When I graduated from high school, all I could do was hope for a bright future. In my cap and gown, wearing a smile, I looked just like my classmates. My hopes and dreams for the future were identical to theirs.
That is where the similarity ends. I entered foster care at age 2 with my younger sister. I was reunited with my birth mother after a couple of years of being in foster care, however neglect and abuse remained constant in my home life. My sister and I re-entered the foster care system at the age of 14, and that is where I stayed until foster care ended abruptly at the age of 18. Entering foster care I was separated from my family, and everything I knew, and was forced to adjust to new houses, new schedules and new rules.
Yet I thought I had overcome the odds. After graduation, I planned to attend college – the first member of my family to do so. On June 13th 2001, I graduated from high school. The next day, I was told I had to leave my foster home. I was now 18, and had “aged out” of Oregon’s foster care system.
I was a high school graduate, college-bound and homeless. I had nowhere to live, and no one to turn to.
My story is all too common. Each year, more than 20,000 youth age out of the nation’s foster care system with no permanent family and no one to rely on.
Being homeless at 18 wasn’t the smoothest way to begin my life as an adult. I fortunately found my way to college, but dealt with depression and struggled to make ends meet. In college, I had no health insurance and no one to understand and support me, but I made it through and graduated.
I am currently working to change the system, so that my brothers and sisters don’t have to face the same difficult transition, or worse, to what they call “independence.”
I want to make a difference for the more than half a million children in foster care. For youth who age out of care with no permanent family or no one to rely on, there is no one to call about a bad day or to celebrate a triumph; no place to go for holidays or school vacations; no one to walk you down the aisle at your wedding or be a grandparent to your children. All too often there is a constant reminder of that absence.
After graduating from college I joined FosterClub, an organization working to help youth share their stories and advocate for change.
I faced many obstacles growing up but now I consider myself lucky to have overcome them. However, most youth in foster care are not so lucky. It is my hope that by reforming foster care, we can help more youth live happy, healthy, successful lives.
Nicole has spent 6 years in Oregon's foster care system. She is passionate about advocating for the needs of foster youth; she recently testified in congress and is an ambassador for the Kid's Are Waiting Campaign, a project of the Pew Charitable Trusts. Nicole is an official spokesperson for National Foster Care Month.