This 16-year-old foster kid told her story and it totally changed her next chapter.
"I was moved to 16 different foster homes in two years."

This past summer, 16-year-old Selena Garcia arrived at the writing workshop at Represent, a quarterly magazine by and for youth in foster care that I edit. She was in constant motion: spinning in her office chair, flapping her arms to get called on during writing lessons, dancing, laughing, and singing under her breath.


Selena! Photo by Efrain Reyes. Used with permission.

"At age 12, I began running away, smoking weed, cutting school, and getting in fights. I felt that I could do whatever I wanted because no one cared enough to stop me. I was angry with myself: I thought I was the reason I was placed into foster care. I had so much rage that I took it out on everybody."

In her first month at Represent, Selena produced thousands of words. One story details the first 10 years of her life with her adoptive parents. And like many of the stories from the kids who come through Represent, it wasn't an easy one to read.

"For not cleaning my room, not fixing the dishes, arguing with their biological daughter, not finishing dinner — they would 'punish' me by starving me or beating me until I bled."

Represent writers range in age from 15 to 23 and come from all five boroughs of New York City to craft stories about their lives. Two afternoons a week, they come by the newsroom to write — and rewrite — their stories.

Writers in the Represent newsroom. Photo by Autumn Spanne. Used with permission.

Some of these young people have never told their stories before.

Through a collaborative editing process, they find their voices, even their heroism, in the chaos and trauma that can go along with a life in care.

Many writers started off as fans, kids who said reading Represent helped them know they weren't alone. They joined the magazine to do the same for other kids.

Represent magazine covers. Courtesy of Represent.

And their stories need to be heard.

There are about 400,000 youth in foster care across the country. While there are great foster parents out there, just the process of being moved from home to home can compound the trauma of the original abuse or neglect these kids experienced. Foster youth are more likely to be incarcerated, give birth in their teens, and have mental health diagnoses than their peers.

The issues don't stop once they're out of their teens, either. Some 28,000 youth per year age out of care when they turn 18 or 21 (it varies by state), and between 11% and 37% of those youth are homeless for a period after they leave the system. The percentage of foster youth who finish college tops out at 9%.

Selena had every expectation of aging out on her own.

Then she was placed in the home of Jenny and Jose Garcia, where she could "smell the chicken baking and feel the good vibes."

Selena and Jose. Photo courtesy of the family.

That's when Selena's story started to change:

"Jenny's first words to me were, 'This is your new home, and this is a clean slate. Whatever you did in the past was the past. This is the present.' Then she told the boys to bring my bags to my room. I was sharing a room with Erica, 16, and Natasha, 12. I was happy to share a room, which felt better than being alone at night drowning in a bed full of thoughts."

Selena began to feel safe and loved for the first time.

But the story she had to tell wasn't quite so simple.

It's hard to uncross wires crossed by years of unpredictability and disappointment. That's where Represent comes in — encouraging kids like Selena to find their voices and take control of their stories.

Selena in the Represent newsroom. Photo by Efrain Reyes.

Selena explained to me that when she first arrived at Represent, she would censor her stories:

"I filtered out things I thought adults would judge, but in the editing, those were the things I was asked about, so I wrote about them. I got more confident about my writing. When I read my story out loud in the workshop, I was nervous that people would judge me, but they actually got kind of emotional, and I realized I connected with them. Before I used to think 'Why does all this bad stuff happen to me?' Writing about it made me think that I grow from all my experiences."

Those experiences include the moment when, even after she found a home where she was loved deeply, she lashed out, ran away. One New Year's Eve, Jenny lost her temper and yelled at Selena about a fight between her two younger foster brothers.

"In that moment," Selena wrote, "I was sure she did not care about me. No one had ever cared, and no one ever would."

So she packed a bag, climbed out the window, and spent the next three days with a boy she had been seeing behind Jenny's back. Coming home on the subway, Selena remembers steeling herself for what she assumed would be another instance of getting kicked out of a new home.

Instead, Jenny cried with relief and took Selena in her arms.

Selena and Jenny. Photo courtesy of the family.

"I began to cry and tried to hide it, but she wiped my tears. She asked me why I hide my face when I cry and I said, 'Crying is a sign of weakness, and if I show people that I cry they will walk all over me.'
'Actually crying is the best way to release all anger or pain. It's better than bottling in your feelings,' Jenny said.
I asked her why she sticks by me and she replied emphatically, 'You're my child. I will never give up on my child. I love you.' I finally understood: This woman cares. It felt great. I felt loved and I loved the feeling of feeling loved."

About a year later, Jenny Garcia officially adopted Selena.

Through the love from her new family and the power of her storytelling, Selena now envisions a new future.

"When I was younger, I never heard words of encouragement. It's crazy what words can do: My life has completely changed since I began living with Jenny. Now I see myself going to college and being a journalist, being successful."

