Shalita O’Neale is the founder of the Foster Change Network Foundation, an organization that connects alumni of the foster care system so they can network, support each other, and show each other how much they are able to accomplish. O’Neale knows the potential that foster children have because she was in the system starting at age 13.
O’Neale grew up in Baltimore, Maryland. When O’Neale was just 2 years old, her sister discovered that their mother had been stabbed to death in their home.
After their mother’s murder, O’Neale alone went to go live with her grandmother.
Unfortunately, O’Neale’s grandmother was an alcoholic. However, she tried to do the best she could to take care of O’Neale. Nevertheless, her grandmother became physically and emotionally abusive.
To help deal with her new living situation, O’Neale maintained a relationship with her godmother, who had been her mother’s best friend.
O’Neale then went to live with her uncle because he was the one doing the best in the family. At age 5, she went to go live with him.
Little did O’Neale know it would turn out to be worse than living with her grandmother. O’Neale can recall witnessing him smoke crack, and the physical abuse that quickly followed.
“At one point, as I got older, he would beat me in rounds like a boxing match, and it would be anything from a coat hanger, to a belt, to an extension cord. It really didn’t matter,” O’Neale told The Epoch Times.
O’Neale was afraid to say anything. She would wear long-sleeve shirts, even during the summer. Eventually, she told one of the administrators at her school.
Another time, O’Neale went to a doctor, who saw the injuries. She lied about the abuse out of fear, but the doctor had to report it.
After O’Neale’s visit to the doctor, her uncle left her with one of his girlfriends in Georgia. O’Neale had only one pair of shoes, and a couple of outfits.
O’Neale tried to send a letter to her grandmother, but her uncle beat her before she could send it during a visit. The girlfriend also tried desperately to stop him from abusing her.
“I would always think that it was me that was the problem,” O’Neale said. “I just felt like I was a huge burden.”
Entering Foster Care
After about eight months, she returned to Baltimore to live with her uncle again at age 12. She let her aunt, who was a probation officer, know about the abuse.
O’Neale’s aunt then told the uncle that O’Neale was going to live with her. Instead, O’Neale entered the foster care system at age 13 with her aunt’s daughter as her guardian. Living there started out okay, but the guardian’s 8-year-old resented the fact that she had to live with O’Neale.
The child would steal, hide, and break O’Neale’s possessions, and the mother did nothing to stop it.
Despite the home instability, O’Neale was a diligent student and started working at a library. She wasn’t quite sure what direction she wanted her life to take, but she had some ideas.
“I was even thinking about going into the military because the only thing I knew was I wanted to got to college, and I knew, or at least I thought at that time that’s the only way I could get college paid for is if I went into the military,” O’Neale explained.
At age 16, the foster mother told her she had to leave.
O’Neale’s social worker took her out of the home, and sent her to an emergency home placement with an older couple.
“I thought, ‘they seem nice enough,’” O’Neale recalled thinking.
The couple already had a foster child who was 18 and developmentally challenged. They shared a room, but the older child didn’t want her around.
In order to cope, O’Neale stayed in communication and maintained a relationship with her godmother.
She begged her foster mother for her own phone, and eventually received one under the condition that she paid for it. She had to get the phone in her foster sister’s name because she wasn’t 18 yet.
However, the foster sister began running up large bills. She then started stealing money, and blamed it on O’Neale. She came home from school one day, and her social worker was waiting with a trash bag for her belongings.
O’Neale was then taken to a group home. She lived with 11 other girls, but she had her own room. However, the rules at the home were quite strict.
“I felt like I was in prison,” O’Neale said.
College and Beyond
O’Neale found out about a semi-independent living program at the group home, and she was able to move into a cottage at age 16 after earning it for good behavior. She stayed there until she went to college.
One of the staff members helped her with her college applications, and she was accepted to the University of Maryland-College Park. They also helped her with supplies, such as bed sheets.
O’Neale had also forged a relationship with the executive director of the group home, and he became a mentor to her.
O’Neale struggled for the first couple of years in college because she had to rely on herself. She also felt like she couldn’t relate to the other students.
The young woman worked three jobs while in college, and had an ardent desire to succeed.
“It was a very frustrating, trying time, but I didn’t want to fail. There were so many people waiting for me to fail. So many people that told me that I would be just like my mother or I would be just like my sister,” O’Neale said.
Changing the System
O’Neale studied criminology and criminal justice in college, and made the dean’s list as a result of her hard work.
In college, she had spoken at different foster care events in association with a scholarship organization for foster youth. At the same time she started volunteering with a foster care organization, and when she connected with them she had discovered her passion.
O’Neale realized she could start her own organization to help foster children pursue their education, find employment, and housing.
She reached out to a couple of her mentors. The director of the group home she had lived in gave her his honest feedback, and a list of people to reach out to.
She was able to connect with another mentor whose foundation granted her $80,000 to start her own organization entitled Hope Forward Inc.
Developing a Vision
O’Neale and Hope Forward Inc. worked arduously for the next decade helping former foster youth find housing and employment, and pursue education. Over eight years, she had raised $2 million, and had gone to graduate school and was working on her Master’s degree in social work.
She and the board ultimately decided to have Hope Forward Inc. be acquired by a larger foster organization.
That’s when she started her consulting firm Fostering Change Network in 2012 in order to help child welfare organizations with their programming. She wanted to help remove the stigma surrounding foster children and their potential for success.
“I was still trying to prove people wrong,” O’Neale explained.
O’Neale subsequently also started a foundation called the Fostering Change Network Foundation in 2017 to help young people in foster care and those who had aged out with their education and career goals.
The foundation connects young people from the foster care system with positive influences who have also been in the system. The foundation also seeks to create a community, and remove the stigma of being a foster care child.
The Fostering Change Network Foundation has a variety of mentorship programs for both adults and young people who are still in the foster care system.
“It’s important to bring to light or raise awareness about a population of young people that are being overlooked, and we’re paying for it as a society,” O’Neale said.
The foundation features The Global Ambassadors Program, a part of the foundation that connects foster care alumni who are trying to start their own business and build their professional brand.
The program meets four times a year, and features speakers and workshops on how to bring their concepts to reality. The alumni are also paired with a coach to help them with their goals.
Finally, the alumni are connected with a sponsor who can give them a $10,000 investment to help them build their business. They are also expected to become mentors to other alumni who are trying to achieve their business goals.
The foundation will also be launching the Support Our Foster Youth summer program for younger foster children ages 18 to 25 to help mentor in their educational, professional, and personal goals. They will also be assigned an alumni of the foster care system.
The mission is about discovering potential, and how nurturing that potential helps society as a whole.
“I also want people to understand that young people in and from foster care are extremely resilient, and they’re not their circumstance. That they can go on to do great things and be great,” O’Neale said.
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Author: Andrew Thomas