PORT HURON, Mich. — Brittney Sherell is back in her old stomping grounds visiting her friends and foster family. She has with her a stack of old photographs and her journal — memories of good and some really bad times. Most importantly, she has her suitcase. It's something she wishes she had as a kid, instead of the trash bags she used to carry her belongings.
Sherell was born Brittney Turner in Flint. Her mom was addicted to drugs and growing up was tough. Life got even tougher when her grandmother passed away.
"My grandmother was just the staple. She was the glue that kept us together. So once she passed, I think that's just when we all fell apart and started bouncing from city to city — from Flint to Battle Creek, and Kalamazoo to Detroit," she said.
When Sherell was 9 years old, she and her family were living in Kalamazoo. They started out at a shelter but eventually moved in with a man who Sherell's mother had met. That man raped Sherell, a crime he has since been convicted of.
But Sherell says the worst day of her life was the day she and her siblings were taken away from their mother, who had started stealing food and clothes from local stores. In her book "A Suitcase and A Dream," Sherell says she was crying "as if someone was trying to kill me," the day she came home to police cars.
On August 23, 2003, Sherell and her siblings went into foster care.
"The first night we were taken, the four of us were all together. And they said 'Hey, there's not enough room. So we're gonna have to split you all up,'" she said.
All of Sherell's siblings were eventually adopted, but she was not. She says it was because her pain caused her to act out and several foster families did not know how to deal with everything she had been through.
"It was easy for a foster parent to just pick up the phone and say, 'Hey, I don't want this kid anymore.' They didn't want you, so the bouncing started again." she said.
Brittney became depressed and struggled with suicidal thoughts.
"The first time, I was cutting onions in a foster home and I just decided to say, 'You know what, let me just slit my wrists.' I was just over it. Because it's like, how do you go from feeling like you're in Heaven with your grandmother to just being in Hell," she said.
"I remember sitting in a room and just thinking about ways I could leave the Earth — taking pills and drinking rubbing alcohol or NyQuil, to stand in the middle of the street waiting for a car to hit."
Sherell's life did eventually take a turn for the better thanks in large part to mentors like Debra McNair, and the foster parents who she stayed with for the longest amount of time. Because of their line of work, we're keeping them anonymous in this story.
"There were times when we were at our wits end and someone told us just give her another chance. It all paid off. She needed somebody to be there for her — someone who wouldn't give up," said her foster father.
When Sherell entered that foster home, she was failing all of her classes. So her foster family required her to provide a progress report from each of her teachers every week.
"When you made her be accountable for what she was doing, then you saw her start to grow. She was like 'I guess they do care. They're paying attention,'" her foster mother said.
For McNair, it was important to always love Sherell unconditionally, no matter where she was in life.
"God gave me a different type of love for Brittney — a love for her that I could see past her pain, and I could see the beauty that lives within Brittney," McNair said.
"It didn't matter if she was angry, if she was mad, or if she was going through difficult times in her life. When she came to my home, when she came into my circle, when she came into my space, we loved her."
Sherell went to college. She secured what she calls her dream job in Atlanta. Just this year, she started a non-profit organization bearing the same name as her book, "A Suitcase and A Dream."
"Our mission is to be a voice for those youth who age out of foster care system that have no voice," she said.
"We provide suitcases, survival kits, and life skills, because a lot of youth who age out, don't know what it looks like to live beyond the system when it comes to cooking, laundry and things of that nature. We teach all of that."
For now, the non-profit serves Atlanta, but Sherell hopes to bring it to her home state of Michigan one day.
Sherell says she'd like to see changes in the foster care system. She wants to see siblings kept together and she wants to see people give more thought to adopting older children.
"Give the teens a chance. Hang out with them. The teenagers need love too, just like those little kids in foster care. Those teens want to feel like somebody wants them," she said.
"They get picked over because of what's written on paper. But you have to look into their hearts. You have to see beyond the paperwork. You have to see beyond a file. You can literally change that teen's story. You could change their entire life."
According to Bethany Christian services, more than 23,000 American children age out of foster care each year. The outcomes for that group of people are usually unfortunate. Less than 3 percent earn a college degree. Around half of them develop an addiction to drugs or alcohol. Around 47 percent end up unemployed. Thousands become unhoused immediately because they have no where to go.
COVID-19 drove a 15 percent increase in orphaned children in the United States. During the pandemic, more than 120,000 children lost a parent or caregiver. More than half of them were children of color.
If you'd like to become a foster parent or adopt a foster child, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services can get you started. The Michigan Adoption Resource Exchange and Bethany Christian Services are also valuable resources.
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