We sat down with Bachelor of Social Work alumna and current Master of Social Work student, Stephanie Guerra to hear her inspiring story.
Can you share with us about your experience in foster care?
It was terrifying at first because I had no idea where I was going to end up. I was happy to be removed from my abusive childhood home, but I did not know if I was going to end up in a safe place or in an even worse situation. It was hard to stay positive because most of what people hear about the foster care system is dreadful.
I lived at SOS Children’s Village in Coconut Creek from ages 15-18. I stayed in an all-girl 5-bedroom home. I experienced living with various house parents and roommates. It was difficult to form attachments because of how often people came in and out of my life. I also worked with a lot of different social workers. Some business factors were added to my life which included paperwork, court appearances, and home visits. I had to come to terms with the fact that I was a case. The living situation was not ideal; however, SOS Children’s Village and the social workers at ChildNet made feel safe and loved. I never experienced either of those two things in my childhood home.
Overall, I had a good experience and I am grateful for it. I learned how to be very self-sufficient and adaptable. SOS Children’s Village works hard to ensure that all the children who live there are comfortable. They arranged transportation for me to stay at my high school all the way in Sunrise and worked it out so that I could continue all the sports and activities I was involved in before being placed with them.
The Village strives to provide a sense of normalcy for their children. It is easy to feel alone and neglected when being part of “the system”, but SOS Children’s Village does their best to make you feel like you are part of a family. The Village always planned activities for us to partake in, especially around the holidays. They even put together a mentoring program for the younger kids which I got to be a part.
What was it like entering foster care as a teenager?
The transition was definitely not easy. I feel like part of your high school years are for finding yourself and thinking about your future. I had so much going on at once that I felt like my head was going to explode. It was a huge adjustment and at the beginning I was doubtful about everything because up until then I was so used to living in a very toxic environment where I was deemed unworthy.
I am thankful for the workers at SOS Children’s Village, ChildNet, and Piper High School because they were understanding of my situation and worked with me to help create balance. My friends, teammates, and coaches were also very supportive. I have always been a good student, but I never thought college was going to be an option for me because of how controlling my father was. Once I was separated from him and put into the foster care system, I was introduced to so many great opportunities. For the first time in my life, I saw the possibility of a bright future.
You mentioned that ChildNet played an important role in your transition to independent living. Can you talk us through that?
Upon transitioning, ChildNet assigned me to an Independent Living Specialist, Maleah Bourda. Maleah helps to ensure that I am doing well in school, living comfortably, and always brings new opportunities to my attention. She is compassionate about her work and provides me with a safe space to talk about how I am doing and what I am feeling. She motivates me to stay focused and makes me feel like I can accomplish anything.
LaShonda Cross at SOS Children’s Village also play a huge role in my life. She has known me since I first entered the foster care system and continues to support me as I continue my journey through adulthood. She understands the hardships I face not having a family of my own and has always treated me like I am a part of hers. LaShonda knows how to bring out the best in me. She provides me with resources and keeps me connected to the Village letting me know that I’ll always have a place to call home. I consider her to be one of the most dependable people in my life.
What role did team sports play in your personal growth process?
Team sports gave me an outlet, taught me life skills, and provided me with a sense of community. I had a safe space to express myself and made amazing friends who are still a part of my life now.
Where are you currently in your academic journey, and what’s your next step?
I received my BSW in May and shortly afterwards was accepted into FAU’s Advanced Standing MSW program. I am doing the program full time and will graduate next May. I am currently finishing up my first semester and I am proud to be ending it with straight A’s. I have two more semesters to go and I will be starting an internship with the School Board of Broward County in September.
After you receive your MSW degree, what are your plans?
I plan to work in child welfare. I want the opportunity to give back to children who are or may be at risk of being removed from their homes. I have been considering either becoming a child protective investigator or working with the school board. Both of those organizations played a huge role in getting me to where I am today. If it weren’t for the collaboration of the school board and DCF, I would not have been saved.
What are common misconceptions about the foster care system?
That the children do not get a proper education; that at the age of 18, children lose access to all support and resources; that they are left to fend for themselves; that they end up being trafficked, pregnant, or on drugs; and that all foster parents are only in it for the money.
While there are some instances of these situations taking place, it is unfair to use them to define the foster care system in its entirety. There are foster parents, social workers, and volunteers who are actively working to ensure that children in the foster care system are properly cared for. I am one success story and I know that there are many others out there.
What is your advice to children currently in foster care?
Your past does not define you! Use it as motivation to do better for yourself. Also, when times get tough try to remember that you are not alone. There are resources out there and social workers who are devoted to making life easier for you.
What’s the best thing about your experience at FAU thus far?
My favorite professor at FAU is Seth Densen. He is a phenomenal social work professor and continues to be an inspiring mentor in my life. Professor Densen is passionate about teaching and is a great advocate for his students. His class prepared me for real life situations out in the field and I am immensely grateful for his support. The knowledge he gained from working for DCF made it easy for me to open up to him about my experience with the foster care system. He inspired me to pursue my master’s degree and helped me realize that I am fit for a career in child welfare.