I never realized how important it is to have a family until I lost my own.
For the first eight years of my life I lived in a small, impoverished town in Jamaica with my five siblings and our parents. We were so poor that we often had to stay home from school because my parents didn’t have enough money to cover our school fees and uniforms. I know it was especially difficult for my mother, who was diagnosed with terminal cancer while trying to raise the five of us. Her illness eventually forced her to depend on our father to care for us without her help. My dad was not necessarily the nicest man and often resorted to yelling and saying awful things to us.
I was nine when my father moved our family to Florida and split us up to live with various relatives. My siblings and I lived with different relatives for a year before our father was finally able to bring us together to live with him—though life at home was anything but positive. Although my family was finally together again, our situation at home was a nightmare. My father became emotionally and physically abusive behind closed doors and I would often go to school with cuts, bruises and a broken heart. This abuse took a toll on me. Not having a stable, safe place to call home eventually impacted my performance in school – my report cards were decorated with Ds and Fs.
When I was 14, our situation was brought to the attention of the Department of Child Services. Our family was given a case number and I was assigned a caseworker. I was ultimately removed from my toxic living environment to live in a foster home with other girls. I was placed there because my caseworker was unable to find a home that would take me along with my siblings. Nothing hurts more than feeling unloved and unwanted – especially when you’re 14.
Sadly, my story isn’t unique. Around 220 million children worldwide – that’s 1 in every 10 children – are at risk of growing up without a stable, loving family. In many of these cases children lose their families to poverty, conflict or natural disasters, but in others their parents are simply unfit to parent – like my dad. Without a family, many of these kids risk being exploited, abused or trafficked. Here in the United States, it is not unusual for orphaned or neglected children to move from foster home to foster home until they are 18 and age out of the system – never understanding what true stability feels like.
At 15, I was brought to live in a family home at an SOS Children’s Village in Coconut Creek, Florida. I was told I would be living with my siblings and that I’d be taken care of by an SOS house parent, a caregiver dedicated to caring for children who’ve grow up in similar situations like me.
My confidence was close to non-existent when I got to SOS. To make matters worse, I was beginning to exhibit signs of depression and anxiety brought on by my tumultuous upbringing. This made for a challenging time for Rashani, my house parent. Nevertheless, Rashani was patient with me; she powered through and never gave up on me.
I remember my first day at SOS like it was yesterday; I couldn’t remember the last time I’d felt so cared for. Rashani showed me my room, made me dinner and told me what SOS was all about – love, support and stability. She made it clear that I would be supported and given access to therapists to help me overcome my trauma. She also assisted me with getting a tutor to help bring my grades up. She provided the stability I desperately needed in order to stop feeling like I was constantly on survival mode.
Rashani’s support and the family environment I found at SOS truly changed my life for the better. My grades went from trash to As and Bs. I learned how to cope with my depression and anxiety. But most importantly, I felt like I finally had the tools I needed to pursue my dreams.
Even after I left SOS, Rashani was by my side. She became a case manager for SOS’s Next Steps program, which helps people like me transition to adulthood. She helped me become the young woman I am today and continues to be the parent I always needed to this day. I know that in her I have a family for life.
Fast forward to now – I am enrolled in the Army and working towards a degree in child psychology because I want to help children and teens going through what I went through. I want to give them a voice and show them that they have someone who believes in them. If it had not been for someone believing in me, I am not sure where I would have ended up.
I know not everyone has a story like mine, but I also know how hard it is to be a teen and to feel misunderstood. For the people going through tough times, take the good with the bad. There are people out there who are willing to help you and watch you succeed.
In the US and around the world, SOS Children’s Villages builds families for orphaned, abandoned and other vulnerable children. To learn more about SOS Children’s Villages and how you can help girls like Thanesia visit www.sos-usa.org/sponsor-a-child.