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This fundraiser ended on 01/21/11

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Foster Children have the odds stacked against them from the very start. Many end up homeless, drug addicted, or mentally ill. But some do survive and even thrive! This is the story of one who did - me! Now I need help paying my school loans..

My mother and father were teen parents when I was born in a small farming community in southeast  California near the Mexican border.  My parents married but it didn't last.  My mother took me and moved to Los Angeles.  We lived there for a while, with her mother and sisters in the Ujima Village Housing Projects.  I don't remember very much from that time, but what I do remember was unpleasant.  My mother was young and impulsive and often argued with her own mother.  One night, she put me in a shopping cart and left.  That night was spent sleeping on the cold wooden floor of a strange family who were kind enough to offer us shelter for the night in there guest house outback.


My mother finally managed to get herself together enough to have her own apartment.  I loved my mother very much and not knowing any different, accepted the condition in which we lived as the norm.  However it was far from normal.  The little apartment had no furniture except a bed.   It was filthy and roach infested, so much so that I distinctly remember putting on my mothers high heels to go to the bathroom, then while sitting on the toilet would use the shoot to swat away any roach that approached the seat.
Things turned around when one day, my father whom I rarely saw, showed up unexpectedly at our door.  I had been given a bath and had fallen asleep still naked in our bed.  When I heard his voice I came running out and he grabbed me in his arms and hugged me hard.  He asked me if I'd like to go and visit my Aunt Helen and her two daughters.  I told him yes and he drove me there.


Unbeknownst to me or my mother, my father showed up because a friend had tipped him off that something was wrong.  I was often filthy and wandering around outside alone.  My mother had a serious problem with epilepsy.  She could have severe seizures at any moment.  We were alone and for my sake something needed to be done.  That night I kissed my mother goodbye not knowing I would not see her again for seven years.
My father drove with me to El Centro, CA the next day.  When I arrived my grandparents welcomed me with open arms and I had the first fully home cooked meal I had had in a long time.  My father left a few days later and I remained with my grandparents who loved and cared for me as any mother and father would. I was five.

When I was ten years old my grandmother and my aunt came to me and told me that my father would be gone for a very long time. They looked sad. I told them OK. My father had been sent to prison and I did not see him again until I was in my twenties.

When I was eleven my grandmother who had long ago been diagnosed with breast cancer, had been informed that the cancer had returned. This time she would not survive. By the time I was twelve, she was gone. I went to live with my Aunt Patricia. However by this time, my mother, had returned. She had been living in Louisiana all this time and was eager to rekindle our relationship. However, at that point, I knew this woman was my mother, but I didn't really know her anymore. What I could remember about her was hazy but I knew I didn't want to live that way again. This time my mother lived in the back of a store where she worked with a man, Eric she claimed to have married. My Aunt Patricia had been asked by my grandmother to raise me and a court battle erupted. I did not want to live with my mother. I knew something wasn't right. My Aunt Patricia and my mother fought over me viciously and publicly.

Meanwhile, life with My Aunt Patricia was only marginally better than it was with my mother. My Patricia was an alcoholic and extremely abusive. She often called me names like whore and slut. She would pick me up from choir practice drunk and raging over someone she suspected of sleeping with her “man”, a person 10 years her junior named Randy who lived with us. She slapped me and criticized relentlessly, calling me every name in the book, and saying that I was ugly and would amount to nothing - just like my mother. It was so awful after a while I rarely left the bedroom I shared with her daughter.

Finally, for a reason that is still unclear to me, a social worker showed up at our door. She told me I'd be going with her. I spent the next year in a foster group home called Para Los Ninos. There I witnessed a small mentally handicapped child made to dress up and dance around as Aunt Jemima for the amusement of one of the staff members. I witnessed other children so broken and abused that even I could tell they were mentally scarred. Two children in particular were brought there, little girls who were sisters. One day we sat on the floor playing and talking. I asked them why they were there. One of the little girls, the older sister I think (although I don't think she could have been older than seven or eight), told me that her father and his friends used to touch her and her sisters “down there”. She explained in great detail what he did and how. I asked her why she didn't just tell her mom. She said she did, but she didn’t' believe them, so they were here now. Even then I remember the look on her face. It was not one of terror or confusion. She told the story as brightly as if she had been telling me a children's bedtime story. What I realize now, but could not understand then was that the reason she could be to blasé about something so horrible was because this had likely been going on her entire young life. She simply didn't know that things could be different.

