Youth Voice Contest Second Place Winner: “Ellusion”

Youth Voice Contest second place winner Sierra Howard.

This year, Fostering Media Connections (FMC) launched its first-ever Youth Voice nonfiction writing contest and invited current and former foster youth between the ages of 18 and 24 to submit essays.

This year’s theme: “What love is.” Dozens of youth entered the contest from all over the United States. The winning essays appear in the May/June issue of Fostering Families Today (FMC’s magazine for foster parents).

Following is a piece by our Second Place winner, Sierra Howard. Check back tomorrow to read the work of our First Place submission.

Love is an elusive word in the world of foster placements.

It is not spoken in the homes I live in. Does that make them houses? Shells of a home?

My friends talk about their families and go on vacations. Their parents wait outside at the end of the school day.

My adopted foster sisters cuddle in my foster parents’ arms. Their bio children pass over an invisible line that keeps me out.

I can feel the oozing discomfort of their insincerity.

My heart squeezes and aches and my lungs compress trying to hold back sobs. I want a hug and a kiss, too. I cannot form these words.

In the back of my consciousness I scream out for my mom, begging and pleading to be touched, to hear her say “goodnight, I love you” and know it’s the truth. In the same moment anger rises like a sneaker wave and sears through any remaining longing, removing every trace. All that remains is a sharp ache in my chest. I want to run until I collapse.

I don’t need love. I don’t need anyone.

They tell me I must love myself before I can love anyone else.

I go off chasing boys, searching for it, but all I find is a void.

No one taught me about healthy relationships. I make assumptions and hypotheses trying to guess if this one loves me or if he’ll leave me like everyone else. I pour everything I have into this teenage romance, hoping for approval. Hoping for consistency. Hoping for the missing four-lettered word to be uttered on a rainy day under the bleachers.

He takes my virginity and leaves.

He lied about love.

My being rears up in fury, angry at the world. More angry at myself.

My thoughts consume me: “I hate you, no one will ever love you! Why can’t you just be normal? You’re not enough! You’re never enough, I wish you would just die.”

I punch myself in the face. Slam my head into the wall. I carefully pull out the blades from my razors while thinking these things and quickly slice into my arms. I will myself to stop feeling anything for anybody, dissociating into icy waters that will submerge my thoughts.

This new pain swallows my previous pain; a shark that smells blood. I sob myself to sleep while other people decide my future.

Love is evasive.

It skirts around me like a drop of oil in water.

Until one day I find it.

But even after I find it I continue to declare a war on love, a refusal to give in to its pleas to let down my guard.

I stand on a suspension bridge swaying precariously in the wind, somewhere between “good morning” and “goodnight,” between “I love you” and “I hate you.” Between foster parents who try to give me a family and those who barely provide the necessities, for some reason the ropes begin to snap.

It’s all evidence that I am too much, too difficult to love.

Both feet planted firmly on rotting planks, I am dying to be loved, feel loved and love in return. My body faces the wrong way. It retreats to the familiarity of being alone, but safe.

This would be my downfall. Though I try my best to love, my lack of trust sneaks up behind me and snatches everything constant from under me. The wall I’ve built brick by brick threatens to crash atop me.

My foster parents give me the option of permanency. I accept and go to court. For once I have “I love you’s” and hugs, smiles, a room that is my own, a home I can trust. I have my very own ohana. Until one day the adopted sister tells me our dad has raped her. The tears roll down her soft cheeks and her sobs punch me in the gut. I tell my therapist, and a chain of events cascades like an avalanche down the face of my life.

I learn you can never trust the word “permanent” or “love.” Like a sharpie on a lunch box, it too can be wiped away with a little potato chip grease.

She lied. She lied and we all lost everything because of her.

I put all the love I have collected into my trash bag and move on to the next home. I won’t be there long. Love has given me the runaround.

I spend my summer volunteering at a family homeless shelter. The sweet escape from my foster home brings a smile to my face every weekend. Or maybe it’s the young man who has carried more than his share of hardship, who waits in the corner with a soft smile. He takes my hand, my heart and promises to hold on no matter what.

I leave my last home and head off to college on my own. During late nights I think about my new boyfriend, about my friends. I treat them with kindness and love. Yet this kindness eludes me. He loves me, undoubtedly. I kick, scratch, yell and fuss. I will not be loved unless it’s on my terms. Over and over again I push and pull. I practice loving myself and loving him until fear overtakes me once more. We go up and down like a rickety wooden roller coaster due for decommission, holding on with splinters in our fingers.

Day by day he patiently teaches me to love myself like I love my friends, like I want to love him.

Every step forward is met with a step back.

But along this walk I learn that love is patient.

Love is fiery, passionate, calm and consistent all at the same time.

Somehow, love continues strong even when you’re angry.

Kindness no longer a stranger, I welcome her in.

For once there are no more questions about where I belong or what I deserve. There are no giant black trash bags, no caseworkers waiting for me at my school, no more empty promises.

Four years later we get married.

There are no words to describe how it feels to have my own forever family; the adoption I never got. I am secure in love, in myself, in my life.

And to top it off, I got my ohana back.

Love is an elusive word in the world of foster placements.

It’s only one of many realities, and no matter how constant or fleeting, love is phenomenal.

Sierra Howard is a former foster youth who exited the system in 2016 at 21. She has been supporting herself while earning her bachelor’s degree at the University of Portland, where she will graduate in May with a bachelor’s degree in nursing.

Howard has an interest in midwifery, women’s healthcare and perinatal special care. Recently married, Howard loves reading, photography and traveling. She hopes one day to be an advocate or to lead mentors in supporting at-risk youth and helping them find their path to college and stopping the cycle that led to them being placed in care.

The “Love Is…” Youth Voice contest was generously supported by The Zellerbach Family Foundation.

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