LaTasha. She knows that such progress never comes easily; her own long journey makes that clear. But, she says, “It’s never too late. It’s okay if you struggle. You’ve just got to come out of it.”

LaTasha Watts knew all along she could be an important voice for kids in foster care. You can BE ONE TOO and help change the life of thousands of children in foster care.