On one side, a fast-talking east coast Pennsylvanian living in Oregon and on the other, a Louisiana girl full of southern charm. She is in college thriving; while he is educating himself through experience, but also thriving. They both, love the outdoors, being active and fighting for what they believe in. They come from different places, different parents, different environments, and different upbringings. As children, they entered the child welfare system. As adults, they both fight for the same cause.
Meet Brian Morgantini and Htet Htet Rodgers.
When I got put into foster care at the age of four, life was a blur for me and new placements flashed by like headlights in the opposing lane of traffic at night. I met new people constantly but that's definitely one part of foster care that has stayed with me. I will never forget those I have lived with because every single one of them had an impact that has rippled to this day. I am who I am, for better or worse because of the way I grew up. It used to be worse. Now, I can say it is better.
There wasn’t a manual for me on how to navigate the world of foster care. I was too young to truly know how to take in a situation, rationalize it and react after thinking it through. I spent my time being misunderstood and thrown out. I also spent my time misunderstanding and running away. I perpetually missed my parents and siblings. The feeling was there in the back of my mind, not constantly shining bright but never going out. My extended family still had contact with me. My Granny encouraged the development and expansion of my mind by taking me to Borders to pick out all the books I wanted.
Throughout 17 years I experienced more than 20 transitions in foster care. There were moves that were traumatic and heart wrenching. Others went by with ease. There was pain, misery, elations, triumphs, and other typical feelings during life. I was a child trying to become a teen and eventually an adult without stable or consistent guidance. It could have happened one of two ways; I could take that and withdraw into myself, lamenting my losses, missed opportunity and lack of support or build a strong sense of self belief and confidence to stand up for my life. I stood up for my life. I am one of the fortunate ones because not everyone can do that. Trauma has a different effect on the people touched by it. There are those who take everything without a word. Getting abused in silence. I was impacted in a way that had me advocate for myself and to make sure I was in the best possible situation with what I was working with. This wasn’t without doubt creeping in or resentments trying to steal my will, but I think that is a battle everyone faces daily. Our mind arguing with itself, testing options, pulling in different directions even as you are presently involved in something unrelated. Thought streams aren't shut off while conscious. I will face memories of the past, current situations and desires of the future while I am having a conversation with someone about whether or not I like my Cheetos spicy.
I was completely lost when I left care but felt lightened at the weight of my guardians off my back. That's how I viewed it. Then I realized those guardians in some way provided shelter and food for me, at the minimum. I could only focus on providing myself food initially with the income I had working at a coffee shop so I spent time without physical shelters. I was having a hard time with this whole “adulting” phenomenon.
The worth that dwells inside all of us and can propel us to overcome and thrive was in jeopardy for me. I had no sense of self, only what others’ reactions to me were and that was to always give up on me. I found the strength to never give up on myself and started looking for opportunities to shine. It brought me to speak in Congress, at The White House, at colleges, events and in different cities about my experiences in care and solutions based on those experiences. Initially it was only to make a difference for me but somewhere along that journey I fell in love with the work I do and it became about the hundreds of thousands of brothers and sisters in the foster care system today.
Foster care for me, came at the age of 13. I was living with my step-aunt, who I was placed with because my parents were imprisoned in Burma. They were imprisoned due to a reason I can never understand to this day. My biological parents and I were in Asia because my mom convinced my step-dad that we could start a family business. My biological mother and stepfather met when they were both in Singapore and shortly married in Texas after meeting.
My biological mother and I were in Singapore because my biological father left my mother before I was born. That is the reverse chronological order of how I started my advocacy for the foster care system.
Upon entering the foster care system, I had the fortune of only living in one foster home. That person is still my “mother” to this day. I look to her in times of need, she has been my emotional and maternal support that I have always wanted. I have a paternal figure in my youth pastor who I look to for spiritual and emotional advice. But, I was considered the “poster-child.”
Excelling in school, getting a full ride in college, and having the many different successes and awards made me a prime story of a successful foster child. But each foster youth is more than a story, including me. I had the support needed to have my successes and I always gratefully express that my success is because of my wonderful support system.
As Brian said, there is no manual for navigating the foster care system. Sure, we may have several people overseeing our lives. But at the end of the day, we the youth, determine our attitude and willingness of the “decisions made for our lives.” Today we hear foster youth who run away from home to go live in states across the nation or some who commit suicide. The resilience and independence that can be found in each foster youth is so common, but my personal attitude was that “the foster care system would come to an end”. The thoughts I had were: “one day I will age out,” or “one day I will be adopted.”
I personally chose to age out of the foster care system instead of being adopted. I had already began applying for schools and there would have been too much hassle to change my name on everything. But I did not need a piece of paper determining who’s kid I was. I knew that I was the daughter of my foster mother and she knew that I was her child. After aging out I had the opportunity to work for the system that invested in my life for six years. Afterwards, that opened the door to greater advocacy work for the White House, for national organizations and for my home state of Louisiana. My attitude changed from “the system would come to an end” to “how can I make it better for those who come after me?” I wanted to help. I wanted to make a difference.
Again, I had the support of a mom who wanted me to achieve every single one of my dreams. She wanted me to achieve those dreams because I wanted them.
I am thankful that I was not left alone to face the real world by myself. I am thankful I have the continuing guidance and support of someone who truly cares about me. Every foster youth deserves that in their life because no one ever deserves to feel as though they are not cared for.
We may have been different but the parallel is there. We hope by providing visibility into our lives encourages anyone that they have the ability to use their voice. With that ability, nothing should stop them from sharing their story to bring change. The journey we have lived through is our tool for success. It empowered us to accomplish something small, like helping a youth acquire resources to do something big like educating federal policy makers on our experiences.
Each of those is a step towards change. Changing the world comes from within and the only person that can stop you from doing that is yourself. We encourage all of you to embrace who you are. No matter where you came from and rise above all expectations around you. Set your expectations and find peace in the steps it takes to reach them. Htet Htet and I are who we want to be. We change our world and we love what we do.
The question; “Can I do it?”, always comes whenever I’ve talked to a person asking about becoming an advocate. And the thing is, anyone can become an advocate. Anyone can use their story no matter what it is. Brian and I came from two completely different spectrums, but we have the privilege to advocate for an issue dear to both our hearts. You can make a difference by encouraging someone you know. Let another foster youth know that they can make it through the system. Let a social worker know what is going on and what could work better. Let a legislator know that something needs to be changed to help someone else’s life.
Your voice is stronger than you give it credit, you just need to speak out.