"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.
"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.
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.
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."
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 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.
"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.