Success Story? A Loaded Term for Some Former Foster Youth

When I think about the “success stories” of the foster care system — and yes, I use air quotations over those two words — my mind doesn’t shift to the famous orphans-turned-millionaires and celebrities like Marilyn Monroe (who barely conquered the demons of her childhood) or Eddie Murphy. Nor do I think of the fictional phenoms like Oliver Twist and little Orphan Annie, who both attained quasi-happy endings in literature and motion picture.

Honestly, there’s only one name that comes to mind at the mere mention of those two words, “success story.” That name is Risa Bejarano.

Risa was a subject in the 2003 documentary “Aging Out,” which followed three young people as they aged out of the foster care system in California and New York. Risa’s story stood in stark contrast from the other two youths because she’d found a semblance of stability with her foster mother and was excelling academically, even preparing for her first year of college at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

But just as everything was finally going her way, Risa’s “success story” was cut tragically short. She was killed, shot to death in a Los Angeles alley.

Her story resonates with me to this day, not just because of the sheer tragedy of her death, but the very fact that although many tagged her as the “one who made it,” very few recognized the continued support she needed, despite her successes. It was as if her high functioning encouraged a lack of assistance from others.

As a college graduate, noted keynote speaker, award-winning poet and all that jazz, most around me have dubbed me with that grand title of “success story,” especially those that work within the child welfare realm.

And I have always rejected it, for three reasons.

I haven’t made it! I’m just trying to live! Along with all the regular people, I’m still a massive work in progress with the added difficulty of sifting through boatloads of past trauma. Calling me a “success story” often creates the illusion that I’ve figured something out. I’ve reached a pinnacle. Yeah, no. Not really.

Differing Definitions of Success. To some, having a degree is a success. To me, not being poor is a success. And until I get to a place where I can say that I’ll never be impoverished again, that success-exuding degree is superfluous to me. You see how polarizing those subjective interpretations of one word are? Sheesh!

Possible Distortion of Current Realities. I was placed in foster care because my mother was an addict. A lot of what I experienced before, during and after care, had to do with my mother’s addiction. I’m grown now. And I still don’t have a mother.

The very thing that caused my entry into foster care is still a constant in my life and it’s a suffocating thing to live with. Sometimes, when I’m called a “success story,” it’s as if people are looking at me through a veiled lens and not acknowledging that I’ve struggled to get to this point. And more importantly, that I’m still struggling just to keep myself from cracking at the fact that I’ve been motherless for over 25 years. That title often ignores the fact that I’d give every accolade I have (including the privilege of being considered a ‘success story’) for a real family.

I know that people are coming from a beautiful place when they say it. I also want to point out that I don’t speak for all former foster youth, and this may very well be a “Sade thing.”

On the flip side, it’s cool to say you’re proud. It truly touches me since it wasn’t something I heard often as a kid. So that’s a better compliment. Or you can just not say anything at all and treat me as a fellow professional in the field.

But please, don’t call me a success story. Because success is truly subjective. I mean, look at Risa.

Rest in peace, Risa. Your story changed my life.

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Sade A. Daniels
About Sade A. Daniels 5 Articles
When Sade isn’t being a full time graduate student at Cal Berkeley, providing direct services for transition aged foster youth at Bay Area Youth Center (East Bay-Sunny Hills Services), keynoting at various conferences and training the public on Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking with MISSSEY, or working on her very first book to be published this New Years, she’s hopefully asleep.

17 Comments

  1. Thank you for your eye-opening and honest perspective, Sade. As a marketing person for a local nonprofit that focuses on helping transition-aged foster youth, I have been guilty of using the term “success story”. But I totally understand your reaction to it. Is there an alternative term you’d prefer?

  2. A very touching story, but at the same time an inspiration to others that think that having material staff is being successful, sometimes the simple things are the ones that actually complement success.

  3. Truth and Transparency

    Let this always guide your writing. Shake up conventional norms and bust bubbles.

