Finally, a Work Role Model

I was 19 when I first lived with a foster mother who talked enthusiastically about her job, as a home health aide. That helped me figure out that I could find work I actually liked.

by Alexus Colbert

Growing up, the world of work was mysterious to me. Before age 19, I had never lived with an adult who had a stable career; most didn’t even have jobs. I’d never had a parent figure who had a job they liked or that looked interesting to me. Not surprisingly, it has been hard to figure out what I want to do for a career.

I’ve been in care since I was 11 because my mother was neglectful and was in and out of prison. I was in my first foster home for three years, and that foster mother snuck anti-psychotic medication into my food and emotionally abused me. While living with her, I started cutting myself.

I don’t recall if she had a job; I assumed she got by on the money from keeping foster children in her home. (She didn’t seem to be in it for love!)

We never spoke about my goals. As a child, when teachers asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, my answers weren’t based in reality: a farmer, a rapper, or owner of a pizza shop where I would make the cheese topping purple. I was very depressed after I went into care, so I didn’t think in terms of a job—or anything else—that made people happy.

When I was 14, I finally got away from my awful foster mother and went into kinship care with my aunt. Her income consisted of foster care payments for me and public assistance. Though she was kinder to me, no one in that household worked. When we ran low on food, we would have to wait until my aunt or my grandmother got their food stamps to go shopping again.

When I was 15, I won an essay writing contest, and my aunt encouraged me to apply for a writing workshop with Represent, which ran the essay contest. I was accepted. This was my first real experience with any kind of job.

I had more fun than I had anticipated. The other kids enjoyed writing, too, and we went on field trips to get information for our stories sometimes. We even made a short film. But through it all, my favorite part was sitting at the computer and typing out my experiences. My writing got praise. I thought that one day maybe I’d publish a book.

Surrounded by Books

The following summer, my aunt pushed me to get a six-week job through NYC’s summer youth employment program. I worked in a college library, stocking and arranging the bookshelves and helping students with research. I was very intimidated by all of the grown college students around me, but I loved being surrounded by books. Libraries are my comfort zones; I love the calm and how anything I want to read is right there.

I couldn’t see myself working in a library as an adult though. I didn’t see other kids from my neighborhood reading much. In fact, they teased me when I walked by the basketball court holding my pile of library books.

When I started working, my aunt sometimes asked me for money, and I didn’t really like that. I found it hypocritical that she kept pushing me to work when she didn’t work herself.

When I was 18, I got a job working with children at a camp through a jobs program at my foster care agency. I helped the staff escort the children on field trips, and I did not enjoy it at all. I hated being outdoors in the blazing summer heat with a group of kids who didn’t listen to anything I told them to do.

While I was in school, at the agency, and Represent, I saw adults working hard and liking their jobs, but none of them served as role models for me. It may have been because they were almost all White. I didn’t think I could have the jobs that White people had because I was a Black girl coming from a poor neighborhood who grew up in the foster care system without parents to guide me.

Even in the Represent summer workshop, when I was 15, I was the only Black girl and the youngest in the group. There were other foster kids, but none of them looked like me. The other kids went to schools with fancy names, while I was stuck at a school in East Harlem.

I Could Not See My Future

I did graduate from that school, though, and enrolled in a community college, Medgar Evers. I didn’t know what I wanted as a career or a major. All the academic counselors told me to do what I liked doing, but many told me that I wouldn’t get anything out of a writing career. Everyone told me to major in liberal arts. They said that the exposure to different college classes would help me find my way. It didn’t. I still couldn’t see my future.

I fell back into a bad depression and took up smoking weed, which sometimes helped with the depression and sometimes made it worse. I struggled to pay attention in class, even when I wasn’t high, because there was so much going on in my head. Being in college while I didn’t even want to be alive made me more depressed. It was hard being surrounded by kids who seemed to know what they wanted to do with their lives.

I also stopped coming home for days at a time, sometimes weeks. I’d stay with my boyfriend, smoking and drinking until I passed out. I stopped going to classes, and my aunt took me to the psych ward because she thought I was becoming a danger to myself when she saw I was cutting.

Shortly after my return from the psych ward, my aunt said she was going through her own issues and that I’d have to go back into foster care. It hurt to have my own family reject me. I was disappointed in myself for dropping out of college. I still didn’t know what I wanted to do for work, so I just kept applying to stores.

At age 19, I was placed with another non-relative, Ms. Brooks. I had stayed in Ms. Brooks’ home briefly when my aunt was out of town, so I already knew her a little.

The First Work Advice

Ms. Brooks is a tall Jamaican woman with a heavy accent. She can be harsh, but she talks to me about my future plans. She urged me to try college again.

Ms. Brooks is my first caregiver to actually have a stable career. She works as a home health aide. Her house is big, her car is nice, she dresses well, and there’s always food in the refrigerator.

