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 one of our two Runners-Up, Atorrie Burrell. Check back all week to read the work of our other top finishers.
Imagine yourself in a world where everything is OK. You live in a nice neighborhood, in a small white house with a picket fence. Your friends are always outside to play. Your dad gets up and goes to work every day while your mom stays home to take care of the children. She’s always cooking, cleaning, packing lunches and doing laundry. You have a loving family. You all celebrate holidays with food, fun and laughter. You have aunts and uncles, girl cousins and boy cousins to play with. Nothing else matters, right?
Love is when home life is good, so everything else will be, too.
Now, I’d like you to imagine the complete opposite. You have no family, no friends, no fun or laughter, no food, no sense of home. Now this, like mine, is the reality of many young people today. We are all in this cold world, trying every day to figure out what, exactly, love is.
Take some time to look into my story, feel my pain and understand my problems. Yet, ultimately, what I’d like most is for you to recognize that although I’ve had a difficult journey, I can influence my own destination. I can make a better life.
I am the second to the youngest of seven children. I have one younger sister, two older brothers, and three older sisters. Big family, that’s love. My mom was an angel on earth. I mean, how could you look so good, and be so humble, walk with so much poise, and so much love, in a world full of chaos? Now my dad, he’s had his fair share of shootouts, drug busts and jail visits. His decision making as a man, definitely needed to be questioned, but his love for his family was said to be undeniable.
We lived in Compton, California, home of the drug dealers, gang bangers, project kids, all star athletes, ice cream trucks, basketball games with Friday night lights. The city of real, real lovely that is. That was until a stormy day in May of 1998. I experienced something traumatic, something that would stay to haunt me for the rest of my life.
Early one morning, after many fights and arguments, trust issues and lack of control, my mom was stalked, followed to her job, and shot and killed right in front of her boss. She was shot five times. Four times in her body, and once through her hand, and into her face, as she attempted to shield herself. Sad to say, my father was the murderer. He left my siblings and me without a mother, and when he was caught and taken to jail, without a father either. This took a major toll on my family.
My grandmother adopted us, and we moved to San Bernardino County, where I grew up to accept as home. She did her best to keep us, love us and mold us. However, I could not grasp growing up without a mom to talk to about boy problems, girl on girl issues, school situations, love for sports, anger issues, heartache and pain. I began to rebel.
Exactly one month after my 14th birthday, I entered into foster care. I remember the day so clearly. It was so simple. A caseworker gave my grandmother an ultimatum. She said, “You either take Atorrie home today, or she’s going into a foster home tonight.” Well, given I am writing this essay, we should know her choice.
My first home was the worst. I tried to adjust to living in such a big home. But what is a big home without love? We were culturally different, did not communicate. I felt as though they did not really want me. So, I ran away. It became a pattern of mine, to run from the things I did not like, the things I could not control, the things that made me feel uncomfortable and ultimately question what love is.
Academically, I was absolutely exceptional. I maintained great grades throughout high school, yet I struggled in my social life. Basically, I did things to fit in. I was a star athlete for A.B. Miller High School’s varsity basketball team, and soon after, became a star mother. My junior year, I found out I was pregnant. Pregnancy matured me, settled me, and encouraged me to plan for my future.
In May of 2012, I graduated with my senior class, with my daughter cheering me on. I finally found what love is.
I enrolled into college, obtained my own apartment, struggled every day, but also remained faithful. I am still in school, working slowly but surely to obtain my degree in sociology. I currently work for a nonprofit foster family agency, promoting independence for underprivileged youth and advocating for children in my community.
I work so hard to inspire others and set a good example. I love interacting with people from all walks of life, difficult journeys and undetermined destinations. I help them understand that they can influence their own path. My work has also showed me what love is.
My daughter is a scholar, just like her mom. I pray every day that I am able to show her a life I could not see: a life full of love, laughter and wholeness. After my mother’s passing, I always searched for what love is. I searched high places and low valleys, in victories and failures.
Yet really love has been with me the whole time.
Love is love. It’s in your mind, body and soul. Love is being able to share light when you can’t recognize it’s coming from you.
Love is humble, yet powerful. Love can save the world. Love does not destroy. It builds character and resilience.
Love is kind. Love is all over me. I pray I pay it forward so that others, going through difficult times, are able to look beyond the darkness, see the light, and truly realize what love is.
Atorrie Burrell is a former foster youth from San Bernardino County, California. Along the way she’s encountered many barriers, including losing her mother, seclusion, teen pregnancy, homelessness and many others.
Burrell hopes to be an inspiring light to help youth understand that difficult roads often lead to beautiful destinations in life. If you would like to hear more about her story through foster care and beyond, write to WalkWithMeJourney@gmail.com.
The “Love Is…” Youth Voice contest was generously supported by The Zellerbach Family Foundation.