Eventually, for whatever reason, I was released to go live with my Aunt Patricia. I was happy to be away from the group home, but little had changed at home. Patricia still drank, her children found me annoying and complained about me causing Patricia to take out still more anger toward me. And then something strange began to happen.

After a while I started waking up to find Patricia's young boyfriend, Randy, with his hand beneath my blankets, feeling around under my gown and underwear. This happened a few times. I would wake up in a haze and find him touching me. He would say, “Your Aunt wants you to get up now”, and simply leave the room.

Eventually I realized he was not coming to my room to tell me to get up. He was touching me inappropriately as I slept. This scared me and made me feel very uncomfortable. When I realized what was going on I went to my Aunt and told her what he had done. She immediately beat me and accused me of lying. For days she harangued and berated me. Randy denied everything of course, and I was shunned by other family members, including her eldest daughters husband who callously asked not to be left alone in the room with me in case I wanted to lie about him too. Eventually my Aunt Patricia could no longer tolerate my presence. She told me to leave. With no where else to go I got on my bike and went to live with my mother across town.

Years later I would learn that Randy actually spent time in prison for molesting a child. I was in my twenties when I heard this. It took me some years to finally forgive those family members I had told for allowing this to happen to me and not believing me. Aunt Patricia is dead now. When I spoke to her before she died, I was in tears asking her why she didn't take better care of me. She said she was sorry and that if she had known how bad it would get with my mother, she would never have sent me away. But she never mentioned Randy and she died before I could work up the courage to talk to her about it. I am still working on forgiving her.

My mother lived in a tiny one bedroom apartment with her new husband Eric. Eric was from Louisiana and he was trouble. Sometimes the police would stop me on my way home from school and ask me if I was ok and what Eric was up to. I'd say fine and nothing as far as I knew. But the “I'm fine” part wasn't true at all. My mother was also an alcoholic. She and Eric fought non-stop. They both beat me, often leaving me bruised and embarrassed as they seemed to relish in hitting me and calling me names so that my friends could hear and see. No social worker ever showed up, and since I had no where else to go, I simply accepted that this was my life.

School was my only refuge and even that had become almost unbearable. I was unable to relate to the other children so I had very few friends and often spent my time alone. My grades plummeted. I was angry and temperamental, and was expelled once for cursing at a teacher. One day my mother decided we were all moving to Los Angeles and before I could protest I was on a greyhound bus with her.

When we arrived, we checked into a weekly hotel room on skid row in downtown Los Angeles. The place was infested with rats and there were strange leering men everywhere. I stuck close to my mother, afraid to be accidentally separated from her in the big new city. Eventually Eric showed up and we all lived together in this one room with one bed. I slept in bed with my mother, while Eric slept on the floor. We had almost no money as far as I could tell. Eric one day took me on a bus to East L.A. Where he enrolled me in Hollenbeck Jr. High. At first these kids seemed strange. They dressed differentially, they spoke differently and they were friendly and interested in me. I didn't know whether or not to trust them but eventually I began to relax and make friends.

However, my mother and Eric neglected my needs, either that or they didn't have enough money so eventually the few clothing items and shoes I had began to fall apart. I started to put cardboard in the bottom of my shoes where holes had developed. A teacher began to notice. He would ask me why my shoes had cardboard in them and I told him I couldn’t afford new ones. One day this teacher asked me where I lived. I told him downtown, and he asked if I would like a ride home. He was going that way. I said OK, not knowing that he wanted to know where I lived. I can't imagine what he must have thought when he pulled up in front of that skid row hotel.

