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Resilient Teen Goes on to College Success After Years of Trauma

By Shanel Vazquez

In 2011 I lived in New Mexico, and the beauty of the state took my attention away from my crumbling life. At home, things were not good. My mom and dad’s struggled every day. I know my parents loved my younger siblings and me, but I feel they didn’t love themselves which led to a constant spiral.

They were always mad, tired, and the house would be flipped upside down, and my younger brother, sister and I were mentally and emotionally breaking. Finally things got so bad that New Mexico’s beauty couldn’t cover up what was happening behind closed doors. To attempt a new start, we moved to Kansas to live with my aunt.

Kansas was something that represented a new life. However, my parents unfortunately had a knack for making just as many bad connections as good ones. We were kicked out of my aunt’s house and were left to look for a new one. Somehow, we we were able to find a house to rent that night. Though the house had enough space for us, it didn’t have a washer, dryer or hot water. Despite this, it kept us together for a short time before we had to move again.

When we were kicked out of the rental, we had to move that same day. My parents found another house for us to live in: a one-bedroom house with a big living room and a small kitchen. Around this time my dad left us. My mom was not able to work due to health problems. My dad was able to send some money to us, but food was hard to come by. Sometimes when I was hungry, I would make a Ramen noodle cup and share it with my siblings. Even when we were dirty, we never showered because the water was cold. When we were injured, I patched my brother and sister up with the cold water and the cleanest sock I could find because we couldn’t afford band-aids.

I asked God if I would even survive having to parent my siblings while trying to take care of myself. One day the school took note of our missed days and all the times my mom showed up intoxicated to pick us up from school. We were taken to the office and we were questioned about our lives. It was the first time I found out that the life I was living was not stable, healthy, safe or normal. I didn’t know that I was not like the other kids whose parents played with them and showed them love. Instead, I was the kid who was doing everything to keep my brother and sister off the streets, begging for money so that they could just have a piece of candy.

The day the school and social workers took notice produced several mixed emotions: part of me wanted to fight them and the other part wanted to thank God that someone else knew what we were going through. They took us out of school early, and we began the process of entering foster care.

Our first foster family did not work out. I still felt like a parent to my siblings and couldn’t manage the added responsibilities the foster parents put on me. We were placed in a second foster home, and it was truly a blessing. I believe in science, but I also know there is a God because he put us on their doorstep.

Shanel with her foster parents, Philip and Becky Lawrence

Previously I was the one who was holding everything together for my family, and if I was not okay, my family would fall apart. In their care, where there was always hot water and plenty of food, I learned that it is okay to not be okay – that it’s okay to just be a kid.  I learned what it felt like to be safe and loved and that I did not need to be the adult in the house. I learned the importance of loving myself: not believing that could lead to the type of life my parents had. This foster family, the Lawrences, are my family even if we’re not blood related.

After a year of therapy while we were in foster care, my dad became a different person. I hadn’t seen him in years. My mom was getting ready to go to rehab so that she could heal and become the mom she wanted to be. But that would never happen.

The day came when Mrs. Lawrence, my dad and therapist sat down with me. I knew something was wrong. Before they started to talk to me, I pulled out a note that I had written to my mom. I asked if I could mail it, and they hung their heads low. My therapist said four simple words that changed my life forever, “Your mom passed away.”

I didn’t cry when I first heard that sentence. Instead I thought, “Why didn’t I save her when I had the chance?” For 13 years I watched my mom live her life like a movie playing repeatedly, and I felt there was something I could have done to stop it. When she was sober, she was beautiful, smart and funny. I felt as though I was so focused on not drowning that I had let her sink. I felt it was the biggest failure of my life.

After three years of continuous grief and anger, I realized that I was doing the same thing my mom had done. I was in this cycle of grief and only living in the past. One day I looked up at the sky, and I told my mom that it was okay if she did not forgive me for not saving her. I told her I was sorry and that I would make things right.

I started loving myself. I’ve grown closer to my dad and have made sure to set a great example for my brother and sister. I worked hard at school and have been dedicated to becoming better at everything in life. Recently I finished high school in the top ten of my graduating class of over three hundred. I’m the first person in my family to graduate high school. In addition, I was awarded a $50k scholarship to college where I want to study how to help people who suffer from alcoholism and addiction. I want my legacy and that of my brother and sister to be different.


Foster parents made a significant difference in Shanel and her siblings’ lives. Throughout Kansas, the greatest need is to foster teens and sibling groups. If you’re interested in learning more about fostering, click here.

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