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.

Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
True

Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

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In a North Carolina neighborhood that looks like a present-day Pleasantville, a man carries a cup of coffee and a plate of brownies out to his car. "Good mornin!" he calls cheerfully to a neighbor jogging by. As he sets his coffee cup on the hood of the car, he says, "I need to wash my car." Well, shucks. His wife enters the camera frame on the other side of the car.

So far, it's just about the most classic modern Americana scene imaginable. And then...

A horrifying "rrrrawwwww!" Blood-curdling screaming. Running. Panic. The man abandons the brownies, races to his wife's side of the car, then emerges with an animal in his hands. He holds the creature up like Rafiki holding up Simba, then yells in its face, "Oh my god! It's a bobcat! Oh my god!"

Then he hucks the bobcat across the yard with all his might.

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Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
True

Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

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