Life with my mother remained trying and it was hard to remain on her good side. One night she beat and choked me, leaving bruises and fingernails marks in my neck where she had squeezed. She ripped off my clothes then shoved me out of the door telling me she would treat me the way her mother treated her. I wept and begged her to let me back in. I saw a man peek out of his door, see me standing there crying half dressed, then quickly close the door. No help ever came and I simply had to wait until she felt like opening the door.

The next at school, my teacher asked me what happened to my neck. I think at first I tried to lie. Eventually sensing that maybe he wanted to help I told him what had been happening. That night he drove me to social services and I never had to live with my mother again.

I was placed in a temporary foster home, then I went to live with my grandmother who was still living in the Ujima Village Housing Projects. I was there for a number of year, until I was about a sophomore in high school. My grandmother had a daughter Anne who lived there too. For some reason Anne, who I remembered being very loving when I little, had turned on me. She beat me when my grandmother wasn't there. I say she beat me but I would try and fight back. She was almost twice my size and I was afraid to do anything that might provoke her even further like hit her with something. So I simply tried to fight her off. I still have nightmares about that. When I would tell my grandmother what happened, she would tell Anne not to do it again and begged us to try and get along, but things just became worse until one night Anne's anger erupted. My grandmother, afraid Anne might kill me, sent me to live with her other daughter, Georgia.

Georgia was a recovering drug addict who lived in south central Los Angeles. Gun shots often rang out around her apartment and I became accustomed to this so much so that I had to be reminded to get on the floor and duck for cover. She had been using drugs since a very young age and seemed mentally stunted. We too fought and one night I bit her hand hard trying to defend myself as she held me down threatening to spray me in the face with bug poison. This time during the commotion, a collection of music I had was stolen as people in her apartment complex came in to see what all the noise was. I knew I couldn’t stay there I had one last person to call. My mothers youngest sister Joanne. She showed up that night and I went to live with her.

Joanne was also a recovering alcoholic and drug user. But she had managed to stay sober for seven years, get her children back, get a good job, and move into a two bedroom apartment. Now she was caring for me, her own two daughter who were 2 and maybe 5 at the time, and our Elderly Aunt LuLu. We all four lived in this cramped space, and got around in her beat up Pinto the children had lovingly named Daisy. I couldn’t have been happier.

Aunt Joanne and I would argue but she never hit me or called me names. While I was with her I was able to get my grades up and start thinking about college and the future. When I was about 16 or 17, I was enrolled in the Los Angels County Independent Living Program. The programs aim is to help foster youth who are about to emancipate or age out of the system achieve stability. So they help with housing, teach money management and basic life skills, etc. This was a new program at the time and I participated hoping to be able to go away to college someday and finally be free from the chaos that had been my life.

After being removed from my mothers custody, my social worker, knowing that my grandmother had a limited income, kept me classified as a foster child so the state would help pay for my monthly expenses. I remained a ward of the Court, or a foster kid, until the age of 18. Although I didn't have the best grades I was able to gain admission to UC Santa Cruz. Before I left an new organization called the United Friends of the Children had a special graduation for me and about 50 other graduating foster kids who were going away to college. I remember meeting Henry Winkler, and Patti LaBelle sang.

I graduated from high school and started college that summer. I was admitted on a conditional basis dependent upon how I did in a summer program where I had to take some basic preparatory college course. I was afraid I wouldn't do very well but I applied myself and that fall moved into my new dorm.

College was a difficult adjustment, not because it was unfamiliar. Having been moved around so much, I was used to unfamiliar. It was finally being in charge of my own life that was a hard adjustment. I got a little money from the United Friends and the independent living program, but my tuition had to be paid for some other way. So as most students did, I applied for and received financial aid. It was easy. I got a few grants, but mostly loans. The loans took care of my books and tuition and I had a little money left over to live on. Sometimes I didn't budget very well and I would have to call someone at either ILP or UFC to help me pay my rent. The new friends I made came from families who were helping them with money and tuition. I worked and took out school loans. I had no other choice.

By the time I graduated from college had about $80,000 in loans. I applied to law school immediately. I was accepted at a few and chose one in San Francisco. I didn't do so well there and didn't finish. I spent the next few years working and living in San Francisco and eventually, I met my husband to be. I moved to Oregon to be with him in the year 2000.