And Selena's not alone.

More than 450 foster youth have written for Represent. Many of them have gone on to careers where they continue to advocate for vulnerable youth. Max Moran came through our newsroom and went on to become a therapist, Pauline Gordon became a youth advocate, and Giselle John became a counselor.

I can't wait to see what the future holds for Selena and the next generation of Represent writers.

via Pixabay

Talking about politics at work can be a really touchy situation. It's good for people to be able to express themselves in the office. But it can lead to serious tension when people don't see eye-to-eye. It can be especially difficult when a company takes a hard line on a controversial issue that employees are forced to stand behind.

So Basecamp, a project management software company based in Chicago, has just decided to ban talking about politics at work altogether. It seems the company tried to foster an open atmosphere but it backfired.

"Sensitivities are at 11, and every discussion remotely related to politics, advocacy, or society at large quickly spins away from pleasant," co-founder Jason Fried wrote in a post on the company website.

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via Pixabay

Talking about politics at work can be a really touchy situation. It's good for people to be able to express themselves in the office. But it can lead to serious tension when people don't see eye-to-eye. It can be especially difficult when a company takes a hard line on a controversial issue that employees are forced to stand behind.

So Basecamp, a project management software company based in Chicago, has just decided to ban talking about politics at work altogether. It seems the company tried to foster an open atmosphere but it backfired.

"Sensitivities are at 11, and every discussion remotely related to politics, advocacy, or society at large quickly spins away from pleasant," co-founder Jason Fried wrote in a post on the company website.

Keep Reading Show less
True

Each year, an estimated 1.8 million people in the United States are affected by cancer — most commonly cancers of the breast, lung, prostate, and blood cancers such as leukemia. While not everyone overcomes the disease, thanks to science, more people are surviving — and for longer — than ever before in history.

We asked three people whose lives have been impacted by cancer to share their stories – how their lives were changed by the disease, and how they're using that experience to change the future of cancer treatments with the hope that ultimately, in the fight against cancer, science will win. Here's what they had to say.

Celine Ryan, 55, engineer database programmer and mother of five from Detroit, MI

Photo courtesy of Celine Ryan

In September 2013, Celine Ryan woke up from a colonoscopy to some traumatic news. Her gastroenterologist showed her a picture of the cancerous mass they found during the procedure.

Ryan and her husband, Patrick, had scheduled a colonoscopy after discovering some unusual bleeding, so the suspicion she could have cancer was already there. Neither of them, however, were quite prepared for the results to be positive -- or for the treatment to begin so soon. Just two days after learning the news, Ryan had surgery to remove the tumor, part of her bladder, and 17 cancerous lymph nodes. Chemotherapy and radiation soon followed.

Ryan's treatment was rigorous – but in December 2014, she got the devastating news that the cancer, once confined to her colon, had spread to her lungs. Her prognosis, they said, was likely terminal.

But rather than give up hope, Ryan sought support from online research, fellow cancer patients and survivors, and her medical team. When she brought up immunotherapy to her oncologist, he quickly agreed it was the best course of action. Ryan's cancer, like a majority of colon and pancreatic cancers, had been caused by a defect on the gene KRAS, which can result in a very aggressive cancer that is virtually "undruggable." According to the medical literature, the relatively smooth protein structure of the KRAS gene meant that designing inhibitors to bind to surface grooves and treat the cancer has been historically difficult. Through her support systems, Ryan discovered an experimental immunotherapy trial at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, MD., and called them immediately to see if she was eligible. After months of trying to determine whether she was a suitable candidate for the experimental treatment, Ryan was finally accepted.

The treatment, known as tumor-infiltrating lymphocyte therapy, or TIL, is a testament to how far modern science has evolved. With this therapy, doctors remove a tumor and harvest special immune cells that are found naturally in the tumor. Doctors then grow the cells in a lab over the next several weeks with a protein that promotes rapid TIL growth – and once the cells number into the billions, they are infused back into the patient's body to fight the cancer. On April 1, 2015, Ryan had her tumor removed at the NIH. Two months later, she went inpatient for four weeks to have the team "wash out" her immune system with chemotherapy and infuse the cells – all 148 billion of them – back into her body.

Six weeks after the infusion, Ryan and Patrick went back for a follow-up appointment – and the news they got was stunning: Not only had no new tumors developed, but the six existing tumors in her lungs had shrunk significantly. Less than a year after her cell infusion, in April 2016, the doctors told Ryan news that would have been impossible just a decade earlier: Thanks to the cell infusion, Ryan was now considered NED – no evaluable disease. Her body was cancer-free.

Ryan is still NED today and continuing annual follow-up appointments at the NIH, experiencing things she never dreamed she'd be able to live to see, such as her children's high school and college graduations. She's also donating her blood and cells to the NIH to help them research other potential cancer treatments. "It was an honor to do so," Ryan said of her experience. "I'm just thrilled, and I hope my experience can help a lot more people."

