2011-06-17 / Schools

Fostering change

By Stephanie Sumell
Special to the Acorn

Cristina Miranda and Raquel Montes Cristina Miranda and Raquel Montes The future didn’t always look bright for former foster youths Raquel Montes and Cristina Miranda.

The two single mothers entered the foster care system in their early teens and overcame a number of challenges to arrive where they are today—recent graduates of California State University Channel Islands.

Both women agree it took help from others to ensure their success. For this reason, Montes and Miranda chose to partner with Camarillo-based Casa Pacifica for their final senior project, also known as a capstone.

“I always felt that I had kind of a duty to help others because so many people never gave up on me and helped me,” Montes said of her decision to work at the shelter.

“Casa Pacifica is an emergency shelter for children that have been abused or neglected and have been brought here by a social worker,” said Vicki Murphy, chief advancement officer and director of alumni services. “We also have a residential treatment center here on our campus, as well as a non-public school for special ed,” said Murphy, who is also a personal mentor to the two college graduates who received their degrees last month. “Casa Pacifica provides hope and help to children in need.”

Both women work as youth advocates at Casa Pacifica, a place they each say changed their lives for the better.

“I think we each had our own reasons for choosing it for the project,” 24-year-old Miranda said of the nonprofit shelter.

‘Endured abuse’

“I lost my mother at age 8 and then endured abuse,” said Montes, 26. “I went into the foster system at age 13 and ended up on probation in the criminal justice system.”

Montes was expelled from her high school and attended numerous continuation schools before she obtained her diploma.

“My life in (foster care) was very lonely for me,” she said. “I didn’t have any family support at all.”

With the help of adult mentors, Montes turned her life around.

“I was 17½ when it just kind of hit me that I was going to be on my own and I needed to build a foundation for my life,” she said. “I knew I needed to provide for myself, which motivated me to take advantage of the services available to me.”

Montes said the system saved her.

“A lot of the people I met through being in the system, like staff and counselors, really pulled me through that really challenging time in my life,” she said. “They saw something in me that I, at the time, couldn’t see.”

‘I was very fragile’

Miranda, 24, entered the foster care system at age 14 and lived on the Casa Pacifica campus for a year before she was placed in a foster home.

She said her time in the system was a “very difficult period” in her life.

“I was very fragile and there was just a lot going on,” she said. “It was really hard for me to trust people and to believe that people actually cared about me—that I was worth anything to anybody.”

Miranda said the staff at Casa Pacifica was very available to her.

“If I needed to talk to anybody at any moment, there was always, always somebody to listen,” she said.

Being a mentor

The women’s sociology professor, Dennis Downey, said the capstone project is required for graduation at CSUCI.

“( Students) are supposed to use the skills and tools that they’ve learned over the course of their education at the university,” he said.

After they conferred with Murphy, four sociology seniors— Montes, Miranda, Pedro Mendoza and Elizabeth Contreras— decided to conduct a research project on volunteer mentors for the children and teens at Casa Pacifica.

It’s a job, Murphy said, that is “life-changing” for youths in the foster system.

“A mentor is one of the most important things that can happen to a kid in the child welfare system. It’s somebody in your court when everything else is falling apart,” Murphy said. “I’m always interested why some people prefer to do short little spurts with lots of kids as opposed to getting to know one youth.”

Murphy wanted to know what it would take to motivate more volunteers to get involved with the mentorship program at Casa Pacifica.

To better understand the experiences and motivations of those who work with foster youths, the team of CSUCI students interviewed volunteers from The Amigos and the California Youth Connection Adult Supporters, two service organizations that work with the children at Casa Pacifica.

“We really wanted to see what encourages or pushes a specific group to go into the mentoring role,” Miranda said.

Though they graduated last month, the students continue to fine-tune their report. They plan to present their findings to the board of Casa Pacifica and to other organizations.

What the students’ initial study showed was that the motivation for working at Casa Pacifica and mentoring the children varied widely between the volunteers.

“They’re still working on (the report) even though grades are in and the semester is over,” Downey said. “This is something they’ve taken pride in, and they want it to serve more than just a class.”

Moving on

The recent college graduates said it has been a challenge juggling school, work and motherhood.

“I knew deep down in my heart that I needed to change the trajectory of my children’s lives by getting an education,” said Montes, whose children are 3 and 6.

Montes said she plans to earn a master’s degree in psychology and hopes to continue helping children in need.

“I just go where my heart’s at and where I have a passion and inspiration,” she said. “Right now, it’s (working) directly side by side with the youth growing up in the system.”

Montes said she wants youths in trouble to know that “whatever obstacles you face, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Miranda said her 2-year-old daughter is her motivation.

“I want to do whatever it takes to assure that my daughter will never go through some of the things that happened to me,” she said.

Miranda said she plans to attend law school and become an attorney.

“I would like to create policy change and advocate for change in the foster care system,” she said.

Downey said Montes and Miranda both have “great energy.”

“You certainly wouldn’t know based on their sense of optimism that they had gone through these very trying experiences as foster youth,” he said.

“We like to call each other sisters because we work together and we go to school together and we had our final project together,” Montes said.

Montes and Miranda say Murphy is like a mother to them.

Murphy had praise for them, as well.

“They are the embodiment of all the work that all that the people do. All the donors who have supported us all these years. They are it. They are hope,” said Murphy.

She said the recent graduation was a very special moment.

“I couldn’t be more proud of them,” Murphy said. “I told them, ‘Had I birthed you myself, I could not be more proud of you than I am at this moment.’”

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