Today, 23-year-old Erica Ontiveros is a graduate of Cal State Fullerton, working on her double masters degree at UCLA and applying to a fellowship at the Los Angeles Mayor's Office. If you asked this ambitious student what her goals and dreams are, she'd probably ramble off an impressive list of goals like serving in the Peace Corps, working in Washington D.C. and impacting child welfare legislation. If you asked Erica about her journey to get to where she is today, she'd tell you that being a former foster youth is her biggest motivation to succeed. In fact, Erica has come far from her days in the foster care system.
In her own words, Erica describes her journey, what has helped her succeed, and ultimately what advice she would give to other foster youth facing fear, doubt and hardships.
As a young girl, I lived with my single mother and three siblings, always feeling alone and afraid. I questioned my own existence, the love and support my family offered and ultimately the reason I went into foster care. I would describe my childhood as chaotic, violent, at times fun, unpredictable, and a learning lesson. It wasn’t anything I picture a childhood should be like, because I expect parents or caregivers to take care of their children. My dad wasn't really in the picture past childhood so my mom raised us four children as a single mother. My three brothers, sisters and I were first placed in foster care from 1996-2000 when I was young. She couldn't deal with us. We moved around more times than I can remember, but the longest place I lived in was for five years.
When I entered high school, I was accepted into a Honors program called Advanced Academic Academy (AAA) at Buena Park High School. I was very excited to take advanced classes that would help me get into a dream college. I always saw education and learning as my escape but it became increasingly difficult to get to school at times with the family circumstances at home. I was depressed and started not passing classes.
During that time, my mother and father's drug abuse and neglect became worse and when I turned 15 my three brothers, sisters and I were placed in foster care again for a second and final time. Two of my siblings and I went to live with my aunt and uncle, while my eldest brother lived with his best friend’s family. Life changed for all of us, and going to live with my aunt and uncle changed my life.
Going into kinship care, I was able to have a more stable and conducive environment and was able to do “normal” things a teenage girl could do and so did my siblings. We lived in a house in a peaceful neighborhood called Lake Forest in Orange County. On a typical day I would wake up, make breakfast, get ready in the room I shared with my sister, and go to school. I would walk down the street to get the bus to go to school and be there from 8am-3pm until my uncle picked us up.
We would then work on our homework at the dining room table, and my aunt would make us dinner when she got home from work. I remember it being a routine to go to school and conduct our daily routine. As time went on I became more independent and I started driving myself to work after school and to extracurricular activities, such as softball practice or school clubs. My early postitive influences growing up were my older brother, my two best friends, Ana and Alyssa, and my hardworking aunt and uncle.
What I've Learned and How I've Overcome
I've learned a lot from my mother’s mistakes that I don't want to repeat in my own life. I define family not only by biological connections but those who have become family through deep friendship and bonding, those who have taken me in to their own family and supported me through the hard times and the good, as well as those I can trust to be there when I am struggling or when I am succeeding.
If I could clear up one myth about foster care, it would be that not all foster kids are broken and irreparable. With adequate love, support, and encouragement, we can overcome so much. From being in foster care, I’ve learned that some people are not given the best opportunities in life but they do the best with what they are given and what they have. A lot of resilient foster youth have done the best with their circumstances.
My advice to foster youth and others:
1) Seek out the help you need. Don’t be afraid to ask those around you, your mentors and supporters for assistance because there's a lot out there.
2) People don’t understand how hard transition and trying to fit in for the foster child is. Going into a new home is very hard and it is different from what they’ve known their whole lives or until the point they were taken into foster care.
The way I've overcome my foster care past is through lots of prayer, leaning on my siblings and friends and mentors who have become my role models. I received had a scholarship at Cal State Fullerton, which provided me some amazing mentors and supporters. Two that stand out and helped transform my life were Maria Figueroa and Ms. Toriz. Later the Orangewood Foundation set me up with a mentor and lifetime friend, Tami.
I look forward to graduating in about 2 years and seeing what career opportunities I arrive at. I'm currently getting my Masters in Social Work at UCLA. My favorite class so far has been the Social Welfare in Policy Settings, where we do research on a social welfare agency we choose. At the moment I am participating in the Diversity Caucus at UCLA as a grad student. I have done work with California Youth Connection—a foster youth policy advocate group and the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute in Washington DC, researching and advocating for foster care legislation.
I want to work in Washington D.C at a think tank or non-profit that focuses on children and youth policy or legislation issues. I would like to ultimately open and run a youth center that focuses on getting youth involved in athletics, education on health and nutrition, and assistance in academics to help youth to think about college early on in their lives.