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eJOURNAL OF THE INTERNATIONAL CHILD AND YOUTH CARE NETWORK (CYC-Net) – ISSN 1605-7406

ISSUE 111 MAY 2008  •  CONTENTS  •  HOME PAGE

voices

My journey: From care to college

Melissa Thomas

My eventful life began at 12:59am on July 28, 1983 at the Grace Maternity Hospital, in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Although I was raised in a strong Christian home, and taught right from wrong, I developed a problem with authority at an early age. This led to difficulties both at home and school. Although I always excelled in school academically, behaviorally was another story. My parents and I have clashed since before I learned to speak, and their many attempts to dissolve the tension proved fruitless. After sending me to four dense psychologists/psychiatrists I was finally diagnosed with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) and over-medicated.

Today my family and I believe that I was misdiagnosed and that my behavioral issues in school primarily stemmed from boredom. As for the home issues, I was just a rebellious kid with an attitude and a mind of my own! I was eventually labeled as having ODD (Oppositional Defiant Disorder); I continued to act out in school and was constantly issued detentions and suspensions. Despite my behavior I remained on the honor roll throughout junior high, during which time I also excelled athletically. I played on a softball summer league for eight years, a few house basketball leagues, and every school team you could think of. I was also the captain of my basketball team in grade nine.

Until I was eight the only home I’d ever known was a two-bedroom mobile home in a small trailer park on the outskirts of Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. Then we upgraded to a duplex in a nearby subdivision. It was in that subdivision where I made the friends who would eventually become my “partners in crime” throughout my teenage years. We began experimenting with smoking, drinking and drugs around age twelve or thirteen. By fourteen we added petty crime, partying, and stealing my parents’ car. And by fifteen we were smoking, drinking, and stealing —  everything, which landed me in a group home.

The group home arrangement was only intended to be temporary, as a break for both my parents and myself. However, I chose to remain there, as I enjoyed the freedom; the opportunity to come and go as I pleased. There were strict rules, but we all knew that nothing could really be done if you didn’t follow them. At home my parents restrained and punished me; I can recall a time when I was grounded in my room with only a bed and a bible. At one point during my stay in care, I was totally estranged from my family, which only added to the already accumulated animosity.

My association with the troubled group home girls only reinforced my negative behavior, worsened my drug use, and initiated my trouble with the law. I became a freedom-seeking runaway, hitchhiking across the Maritimes. By then I had entered grade ten at a Dartmouth High School, and although I was enrolled, I was rarely present in both mind and body. Eventually I was expelled for absenteeism and drinking at school. I was then obligated to enroll in “Choices”, a drug treatment program for youth, where I went on and off for school, counseling sessions, group therapy, anger management, and drug treatment. I eventually got kicked out for substance abuse and defiance.

As my sixteenth birthday neared, my unbearable social worker gave me the ultimatum to either move to a harsh foster home or go home. After seven months, I was basically “aging out” of care, so I reintroduced myself to family life, got a minimum wage job at McDonald’s, and life was great … until my parents decided to move to the country. I didn’t want to move to the “sticks” so I moved in with an old group home friend and her boyfriend who lived right across the street from my work. They turned out to be slobs, so I moved in with another friend in the same building, a twenty-six-year-old and her two daughters. She got a free babysitter and I got a place to stay. For about six months I lived with her, worked and partied. That was until I realized that I needed my high school education, and that I couldn’t go back to school and work enough to support myself at the same time. I ended up lying my way into the independent group home that my cousin lived in, as I didn’t feel that I had any other option. It was for girls who were trying to help themselves and get an education. The home and my new high school both had strict no drug policies. After many chances, and an abundance of help from supportive people, my failure to comply with the no drug policy eventually got me kicked out of both. 

Seventeen and nowhere to go; I moved in with another group home friend, her boyfriend, and another friend of hers. I did some more partying, working, and stayed there until we had a falling out, which forced me to fall back on my parents until I could get an affordable apartment. I ended up with a small bachelor in the north end of Dartmouth where I continued to party and work. My close friend, who remains so today, practically moved in with me, and our notorious group of friends went from bad to worse. I was immersed in a life of crime, drugs and partying; I was quickly evicted from my first “real” apartment. 

