Turning Adversity into an Asset

Diego Conde-largeDuring the first few months of 2008, all I could hear was my mother in pain and agony from the life-sucking disease we call cancer. That time was a blur, but I do recall smelling the crisp winter air as I headed to school after I made my mother a traditional Colombian dish of rice, meat, and arepa con queso. A remarkable single mother who created her own opportunities regardless of hard circumstances, she immigrated to the unknown to give me, her only son, the opportunity to reach the “American Dream.” Unfortunately, life sometimes has devastating twists and turns. That spring, she passed away. I was just 12 years old.

When my mother went into hospice, I moved in with a teacher who felt it was her duty to watch over me until I grew up to become a self-sufficient young adult. Her heart may have been in the right place, but she did not know how to take care of a suicidal adolescent who was dealing with grief and the sudden loss of his cultural identity and values. I ended up in a behavioral hospital for ten days, and her plan to adopt me ended. I was relieved when I signed my hospital release forms. Then I had a brief discussion with my caseworker about a new foster home.

I remember clenching my left fist and holding a small black bag with my personal belongings in my right hand as I walked to my caseworker’s car on a cold, windy evening. The whole ride to my new home left me nauseated and frightened. I repeatedly thought of how terrible it was not being able to meet my foster parents beforehand.

Shortly after, I arrived at the residence of a somewhat elderly, married couple. I stepped inside their home and said goodbye to my caseworker. I felt very awkward not knowing much about them. I was given just a quick tour before I was lead to my room. It did not feel welcoming at all!

This couple tried hard to push their values and morals on me. From my perspective, this was not going to fly. Discussions quickly turned into arguments. I was given “happy pills” like Prozac and Risperdal to help me tame my rage and deal with my grief. I was forced to abide to their ways of living. I had to come straight home from school and was prohibited from leaving the house. I took every order they gave me, and always answered with “Yes Ma’am” or “Yes Sir.” In this situation, without a doubt, I was unable to cope with my grief over my mother’s death.

I reached out to a teacher at my middle school and told her I did not feel safe in my foster home. She made it her duty to talk to our school’s case manager, and I was finally moved.

In my last placement, I started hearing the words “high-risk,” a term that still bothers me. Being labeled that way made me feel like I was doing something wrong and I would never have the opportunity to grow and develop like other kids. To this day, I still correct people when they use the term.

Ultimately, foster care was both a blessing and a curse and I will tell you why. Some foster parents and children I lived with made me believe I was a problem to them, my caseworkers and anyone else who came onto my path. I had side effects from the anti-psychotic medication I was forced to take throughout my teenage years, and I felt the impact of emotional and mental abuse. It all got to me. Day in and day out I kept having this crazy desire to leave foster care. So I worked hard academically. I graduated from high school early. I moved onto college and lived on my own in student housing.

Now I am growing each day, and hope to become a successful entrepreneur. I know my development would not be achievable without the contributions of others and my willingness to have the right attitude. Over the years, I have spoken with many adults, not just about employment opportunities, but also about their lives, and they have helped broaden my perspective on the world. I know I was very lucky to have a mother who instilled in me early on that an appreciation for people and an enthusiastic attitude can create positive outcomes in life. To sum it up, here is one of my favorite quotes by Joseph Campbell, “Follow your bliss and the universe will open doors where there were only walls.”

Published on May 8, 2015 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.