Foster Care Alum Turns Adversity into Accomplishment

shalita_photo_psDid you know that as many as three out of every 10 young adults who age out of foster care without a permanent family or connection will find themselves living on the streets at some point in their life?

Or that as many as half of those youth are unemployed right now?

Or that more than 30 percent will be arrested at least once?

It doesn’t have to be that way for the 28,000 young people aging out of foster care across the country every year.

Shalita O’Neale, the founder and executive director of the Maryland Foster Youth Resource Center, steered clear of these pitfalls. But she did more than just keep her nose clean. Today, she’s paving a path for the youth coming behind her, preparing them for the realities of an adult life that is too often daunting and scary.

Make no mistake, Shalita O’Neale struggled to get to where she is today. Her mother died when she was just two years old. Shalita immediately moved in with relatives and ultimately went to live with her uncle, where she spent about eight years. Unfortunately, family doesn’t always treat their own like family. He was verbally and physically abusive.

At 13, Shalita entered foster care, and spent three years in one inhospitable home. “They treated me like stepchild, like I wasn’t part of their family,” said Shalita. She then moved into a group home when she was 16, which she described as a difficult transition.

“By moving from place to place, I felt like I was being punished for not having parents,” said Shalita.

After so many years of such dismissive treatment, one could hardly blame Shalita if she’d stopped caring about her future and succumbed to the ills that afflict so many foster youth. But she had a higher motivation.

“I really wanted to make my mother proud,” said Shalita. “There’s a bond that you can’t really explain that always stays there. If she were looking at me, she would be proud. I didn’t want to let her down.”

And Shalita’s mother would certainly be proud. Maryland Foster Youth Resource Center, founded in 2008, offers young adults transitioning from foster care vital survival skills, such as hygiene and financial literacy, as well as more intangible skills like conflict resolution and relationship development. Most of the participants are between 19 and 23 years old. Last year, the organization helped 150 foster care alumni. Because of recent partnerships and newfound support, those numbers will be growing soon.

A big thrust of the organization is helping young people find good jobs. “These youth don’t get to meet people outside of this world — doctors and lawyers,” said Shalita. “Once they come to our door, we figure out personally what they need.”

Sometimes, they just need the right outfit. Through the organization, Shalita started the Walk-In Closet and started soliciting donations of used suits and dresses, anything that might help a young adult make an impression when trying to get a job.

“What we’re doing is so different, reaching out to this group that’s in transition,” said Shalita.

Clearly, Shalita, through her own experiences, figured out what she and too many young adults like her lacked. And that made her angry. “I didn’t want any of my issues to spill over into their life,” she said. That’s why she became an advocate. “Once I actually started working with youth one on one, it’s like I fell in love.”

For every Shalita O’Neale, there are dozens more former foster youth brimming with potential and desperate for hope who, with more support from a child welfare agency and more opportunities like those offered at Maryland Foster Youth Resource Center, might have a shot at the same measure of success that Shalita has achieved.

Stand with America’s foster youth. BE ONE TOO and join Children’s Rights and the Maryland Foster Youth Resource Center in building a better future for the 28,000 young adults aging out of foster care every year.