Finding My Family

Valerie Anderson lifting weightsGrowing up in a foster home in Southern California, Valerie Anderson always knew when a social worker was getting ready to visit. The behavior of her foster mother, and then guardian, would drastically change. According to Valerie, her foster mother would suddenly become nicer to her a couple of days before a social worker’s monthly visit, always making sure to offer her more food and snacks. Yet after the social worker would leave her foster home, Valerie would be subject to beatings and forced to cook and clean for the household. Treated as a maid by her foster parents, she was regularly told not to read or do her homework.

“There would be many nights where I’d be in my room with a little flashlight,” she said. “I had to go to bed at a certain time, so I would have to do homework in secret.”

Police and other authorities missed the physical signs of abuse, and Valerie was worried that she would be punished if she spoke out. But after six years of living in her foster home, Valerie was finally able to alert someone from Riverside County Department of Child Protective Services about the abuse. At the age of 13, she was sent to live in a new foster home and the County terminated the guardianship rights of her foster parents.

Valerie’s time in the Riverside foster home was just one in a litany of foster care placements. After entering the system at age 3, she experienced 22 different homes during her time in care. But with an unwavering determination to go to college and make a difference, Valerie has kept pursuing her dreams despite many trying times in foster care. Today, Valerie, 20, has come far from the dark days of her childhood. A second-year psychology major at UCLA, she has her eyes firmly set on a future in which she can make a difference as an FBI agent, “making bigger changes than just speeding tickets,” she said.

These days, some of Valerie’s most inspiring moments are spent in a small, dim room known as The Cave. Located underneath UCLA’s Drake Stadium, the Cave is where she gathers four times a week to train with UCLA’s weightlifting team. Her team trains year-round in three events—bench, squat and deadlift—with the goal of qualifying for a national competition in the spring that draws from club teams from all over the country. Although this year is Valerie’s first year of being on the team, she says she’s up for the challenge. In her training so far, she’s already hoisted 265 pounds in the deadlift–enough for her to have a shot at making nationals, her coach says.

Her interest in weightlifting is the latest in a series of pursuits that have fed her competitive spirit and helped give her a sense of support during trying times. Before she took up weightlifting, Valerie was a long-distance runner in high school. It was a crucial element to helping her get through foster care. Participating in sports gave Valerie a way to belong, a social circle and the type of after-school experience that eluded her across many different schools and homes.

“My closest friends were through my sports,” she said. “It allowed me to connect with other people and actually start having fun, hanging out with these people and gaining the typical kid experience.”

Another factor that helped Valerie thrive during her high school years—where she also managed to take several AP classes, participate in after-school clubs and work nearly 20 hours a week—was her relationship with her current foster parents. After moving into their Corona home, Valerie initially clashed with her current foster mother. She found it hard to trust her new family, remembering the abuse she had experienced in the home of the Riverside couple.

But over time, Valerie found a place in the family’s home. Today, she still returns for the holidays even during her breaks from UCLA. They’ve been very supportive, she said, making sure she has enough supplies like clothes and shampoo and helping her seek out scholarships for college.

“We don’t have a perfect relationship, and sometimes we still clash,” Valerie said. “It helps that I’m not at home and in their hair as much. But it took a long time to get where we are now.”

She says her experiences in many different foster homes have taught her the importance of a loving home, especially for younger children. Providing a child in the foster care system with a home is about more than just giving them a bed at night, according to Valerie. One of the most important things Valerie’s current foster family has ever done for her is the way they first presented her to family and friends.

“From the start, they introduced me as part of their family,” she said. “That was really major. Before other foster parents would say, “This is our new foster kid. I don’t know how long she’s staying.’”