Coffee With George: From foster child to beacon of hope to others lost in system of despair
Justin Nieves is a foster kid. He is proud of that fact, despite the challenges and tricky road bumps along the way.
His biological mom was addicted to drugs. His biological dad was not in the picture and died when Justin was in middle school. He lived with an aunt and uncle, but that relationship unraveled at times.
He has been in a four group homes, and a handful of foster homes. By the time Justin was 18, he “aged out” of the system. The state would provide financial assistance, and some guidance through Community Based Care, the group that oversees the foster care system in Orange, Seminole and Osceola counties.
Justin could have become just another sobering statistic in an unkind world: More than 60 percent of foster kids drop out of high school before graduation — a rate twice as high as the dropout rate for all students.
Justin Nieves would have none of that.
He graduated from Oviedo High School and is now in his sophomore year at Seminole State College.
He was recently awarded a Nissan Sentra for part of Reed Nissan’s “Cars for Kids” initiative that recognizes foster teens worthy of a new ride.
Now 21, Justin also has plans to mentor foster kids who are just like him, trying to sort out a complicated life in the complicated journey of foster kids.
Justin Nieves can give them a very good blueprint on how to sort all of that out.
We caught up at a Panera Bread location in Oviedo, along with Danielle Abbey, a communications manager with CBC.
When did you enter foster care?
My uncle and my aunt took me in after the problem with my parents and I started living with them pretty much since elementary school. And then around the time I was 16, I was having some issues in my house with my aunt and uncle, which led me to be placed in the foster care system.
When you are placed in foster care as an older child, it’s usually more challenging. Did you find a home right away, or did you end up living in some group homes along the way?
In the first month I bounced between four different group homes and I finally landed at one locally. It wasn’t until two or three months later that my foster parents came to pick me up.
And how long did that relationship last?
I was in the house until I tuned 18 and found an apartment.
So essentially you aged out of the system?
Do you still have contact with your biological mom?
I imagine you have moments when you stop and reflect and I imagine the journey has been painful to say the least. Emotionally what do you feel inside?
When I first got into the system, it was a bunch of loneliness because my biological father had left me when I was a little boy. I kinda felt that same abandonment, loneliness, when I entered the system. I felt that too when I separated with my aunt and uncle, but as I continued in the system I started meeting different case workers, started going to church, and finally went into a foster home. I decided I was going to do good for myself.
At first it was out of anger. And at the end when I was 18, and I accomplished some things like graduating high school and picking up some academic scholarships and all that good stuff, it turned into hope, and as I started going through college, I thought in my heart if I was able to be put in that position and work though it, I know that other kids could do the same.
My relationships now are reconciled with my aunt and uncle. I forgive them. They forgive me. We’ve had the best relationship we’ve ever had. Now it’s all hope. I have joy knowing that I was put through some of the things I was because I probably wouldn’t understand it the way I do.
For a lot of teenagers turning 18 means ‘yeah, you get to break away from mom and dad.’ For foster children, it can be a very different emotion because you’ve been looking for stability all your life. What emotions did you deal with at the time?
I felt free because I spent most of my youth with my uncle and my aunt, they were very strict. This was the first time I had as much freedom as I ever had—cars, an apartment, classes. I had freedom to choose. I felt very free.
I didn’t do well with that; my first year I struggled. My classes were fine but financially I didn’t have the discipline for budgeting.
What are your aspirations and dreams?
I don’t have anything specifically but I do know that I want to help out foster youth. I don’t know what age group, not too young, maybe high school. I had a man take me into his foster home, and he had a bunch of boys my age, 15-16-17 and he mentored them. That’s what I’m going to do. Give back.
How did the car thing with Reed Nissan come about?
Danielle Abbey: This is now the third year that we’ve done the program with Reed Nissan. There’s a selection process where we talked to case managers to identify who is responsible and who can benefit from the program. He had no idea that he had won until the end. We had told him that the other young woman who won was filming a commercial. When he came in, we were all waiting for him.
How did you feel Justin?
I was speechless. It was a blessing for sure. I didn’t cry. She [Abbey] cried. I was crying on the inside. Tears of joy. You couldn’t see them.
What was your transportation situation before then?
I had a car but it was on its last legs, about 200,000 miles. It was about to go anytime. It meant a lot in the sense that people are looking out for me, people care for me. People are willing to invest in me. People are thinking about me, pushing me to stay on the path that I’m on and keep on doing better.
They asked if I were to win what word would you use to describe the experience, and I said ‘excellence.’ Because I feel me receiving this car would just reinforce me being excellent in every aspect of my life, whether it’s my relationships in school, work.
When you talk about hope, what lessons do you want to impart on others going through the same struggles?
Not to be afraid to ask for help. I know there is this mentality that grows, In foster care there is this mentality that you don’t want to ask anybody for anything. You don’t feel anybody is there for you to ask. Or if you ask you feel you will owe them something.
There is a whole mindset about not asking for help. But I would really urge them to not be afraid to ask for help. Asking for help allowed me to form a mindset that was productive. I grew up a lot when I was 17 to 18 in that year of care. Don’t be afraid to ask for help and resources.
Credit for this story goes to George Diaz, Orlando Sentinel