He and I married and had a son. After working for a while as a secretary, I began to feel as though I was not meeting my full potential. I wanted to do more with my life and I wanted to be able to contribute in a more meaningful way. So I decided to go back to law school and get my degree. I attended Lewis & Clark Law School starting in 2005. At first I worked full time and went to school at night. But with a small child and both of us working this became unsustainable so I quit my job and worked paid part-time clerkship’s in order to gain some experience and help out with our bills. I tried to schedule my classes during the day so I could be home at night and help take care of my son. Money was tight and tuition was always paid for with loans. I took them out knowing I would eventually have to pay them back, but figuring my law degree would allow me to afford the payments and I would be free of debt in a few short years.

During the summer before my final year in law school, the financial aid office called to inform me that I had reached my student loan limit. I had actually borrowed the maximum amount possible from the Federal Government! I had no idea what to do. We couldn’t afford tuition payments and still survive. However, they told me there was a new federal loan I could apply for but I would have to be credit approved for it. Then I could also apply for private loans. I worried that my credit wouldn't allow me to get private loans but I had no choice except to try. To my surprise I got the private loans and the new federal government loan.

I graduated last May and before I did, I had a chat with a financial aid counselor at my school. That's when it became very apparent that my education, though valuable, had been very expensive. She told me to go to the National Student Loan Data Registry which was online. There I could see exactly how much I owed. After scrolling down through over 33 records I was shocked to find that I owed $223,813 which did not include interest. The full reality of what I had done hit me like a ton of bricks. I was horribly, horribly in debt. My education had cost me the equivalent of a house! In fact the monthly loan payments would be equivalent to that of a mortgage.

On top of everything else, there were so many, some had been sold to different lenders. I had no idea how to cope with it all. But what became abundantly clear was that unless I was able to find an incredibly well paying job, I would likely be paying these loans off for the remainder of my life. I would never be able to afford a house. The life I dreamed of having where money would not be such an issue, and I could finally look back and say I overcame adversity and did the right thing by seeking the best education money could buy, began to seem like a fantasy I told myself. Well apparently is was a fantasy! There is no way this is any better than having just attended a trade school where I would have a marketable skill at a fraction of the price.

I have a law degree for which I am very proud, but it doesn't seem to be worth the paper it's written on. Jobs these days are few and far between. The big firms that pay the most are also the most choosy. They choose graduates from the best school and those who have the best grades. I was an average student. My grades weren't anything special and that is reflected in the fact that none of the big firms that I applied to in Portland gave me a second thought. The one that offered me an interview, called back and declined to interview me after seeing my grades. I had a 2.0! But they like to see A's I guess.

So long story short, I've got thousands of dollars in student debt, no job, and I still have to pass the bar exam! I should be studying for the bar right now, but after facing the reality of my future financial and employment prospects, I am considering whether or not taking the bar exam is worth it and see if I can do something else with the degree that will actually earn an income that will pay off my loans. I wanted to do something meaningful with my degree such as advocate for children in foster care. Apparently jobs for the public interest don't pay very much. I feel stuck. The cost of tuition has risen so dramatically if someone were to ask me, I would tell them that if they are just interested in a career that will pay the bills and give them some financial freedom, go to a trade or technical school. Save your money. Live your life. Be happy. I've spoken to attorneys who have been practicing for years and they say ridiculous and amazing things like, tuition used to be $1,000 a semester! Well things have certainly changed.

So I am asking someone out there to please consider helping me pay these loans off so that I can finally concentrate on being a productive member of society not just another person simply working to keep up with the bills. I want to believe that my life has meaning. That everything I went through growing up, I can harness and use for the betterment of others...especially children. Right now it just seems I've labored all these year in vain. This can't be it for me. So, if you're out there, if you've managed to make it to the end of this long and sordid tale please consider donating some money that will be used to pay off my student loans so I can be free to help others and truly give back. I couldn’t have made it this far without people who cared enough to reach out to me and give me the tools I needed to succeed. I need to ask for help one more time. Will you please foster my success? Thank you.

Naomi

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