One day when she was complaining about a difficult patient, I asked her, “Why don’t you just work somewhere else?”

“Because even though I get tired of it and complain, I actually love what I do. It feels good to know I am helping take care of a person who needs the help.”

She went on to give me the first work advice a parent had ever given me: “Make sure you’re doing something that you like because, trust me, you’ll have days when you don’t feel like going to work. But at least when you go in, it won’t feel like a job.”

YC-Art Dept.

Stumped About Career

That motivated me to figure out what I really like. I got a job as a stock associate at Abercrombie & Fitch, pulling clothes from the giant shelves of the stockroom and preparing them for sale. When a customer needed a specific size that wasn’t on the sales floor, one of my co-workers or a manager called my walkie-talkie and I brought it to them.

Sometimes when I took the clothes out, the customers asked me questions, and I helped them find what they wanted. Working with customers helped me break out of my shyness a little. I got better at the job and gained confidence.

I enjoyed my stay at Abercrombie but I stopped working there around the time my grandmother died, when I was 20. I struggled with that loss, and I started to lose track of myself as well.

I found myself hanging out in the streets more, smoking and drinking and stealing. I got arrested for petty larceny. Since I was 20 then, the judge told me that the next time I got caught I would be sent to prison. That scared me into trying college again. I had to get it together.

I tried a different school, majoring in liberal arts once more. I still couldn’t connect what I was doing in school with a future job, and concentration remained hard for me. I started missing classes and eventually just stopped going there too.

But my 21st birthday was approaching, and I knew I needed to support myself. I enrolled in a Certified Nursing Assistant course. My older sister is a CNA, and she sent me the information about the training.

I excelled in my CNA class, passing all my tests by studying and writing good essays about the history of nursing. Afterwards, I spent some time doing a short internship in a nursing home and realized that even though I was good at it, that was not where I wanted to be either. Being around old and dying people made me want my grandma back.

What I Consistently Love

The summer I was 21, I went back to the city’s six-week job program and got an internship as a computer technician. Some of the students really loved computers, but I felt stupid because I didn’t know as much as some of them did.

I just turned 22, and I realize that what I’ve always come back to is writing. I’m often lost in a book or writing lyrics and poetry and journaling during my free time. I came back to write at Represent a few years ago. I love writing stories here. My Represent stories give readers pleasure and insight, like I get when I read other people’s work.

I know it’ll be hard to support myself with a writing job, but I’ll figure it out along my journey. For the time being, it brings me some peace that I know what I want to do now.
I’m trying to get into City College to study English with a focus on creative writing, and in the meantime I’m working as a receptionist at a tax and credit repair office. I schedule appointments, process clients, file folders, shred documents, make copies, answer and direct phone calls, and run errands.

Other Role Models

This job is helping me build my confidence and become less socially awkward. I still have a lot to learn though. Right now, I’m paying attention and learning from all the adults with careers around me: Ms. Brooks the home health aide; my cousins (a teacher and a drug counselor); an aunt who’s a social worker; another aunt who’s a nurse; my sister the CNA; the professional editors and other staff at Represent; my mentors from Junket NYC (a program for youth aging out of care) who are social workers or work in the art department; the workers who help me at my foster care agency; and my cousin Dejona. She’s a history teacher who loves her job and incorporates her humor into her lessons.

Many foster youth, because of what we’ve been through, feel like we don’t have the potential to achieve. I think a common mistake that adults make is telling their children what they need to do instead of helping them figure out what they like and working with them from there.

Foster parents, get to know your children and find out what they like doing. Enroll them in activities where they can try things and participate with them if you can. I wish I had gotten more of this as a child so that the work world didn’t seem so overwhelming.

Talk to your foster children and help them understand adult life, including the fun parts! I was told that I needed to work and that I needed to go to college, period. I think I didn’t stick with college because I felt pushed into things that I didn’t like or see the purpose in doing.

Now that I’ve had a few different work experiences and have talked to some adults about their jobs, I have a better idea of what I want to do. Writers tell me it’s a tough way to support yourself, but I’m glad I’ve discovered what inspires me. So I’ll continue learning new skills so I can support myself while I find ways to do what I love.

Alexus’s Tips for Foster Parents

Look for educational, enriching activities that line up with the youth’s interests. Talk about them with her. Even better, DO them with her.

Talk about your own job with your foster youth. Explain all the things you’ve learned at different workplaces. Emphasize the pleasure you’ve gotten from work.

Don’t take money from your foster youth!

If a youth seems unsure about college, let him talk through his doubts. Reassure him that college is a place to try things and change your mind—and that not everyone needs to go to college. Try hard to find out what he wants and not impose your own likes.

Notice what a child is good at. Praise and encourage them.

Now that I've had a few different work experiences and have talked to some adults about their jobs, I have a better idea of what I want to do.
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