New York Times Neediest Cases

Taking Control After a Tumultuous Childhood - The New York Times

Before she even knew what the word “advocate” meant, Jasmin Gonzalez was doing it for herself and her three sisters. All four were taken away from their drug-addicted parents and placed into foster care when Ms. Gonzalez was 3 years old. Memories of abuse by her first foster parents remain vivid.

“I remember I was eating soup,” she said. “I remember I couldn’t finish it. She always fed us very spicy stuff. And she told her husband to put my face in the hot soup.”

Over the years, Ms. Gonzalez and her siblings were placed in different foster homes, and she spent time in two group homes. She found some stability while attending Talent Unlimited High School in Manhattan.

“I was always a school person,” Ms. Gonzalez, 23, said. “I did the best in school. It was my way of getting away from everyone.”

She was desperate to take control of any part of her life that she could, so Ms. Gonzalez was fastidious about her grades and dedicated herself to acting.

“It was an outlet to get away,” she said. “I feel like I did well, especially in sad scenes. I would use anything I had and I would make people cry.”

In early 2010, Ms. Gonzalez had a son, Clarence Berry. She managed to graduate from high school, the only one of her siblings to do so. Afterward, New York Foundling, an affiliate of Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New York, one of the agencies supported by The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund, helped Ms. Gonzalez find affordable housing in Manhattan.

“I had a kid early,” she said. “But I don’t want that to be the end of the line.”

Ms. Gonzalez enrolled at the Borough of Manhattan Community College but she is not taking classes now, a result of her ever-shifting choice of a major and financial issues. Although she works as a waitress at an Applebee’s in Queens, it has been difficult to make ends meet.

“I don’t like feeling stuck,” Ms. Gonzalez said. “As soon as that happens, I go: ‘Is that all there is? Is that all I get to have?’ I want to change that. I want to be positive. I may not end up where I want, but I want to start it.”

In the fall, she enrolled at Grace Institute, a tuition-free training and job placement program for women ages 18 to 65. Over 20 weeks, the institute trains participants in the skills needed to gain administrative and customer support positions.

Her time there gave Ms. Gonzalez a clearer vision of her future: She wants to become a social worker.

“I like making other people feel good,” she said. “I like to encourage.”

Because of her commitment to Grace Institute, Ms. Gonzalez had to cut back her work hours. She earns roughly $1,200 a month, and receives $100 in monthly food stamps. When her laptop broke a few months ago, Catholic Charities used $350 from the Neediest fund to buy her a new tablet, which she needs for her studies at Grace and for when she resumes her college classes.

There is a lot of pressure to make something of herself, Ms. Gonzalez said, because she wants to serve as a role model for her siblings.

“If I don’t make it, they lose hope,” she said.

Ms. Gonzalez is committed to excelling at motherhood and to forging the kind of parent-child memories with Clarence that she never had.

“Sometimes I’ll walk him, and be like, ‘My mom never walked me to school,’ ” she said. “My mom never picked me up. I always wanted her to, but it never happened. I like the light in his eyes. I don’t ever want to let him down.”

Ms. Gonzalez said her fear of failure has helped keep her on track. Also, she said, she wants to defy the negative stereotypes that many foster children face.

“I want to finally be the one to finally get out of that,” Ms. Gonzalez said. “To not be the project girl, the poor foster girl. I just want to be a successful woman.”

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