Editor’s Note: Our Stories is a series by Natasha Joglekar, assisted by Andy Trattner, with photography provided by Prof. Daniel Jackson. Each story is a first person narrative of personal struggle and strength.
My parents have struggled with substance abuse for as long as I can remember. My mom had me when she was 19. Both she and my dad tried to get clean for a little bit, but were largely unsuccessful. Pretty much my entire childhood, I didn’t see much of my parents. My dad and mom split up really early. My mom shuffled around. I am told that I was babysat a lot.
When I was five, my mom remarried and she had my little sister, Kyra. At that time, things were okay. A lot of times I took care of my sister. I would make us meals, which was often PB&J. When I had school, I would wake myself up in the morning and get ready and beg my step-dad to drive me to school. Often times he didn’t.
After my mom divorced my sister’s dad, we hopped around, staying with her friends and boyfriends. Things started to get pretty bad, as far as her addiction went. In particular, one boyfriend we lived with was definitely selling drugs out of the house. No one was watching my sister or me, and my mom and her boyfriend would be in a bedroom with the door closed all day, with people going in and out. When you are that young, you don’t really see it as child neglect; you just deal with it.
My sister and I are very close. I tried to do everything I could to make her life a little easier. One Christmas Eve, my mom left, and I stayed up for hours waiting for her to come back and decorate the tree. My sister fell asleep, so I put her to bed, and afterward I decorated the tree myself and tried to find things of my own and put my sister’s name on it, as a makeshift present.
We started to get the cops called on our house. Every time the cops came, my mom, sister and I would hide in our garage and be very quiet. I didn’t understand what was going on, but my mom said if the cops caught us, they were going to take us away.
One day, when I was in the fourth grade, I was called to the office, and I was confused because I never got called to the office for behavior reasons. I went to the office and nervously stood outside the door. It was Child Protection Services (CPS). CPS checked me out from the school, and I got in the back of their car, and they drove for a really long time. They never told me where we were going or why, it was just really quiet. Our destination turned out to be a receiving home, which is where all the kids going into foster care go first, so they can check for signs of child abuse or drugs in our system. I was there for a while before my sister showed up. My sister was in tears and wearing one shoe. I found out later it was because the cops arrived at our house, while she was playing dress up in my shoes, and there was a struggle in which the shoe got left behind. The little things stick out a lot.
We bounced between four different foster homes. Foster care is not a great place. There are families out there that genuinely care for the kids they take in, but there are also people who do the bare minimum to take care of kids and profit off the stipend. We, unfortunately, got a lot of the latter. The first home we were in, my sister was sexually abused by the foster parent’s biological child. So we ended up getting moved pretty quickly. At the next foster home, it was a lot of neglect. We would come home, and we would get a bowl of ramen for dinner, and then be in our room the rest of the night. We were only allowed to come out to use the bathroom.
We were really fortunate that throughout this, we stayed together. Typically siblings in foster care get split up, and I honestly can’t imagine where we would be at now if we had. We moved a few more times, and the last foster home was close to my maternal grandparents. It was great that we got to have visits with my grandparents, and throughout this whole process, they had been fighting for custody, and eventually we were able to move in with them.
I was in sixth grade; it was a very big transition. They were much older and hadn’t parented in a very long time. Also, it felt like they had failed with their own kids, so they decided to be very strict with my sister and I. It was astronomically better than foster care, and we were very well taken care of. However, they would say things — “We don’t want you to end up like your mother” — or would bring up that they spent a lot of money on trying to get custody of us. It felt like they loved us and wanted us there, but when they said things like that, it made us question whether we were worth it.
We fought a lot because they didn’t like me to be involved with things outside of school. I was highly academically driven and wanted to be involved. I started researching what it takes to go to college in 8th grade. I knew I was smart and could do it, but I realized that being involved in extracurriculars is really important. I would look around at my peers whose parents were pushing them to get involved while I was fighting to be allowed to. I did what I could, and ended up applying to college through QuestBridge, which is for high-achieving, low-income high school students, to Stanford and MIT, and then applied to around 20 other schools. I knew I just needed to get in somewhere, so it was worth it for me to do all the applications. I was sitting down to dinner on my 18th birthday when I got the acceptance email from MIT. I couldn’t believe it was real.
As soon as I was 18, I moved out of my grandparent’s house, which was a tough decision to leave my sister, but she was well cared for there. I moved out because it was becoming increasingly difficult for me to be involved, and my mental health was suffering. I rented a room from an older woman that I took care of and also made a little bit of money.
In the spring, I got a financial stipend to come to CPW. It was surreal. I met my freshman year roommate, and she is still my best friend. I loved MIT, but I did not submit my acceptance until 10 minutes before it was due. I was nervous, my dad was still in and out of prison, but my mom had recently gone to a rehab program and got really involved in the church. She got a job at The Salvation Army, and started to get her life together. My mom wasn’t a parental figure anymore, but I still wanted to be around her. It was tough to think about moving across the country while my relationship with my mom was just starting to come back to life.
I have been financially independent since I moved out of my grandparents’ house. My sister now lives with my mom who met a guy at a recovery program meeting. They have been married for 4 years, and they just had a baby and are doing great. I love visiting them.
My childhood shaped me into an independent and ambitious person. I feel very driven to work hard and pursue whatever it takes to make my life better and break the cycle of drug abuse, alcoholism, and poverty. This year, I helped start an organization on campus called CASE, to help address socioeconomic issues and intersectionality on campus. It sort of seems that once you get into MIT there is a happy ending, but it is hard not having financial or emotional support from family. At first I struggled socially, because I didn’t feel like I totally fit in here. I felt like my friends couldn’t relate to me. Starting CASE is my way of helping people talk about these issues and feel less alone.
After graduation, I am going to work, but eventually I am hoping to go to medical school and study psychiatry. Ultimately, I want to start a nonprofit to provide mental health support, and job/college support to kids aging out of the foster system. It is a huge need. Most kids in the foster kid system don’t do well in school because there is no one encouraging them to and there are no resources. Typically kids age out of foster care and maybe they graduate high school, but mostly end up in low-paying jobs, and end up falling into the same cycle of drug and alcohol abuse. Things like depression, anxiety, and even PTSD are very prevalent. We are neglected and abused, and don’t feel worthy of attention or love from those who take care of us. Kids and their issues are overlooked in foster care, and my plan is to try and change that.
Kyla Truman is a member of the Class of 2017.
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Photo copyright Daniel Jackson, 2016.