Patrice Lee, PhD, VP of Pharmacology, Toxicology and Exploratory Development at Pfizer

Photo courtesy of Patrice Lee

Patrice Lee got into scientific research in an unconventional way – through the late ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau.

Lee never met Cousteau but her dreams of working with him one day led her to pursue a career in science. Initially, Lee completed an undergraduate degree in marine biology; eventually, her interests changed and she decided to get a dual doctoral degree in physiology and toxicology at Duke University. She now works at Pfizer's R&D site in Boulder, CO (formerly Array BioPharma), leading a group of scientists who determine the safety and efficacy of new oncology drugs.

"Scientists focused on drug discovery and development in the pharmaceutical industry are deeply committed to inventing new therapies to meet unmet needs," Lee says, describing her field of work. "We're driven to achieve new medicines and vaccines as quickly as possible without sacrificing safety."

Among the drugs Lee has helped develop during her career, including cancer therapies, she says around a dozen are currently in development, while nine have received FDA approval — an incredible accomplishment as many scientists spend their careers without seeing their drug make it to market. Lee's team is particularly interested in therapies for brain metastases — something that Lee says is a largely unmet need in cancer research, and something her team is working on from a variety of angles. "Now that we've had rapid success with mRNA vaccine technology, we hope to explore what the future holds when applying this technology to cancers," Lee says.

But while evaluating potential cancer therapies is a professional passion of Lee's, it's also a mission that's deeply personal. "I'm also a breast cancer survivor," she says. "So I've been on the other side of things and have participated in a clinical trial."

However, seeing how melanoma therapies that she helped develop have affected other real-life cancer patients, she says, has been a highlight of her career. "We had one therapy that was approved for patients with BRAF-mutant metastatic melanoma," Lee recalls. "Our team in Boulder was graced by a visit from a patient that had benefited from these drugs that we developed. It was a very special moment for the entire team."

None of these therapies would be available, Lee says without rigorous science behind it: "Facts come from good science. Facts will drive the development of new drugs, and that's what will help patients."

Chiuying "Cynthia" Kuk (they/them) MS, 34, third-year medical student at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine

Photo courtesy of Cynthia Kuk

Cynthia Kuk was just 10 years old when they had a conversation that would change their life forever.

"My mother, who worked as a translator for the government at the time, had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and after her chemotherapy treatments she would get really sick," Kuk, who uses they/them pronouns, recalls. "When I asked my dad why mom was puking so much, he said it was because of the medicine she was taking that would help her get better."

Kuk's response was immediate: "That's so stupid! Why would a medicine make you feel worse instead of better? When I'm older, I want to create medicine that won't make people sick like that."

Nine years later, Kuk traveled from their native Hong Kong to the United States to do exactly that. Kuk enrolled in a small, liberal arts college for their Bachelor's degree, and then four years later started a PhD program in cancer research. Although Kuk's mother was in remission from her cancer at the time, Kuk's goal was the same as it had been as a 10-year-old watching her suffer through chemotherapy: to design a better cancer treatment, and change the landscape of cancer research forever.

Since then, Kuk's mission has changed slightly.

"My mom's cancer relapsed in 2008, and she ended up passing away about five years after that," Kuk says. "After my mom died, I started having this sense of urgency. Cancer research is such that you work for twenty years, and at the end of it you might have a fancy medication that could help people, but I wanted to help people now." With their mother still at the forefront of their mind, Kuk decided to quit their PhD program and enter medical school.

Now, Kuk plans to pursue a career in emergency medicine – not only because they are drawn to the excitement of the emergency room, but because the ER is a place where the most marginalized people tend to seek care.

"I have a special interest in the LGBTQ+ population, as I identify as queer and nonbinary," says Kuk. "A lot of people in this community and other marginalized communities access care through the ER and also tend to avoid medical care since there is a history of mistreatment and judgement from healthcare workers. How you carry yourself as a doctor, your compassion, that can make a huge difference in someone's care."

In addition to making a difference in the lives of LGBTQ+ patients, Kuk wants to make a difference in the lives of patients with cancer as well, like their mother had.

"We've diagnosed patients in the Emergency Department with cancer before," Kuk says. "I can't make cancer good news but how you deliver bad news and the compassion you show could make a world of difference to that patient and their family."

During their training, Kuk advocates for patients by delivering compassionate and inclusive care, whether they happen to have cancer or not. In addition to emphasizing their patient's pronouns and chosen names, they ask for inclusive social and sexual histories as well as using gender neutral language. In doing this, they hope to make medicine as a whole more accessible for people who have been historically pushed aside.

"I'm just one person, and I can't force everyone to respect you, if you're marginalized," Kuk says. "But I do want to push for a culture where people appreciate others who are different from them."