By Schylar Baber
At the age of six, I entered the Montana foster care system with my half-brother, after being removed from my physically and sexually abusive biological family. Thrust into a system that was intended to protect me, I experienced even more abuse and neglect. I went to eleven different foster homes, then group homes, residential treatment centers, and a flood of respite providers. I was separated from my brother and all contact with my biological family was cut off. I never achieved permanency in the system and aged out of care at eighteen without a transition plan or a known permanent connection; and yet, I not only survived – but also thrived.
I think the question I get asked most frequently is, “How did you become so resilient and so successful?” When I was younger the question frustrated me, because to me, it meant that people expected me to fail. There is a high amount of stigma that comes with being a foster kid. Many view foster kids as being troublemakers, and not just troublemakers, but bad enough that their own families wouldn’t want them. What many people don’t realize is that children in foster care aren’t bad kids. Rather, a lot of very bad things happen to children for them to wind up in care, such as abuse and neglect, and death. Children don’t earn foster care, it is thrust upon them. Foster care is intended to be a temporary safe-haven, but for orphans like me, we grow up and age out of foster care.
Youth age out of foster every day, many of them without an adult or caring permanent connection – and their outlook is often scarier than the system they leave. Many suffer long-term consequences of the trauma they experienced as a child. Some experience mental illness, early pregnancy, and incarceration. Half don’t graduate from high school and only 2-3% ever obtain a bachelor’s degree.
I appear to be the model example of resilience. Although I aged out of the foster care system without a plan, I landed on my feet. I obtained a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree, found a steady career, and became a public servant. I grew up to dedicate my life to changing the very system that hurt me. What people don’t realize is that I manage and am overcoming the trauma that happened to me as a child, even as a man today, well over a decade out of the foster care system. My battle wounds are deep, so deep that you can’t see them. They reside in my heart, mind, and soul. They impact every decision I have made and even my physical health. I was diagnosed early on with PTSD and generalized anxiety disorder. I am not a mental health professional, but I can tell you that stress and anxiety are critical to survival and help us cope with trauma as it is occurring, but left unchecked they can impact blood pressure, sleep, mental wellness, and many aspects of physical well-being – all of which I have had to cope with since leaving the system. Not to mention experiencing eleven different faiths and evangelical conversion therapy, my spiritual health is always in flux.
So, what did make me resilient? Why am I succeeding when so many of my foster brothers and sisters are falling through the cracks of society every day? I would challenge you to think about what you consider succeeding. I bet that your definition of success and my definition may differ slightly depending on the world lens you see through and your own life experiences.
I can tell you this – I learned my resilience. I was blessed with a brain and intelligence. I was tired of being looked down at and being told I would never make it in this world. So while my peers often chose darker more aggressive means of getting the world to see them, I chose to hide. I found safety by hiding in plain sight. I saw that the most successful people I had exposure to, which appeared to be the happiest, were the people at school, especially my teachers. So I worked hard to please my educators. I did my homework, attended every class, and became involved with athletics and the arts. School became my survival technique, and it became so easy. Over the years, I found that I had to do less homework than my peers and often stressed less about tests than others. There were times I would rather be at school, on a track, or on a stage – than be anywhere near my foster home and the often toxic or unsafe living conditions. While the foster care system was failing me, the education systems of a dozen different school districts were nurturing me and connecting me with direct access to the people and places I needed to find success. Community became my family, extra curricular activities became my outlets and education became my saving grace.
Sometimes I think I may have stolen my resilience. It was a series of people, a series of interactions, and a series of trials and errors that lead me to who I am today; but I chose right, often enough that it counteracted when I chose wrong. I floated to the top, rather than sank to the bottom. While I would love to say that everything worked as it should, I count my blessings every day and realize how fortunate I am to have made it this far and to know that my journey isn’t over yet. There is more to do and more to achieve – and that my survival technique of education and continued learning won’t hold me back, but continue to be what moves me forward.
Schylar Baber is the Executive Director of Voice for Adoption. Schylar has dedicated his professional and volunteer life to the belief that children and youth in the child welfare system need respect, support, and family. He has served as president of the board of Montana Court Appointed Special Advocates and is currently on the board of the ChildWise Institute, FosterClub, and the Protect Montana’s Kids Commission. From 2005 to 2009, Schylar was a leader at FosterClub, where he served as a program coordinator and held two All Star internships. All Stars are young people who have been in foster care who become leaders and advocates on behalf of children and youth in care.
Schylar’s commitment to improving the futures of children and youth in care is due, in large part, to his own life experiences. He spent 12 years in foster care before aging out without a family. When he was 25, he was adopted by his mentor and sixth-grade teacher. Schylar explained, “I always longed for a place to call my own and, at one point, was told that I was too old to be adopted. I knew when I grew up I wanted to dedicate myself to creating change for youth in foster care.” Schylar believes that serving as the executive director of Voice for Adoption will allow him to continue his life’s goal of serving vulnerable—but resilient—young people. “I am excited to be part of ensuring that my foster brothers and sisters currently in the system find their own paths to permanence. I believe every child needs the benefit of a permanent and loving place to call home.”