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.

Courtesy of Amita Swadhin
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In 2016, Amita Swadhin, a child of two immigrant parents from India, founded Mirror Memoirs to help combat rape culture. The national storytelling and organizing project is dedicated to sharing the stories of LGBTQIA+ Black, indigenous people, and people of color who survived child sexual abuse.

"Whether or not you are a survivor, 100% of us are raised in rape culture. It's the water that we're swimming in. But just as fish don't know they are in water, because it's just the world around them that they've always been in, people (and especially those who aren't survivors) may need some help actually seeing it," they add.

"Mirror Memoirs attempts to be the dye that helps everyone understand the reality of rape culture."

Amita built the idea for Mirror Memoirs from a theater project called "Undesirable Elements: Secret Survivors" that featured their story and those of four other survivors in New York City, as well as a documentary film and educational toolkit based on the project.

"Secret Survivors had a cast that was gender, race, and age-diverse in many ways, but we had neglected to include transgender women," Amita explains. "Our goal was to help all people who want to co-create a world without child sexual abuse understand that the systems historically meant to help survivors find 'healing' and 'justice' — namely the child welfare system, policing, and prisons — are actually systems that facilitate the rape of children in oppressed communities," Amita continues. "We all have to explore tools of healing and accountability outside of these systems if we truly want to end all forms of sexual violence and rape culture."

Amita also wants Mirror Memoirs to be a place of healing for survivors that have historically been ignored or underserved by anti-violence organizations due to transphobia, homophobia, racism, xenophobia, and white supremacy.

Amita Swadhin

"Hearing survivors' stories is absolutely healing for other survivors, since child sexual abuse is a global pandemic that few people know how to talk about, let alone treat and prevent."

"Since sexual violence is an isolating event, girded by shame and stigma, understanding that you're not alone and connecting with other survivors is alchemy, transmuting isolation into intimacy and connection."

This is something that Amita knows and understands well as a survivor herself.

"My childhood included a lot of violence from my father, including rape and other forms of domestic violence," says Amita. "Mandated reporting was imposed on me when I was 13 and it was largely unhelpful since the prosecutors threatened to incarcerate my mother for 'being complicit' in the violence I experienced, even though she was also abused by my father for years."

What helped them during this time was having the support of others.

"I'm grateful to have had a loving younger sister and a few really close friends, some of whom were also surviving child sexual abuse, though we didn't know how to talk about it at the time," Amita says.

"I'm also a queer, non-binary femme person living with complex post-traumatic stress disorder, and those identities have shaped a lot of my life experiences," they continue. "I'm really lucky to have an incredible partner and network of friends and family who love me."

"These realizations put me on the path of my life's work to end this violence quite early in life," they said.

Amita wants Mirror Memoirs to help build awareness of just how pervasive rape culture is. "One in four girls and one in six boys will be raped or sexually assaulted by the age of 18," Amita explains, "and the rates are even higher for vulnerable populations, such as gender non-conforming, disabled, deaf, unhoused, and institutionalized children." By sharing their stories, they're hoping to create change.

"Listening to stories is also a powerful way to build empathy, due to the mirror neurons in people's brains. This is, in part, why the project is called Mirror Memoirs."

So far, Mirror Memoirs has created an audio archive of BIPOC LGBTQI+ child sexual abuse survivors sharing their stories of survival and resilience that includes stories from 60 survivors across 50 states. This year, they plan to record another 15 stories, specifically of transgender and nonbinary people who survived child sexual abuse in a sport-related setting, with their partner organization, Athlete Ally.

"This endeavor is in response to the more than 100 bills that have been proposed across at least 36 states in 2021 seeking to limit the rights of transgender and non-binary children to play sports and to receive gender-affirming medical care with the support of their parents and doctors," Amita says.

In 2017, Mirror Memoirs held its first gathering, which was attended by 31 people. Today, the organization is a fiscally sponsored, national nonprofit with two staff members, a board of 10 people, a leadership council of seven people, and 500 members nationally.

When the pandemic hit in 2020, they created a mutual aid fund for the LGBTQIA+ community of color and were able to raise a quarter-million dollars. They received 2,509 applications for assistance, and in the end, they decided to split the money evenly between each applicant.

While they're still using storytelling as the building block of their work, they're also engaging in policy and advocacy work, leadership development, and hosting monthly member meetings online.

For their work, Amita is one of Tory's Burch's Empowered Women. Their donation will go to Mirror Memoirs to help fund production costs for their new theater project, "Transmutation: A Ceremony," featuring four Black transgender, intersex, and non-binary women and femmes who live in California.

"I'm grateful to every single child sexual survivor who has ever disclosed their truth to me," Amita says. "I know another world is possible, and I know survivors will build it, together with all the people who love us."

To learn more about Tory Burch and Upworthy's Empowered Women program visit https://www.toryburch.com/empoweredwomen/. Nominate an inspiring woman in your community today!

This article originally appeared on 10.23.15


Getting people who don't suffer from anxiety issues to understand them is hard.

People have tried countless metaphors and methods to describe what panic and anxiety is like. But putting it into the context of a living nightmare, haunted house style, is one of the more effective ways I've ever seen it done.

Brenna Twohy delivered the riveting poetic analogy recently in Oakland, starting out by going off about some funny "Goosebumps" plots. It's lovely, funny, sweet, and relatable, and it's totally worth the short time to watch.

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When a pet is admitted to a shelter it can be a traumatizing experience. Many are afraid of their new surroundings and are far from comfortable showing off their unique personalities. The problem is that's when many of them have their photos taken to appear in online searches.

Chewy, the pet retailer who has dedicated themselves to supporting shelters and rescues throughout the country, recognized the important work of a couple in Tampa, FL who have been taking professional photos of shelter pets to help get them adopted.

"If it's a photo of a scared animal, most people, subconsciously or even consciously, are going to skip over it," pet photographer Adam Goldberg says. "They can't visualize that dog in their home."

Adam realized the importance of quality shelter photos while working as a social media specialist for the Humane Society of Broward County in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

"The photos were taken top-down so you couldn't see the size of the pet, and the flash would create these red eyes," he recalls. "Sometimes [volunteers] would shoot the photos through the chain-link fences."

That's why Adam and his wife, Mary, have spent much of their free time over the past five years photographing over 1,200 shelter animals to show off their unique personalities to potential adoptive families. The Goldbergs' wonderful work was recently profiled by Chewy in the video above entitled, "A Day in the Life of a Shelter Pet Photographer."