    I am so proud of you…

  4. Thank you for this article Sade! I am okay with people calling me a success story because it does feel good to be validated for all my hard work. I want more than anything to be a role model for other youth in care. However, I agree that being a success story means that people expect me to be able to handle things on my own… when I experience a bump in the road it is embarrassing to admit you’ve fallen off your pedestal. Also I am not successful yet, I have a long way to go…. but when I think about it in the big picture I have food in my fridge, a roof over my head and a relationship with someone who loves me and treats me the way I deserve to be treated. That’s success to me too….

  5. Sade,

    You have managed to articulate everything I’ve been feeling since I aged out care 14 years ago. Like, I’ve been a labeled a “success story” and I’ve always bristled at the term. Like am I a success only because I went to college? What if my measure of success is not a degree but the fact that someday my children will wake up knowing they are loved? That they will always know where their mother is? Or that I have a relationship with someone that loves me for who I am?

    I sometimes feel that being labeled a “success story” added a layer of pressure to achieve that I wouldn’t otherwise have. I sometimes wonder if I wonder if I push myself not because I want to, but because that’s what others have expected from me.

    I really enjoy your writing and can’t wait to read more of it. 😀

  6. Amen…
    Im 34 got a masers degree and almost killed myself working two full time jobs while doing university full time..
    I was the inspirational speaker
    The token youth on every board…
    When I was finally old enough to articulate all this there was nowhere to explain these things…
    I thought something would finally be waiting there for me with each accomplishment…
    but there never was that mother or father I ached for in my bones.
    The pressure on me was immense… I had to perform and couldn’t fall because everyone was so excited.
    This led to a really harsh crash and burn at 19.
    The positive pressure helped me to check the boxes in life but left me spiritually isolated

    thankyou for your thoughtful piece

    S

    • I don’t know why but I almost cried reading this. Thank you so much for your post. I find myself in your shoes but very critical of it all, willing to question others and my own feelings as I walk this path. I feel less alone now. Thank you. Your response was powerful. Wow.

  7. Dear Sade,

    Thank you for sharing! I can definitely relate as a foster care alumnus who has been dubbed a “success story”.

    Life is a process and those of us who have had to climb the ranks in order to attain education, shelter and other “basics” know that as far as we’ve climbed is just as far as we can fall back down.

    It’s important for those of us who’ve “made it out of the system” to talk about our continued struggles and challenges so that youth have a realistic expectation about life, success and hard work.

    Thank you so much for sharing. I’m proud of the work you’ve done and that we all continue to do.

    Best,
    Patrick

    • I totally agree. I think that’s one of the missing points in this article and in common understanding. When we present this fallacious view of what it means to be successful to the masses, our young foster youth may have internalize the same flawed expectation or belief of success. They too will think that degree or other accolades will bring them happiness. Oftentimes, it brings pride but not much else. My goal is always to seek transparency. Balance. Truth. Thank you for the response. : )

  8. I’m so inspired by your story. Indeed, success is all in how you perceive it. I love how you refuse to be labeled as a “success story” when in reality, your story is far from being completed. We are all a work in progress. Amazing blog post.

  9. Absolutely Beautiful story.. I guess we can only take it one day at a time. From day to day I guess we are “success stories” because your not “poor” day to day, your livng an actually alive. You possess an even richer spirit . Your a success to me always have been specially when you started doing your hair! I knew then something special was inside!!! Naw but all jokes aside.. Gotta teach me some of thoes grammee skills!!

    • Why thank you Kayla! I agree. Success story could be defined by the day to day. Unfortunately, I’ve been penniless plenty days recently so although I’m not homeless, times are still rough, as you know. And yes, I do my hair now. HAHA! I’m excited to see all you do, Kayla.

  10. Wow! What a wonderful column. I will avoid talking about “success stories” from foster care from now on. Can I say I’m proud of you, even though I don’t know you? I can’t wait to read your book!

    • Thank you for being proud of me. : ) Again, this is just my own opinion. There may be other youth who’re comfortable with the term. I just know that sometimes, even our most well intentioned labels can be stifling. Saying you’re proud of someone doesn’t label them but emanates a positive personal affection/emotion towards that one individual. You can’t beat that!

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