Vanessa Fuentes, 24
Represent, New York
Being on your own after foster care can be very isolating, especially if you suffer from depression or another mental illness. Having a mentor as part of your safety net can make this transition a lot easier. It certainly did for me.
I met my mentor, Elizabeth, just after I aged out. I was living on my own and my caseworker thought it would be good for me to meet someone who could serve as a sounding board and a support. Elizabeth had volunteered through her company to mentor youths at my group home.
I stayed busy working and going to college, but whenever I had extra time on my hands, I would begin to feel lonely and depressed. I believe my depression started soon after I arrived in the United States at 16. For the first time in my life, I became homeless, then went into foster care.
The depression intensified when I aged out, because the emotional support I’d received from staff and peers at my group home ended. I longed for someone to talk to. I went to therapy, and that helped. But my therapist, unlike staff at my group home, was not available to talk to me 24/7, and I missed that.
Although I knew it was important to make connections with caring adults, I was afraid. In the previous six years I’d had to say goodbye to a lot of people I cared about, including my whole birth family back in rural Mexico.
I lost others who had become important to me: people from my group home, therapists, and friends who moved on. They left me feeling empty and guilty, as if I had done something to push them away.
I liked Elizabeth right away, but I was afraid to get too close. I feared that if she found out I wasn’t perfect, I’d lose her. I worried about driving her away by talking about the pain of being away from my biological family and how much I missed all the people I’d met in foster care.
So instead, I always tried to appear calm and in control when we talked, no matter how bad or chaotic things were. I’d tell Elizabeth about my job, where I was praised for my outstanding work ethic. I figured if she saw me as a functional, independent young woman, she would grow fond of me and stick around.
I tried to hide my rage, frustration and depression from her. Most of the time I didn’t even acknowledge those feelings to myself and suppressed them by immersing myself in work.
Elizabeth had to work hard to gain my trust. She knew when to leave me alone and give me some space. But most important, she was very consistent and persistent, which proved to me that she cared.
Once I stopped communicating with Elizabeth for over a month after losing my cell phone. To me, this was the perfect excuse to end the relationship with her before she could end it with me, which would have been even more painful. But Elizabeth continued communicating with me through e-mail, and in the end I gave in and began to see her again.
Over time, I began to share with Elizabeth the things I wasn’t very proud of. I learned to accept and trust her with the fact that I’m only human and I make mistakes.
When we meet now, we talk about anything, good or bad. While in care, people come in and out of our lives, and with all this uncertainty, we lose trust. It’s important to hold onto the belief that some people do want to help and will gladly stay in our lives even after we leave foster care.
© 2009 Youth Communication/New York Center, www.youthcomm.org