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Tamika Bennett:
From Homeless to College Graduate

Tamika infront of a classroom lecturing students
ILSP Emancipation Worker Tamika Bennett giving a presentation to foster youth who are about to emancipate on how to find jobs and housing.

July-August 2001

by Richard Bermack

Tamika Bennett works for the ILSP auxiliary program as an emancipation assistant, helping foster youth who are about to transition into living on their own. She helps them find employment and housing and counsels them on overcoming obstacles of self-doubt and low self-esteem. When she tells them growing up a foster youth is no reason for not succeeding, they listen. There is no questioning her credentials. Confident and articulate, she just received her bachelors degree and is headed for graduate school. Looking at her today, it might be hard to imagine that until she entered the foster care system she spent the majority of her childhood years homeless, living in hotel rooms and shelters, or that her mother was a crack-cocaine addict and doesn’t even know who Tamika’s father is.

Tamika looking sad
“It was a horrible feeling to be in school and know you had nothing to come home to. It crushed my self-esteem. I was afraid to let other people know.” Tamika Bennett

“It was a horrible feeling to be in school and know you had nothing to come home to. It crushed my self-esteem. I was afraid to let other people know. I thought about it all the time as a child, and my nerves got bad, and my immune system broke down. I was always sick, and at one point I lost all my hair,” Tamika says.

“I didn’t want anyone to find out that my mother was on drugs and that we were homeless. I knew that before all that happened she was a really, really, great person, a very giving, loving, and wonderful person. But my brother’s and sister’s father almost beat her to death. Then she was always running around, never staying in the same place, and I could see the pain in her.

“I would blame myself and think that maybe it was my fault, that I’m too much responsibility for her. She would say she wished she didn’t have me, because if I found one of her [crack] pipes I would break it. I would tell her it was wrong for her to spend all of the money that she got from welfare for us. And I would really get it. She would tell me, ‘You are not the adult. Don’t tell me what to do.’ I was eight or nine at the time.

“I don’t want to complain about my past. It made me a strong person. I’m very determined. Throughout the whole time I felt something good would come. I used to write letters to God telling him what was going on and asking him to help me.”

When she was 14, Tamika approached her mother’s best friend, who was living a stable, healthy life, and asked her to take Tamika in permanently. The woman agreed and filed papers to become Tamika’s foster mother.

“I left my mother because I was tired of seeing people on drugs. It hurt me just to see someone give up their life and put that much into something that has total control of them to the point they don’t care nothing about themselves or the world or their children. That was not a place I wanted to be. I wanted to go to college, but I was missing school, and I needed a better situation.” Tamika with a triumphant smile

Once in the system, her life began to change. “My first social worker, Warren Turner, was wonderful,” she says. “He made me feel so comfortable and told me that everything was going to be all right and that he would do everything he could for me.” But after a year her worker changed jobs and she got a new worker. “I had felt so much rejection that it hurt me more than a normal person,” she explains. “I had come to expect that people won’t be there. It is hard for me to trust someone, that they will be there. I blame myself. What did I do wrong to make them leave? My new worker was nice, but after losing Warren it was hard to bond.”

What really made a difference for Tamika was the ILSP program. She says, “I was really shy. I had never talked to people. But they taught us you need to talk to get somewhere, and that was a lot of our training in ILSP, a lot of self-esteem building, letter writing, being assertive. So I got it. I started talking more when I was 17, then a little more at 18, and by 20 I was fine. Mr. Moncure told us we could always call him collect even if we went a long way away. So I would call him just to talk, even if I had nothing to say.”

Tamika Bennett graduated with a bachelors degree in theater direction and a minor in sociology. She plans to attend graduate school and hopes to become an educational psychologist.