Luckily one of my aunts had a spare room, which I rented for a couple months. After a time I acquired a crack house apartment, with my ex-con roommate, in downtown Dartmouth. I also acquired an assault charge, for which I was never convicted. My shady behavior and costly habits eventually caused me to lose the job that I had been able to hold on to by a thread, for over two years. 

It was around this time that I became involved with a charming chef and his adorable, eight-week old, American Staffordshire Terrier. It is the chef who would eventually become my daughter’s father and my current love interest. Early in our relationship circumstances led us to move to the country near my parents, where we remained for our first years. We worked various jobs and I briefly went back to school at an adult high school, only to drop out after a semester due to an unexpected pregnancy. This pregnancy changed my life!

The miraculous birth of my daughter on May 28, 2003 was the most significant and incredible event of my life. She was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. Even if for the majority of our seven-day stay in the hospital, I only saw her through the smudged glass of the incubator.

When our daughter was fifteen months old, my relationship with her father finally collapsed; we’d travelled a long way on a very bumpy road. After wallowing in self pity for a while, I found my strength and decided to better myself for the sake of my daughter. I immediately committed myself to getting my high school diploma and applied to the Adult Learning Program at NSCC. With my daughter as my motivation and my family as my support, I achieved my goal in 2006, graduating with both honors and the highest aggregate. During my time in the Adult Learning Program I took the opportunity to reflect on my group home experiences. This is what led to my decision to enroll in the Human Services program and eventually receive a diploma in Child and Youth Care.

My primary incentive was to give back to the community through using my experience to help other troubled teens. It has been my experience that in group home situations there is usually one Youth Care Worker who you connect with and who makes a difference. I want to be that Youth Care Worker. Over the years, I was blessed with many Youth Care Workers who had a great impact on my life and I only hope for the opportunity to make that great an impact on another young life.

Last year I completed the Human Services foundation year, which reaffirmed my goal to become a Youth Care Worker. Throughout the course of the year I learned a tremendous amount about myself, my relationships, and became even more dedicated to achieving both my personal and career goals. To assist me in this I was awarded a $1500 scholarship from Literacy Nova Scotia in recognition of my accomplishments in the Adult Learning Program. I was also recently awarded a $1000 bursary specifically for former youth in care, from a Halifax charitable organization called the Nova Scotia Council for the Family. They recognize the educational struggles of youth who are, or have been, in care and offer financial assistance for educational or career development opportunities.

After giving ourselves time to grow and find ourselves, my daughter’s father and I have since rekindled our relationship. I have also been volunteering with Big Brothers Big Sisters and Best Buddies Canada (which pairs intellectually challenged adults with students), as I continue my education in the Child and Youth Care concentration of the Human Services program, at NSCC. Only a week of school remains until I return to my second and final work practicum. I will walk across the NSCC stage and receive my Child and Youth Care diploma at graduation on June 14, 2008. 

Throughout my educational journey I have had the support of many people including: family, friends, and many extraordinary NSCC instructors, beginning way back in the Adult Learning Program. They always had faith in me and challenged me to reach my potential both academically and in life. Because many instructors in the Human Services program are practitioners themselves, they are more than familiar with roads similar to the one I have travelled; yet they treated me only as a student, rarely as a former youth in care. I have been told of the hope they have for youth in care everywhere and of the pride that is felt from within their profession as they witness my success. I feel I have had the opportunity within this program to contribute to the learning of others by sharing my experiences. I have also had the opportunity to learn from the experiences of others.

Some call me a success story, and I probably am, but I couldn’t have done it without the many people who played a role, however small, in my lifelong journey. I have recently been in touch with a few Youth Care Workers who contributed to my resilience and the general consensus in their responses was that they always knew I had it in me; the potential to succeed at whatever I set my mind to.

My bubbly, five-year-old (who is very much like me), will be starting elementary school in September, as the three of us embark on this new chapter in our lives, as a family. I am fascinated by the extent that the Child and Youth Care field seems to have developed since I was in care, and I look forward to finding my place in the growing profession. I hope submitting my story serves as my first step towards helping youth in care realize their potential and recognize the importance of education.

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I would like to dedicate my story to my late grandfather, Percy Conway (1929-2007), for his unconditional love and support. And for always believing in me, even when I didn’t believe in myself. I wish you could have been here to see this.