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Jessica Holden

UG Representative, Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc.

Evanston, IL

I am a foster youth with the potential to do everything I dream of doing. And there are thousands more just like me.

“All foster children have problems.”

That’s what my first of three foster parents said to me when I was 10 years old. I had been living with her for two months when she took it upon herself to lay out the purpose and problems of my life. “You’ll be lucky if you find a husband. All foster children have problems. You’ll need to learn to cook and clean to make up for it, but your best bet will be to find a man and learn to keep him”.

Her words cut me deep. They wrapped around me, keeping me from moving forward and reaching my true self.

So I hid.

Behind books, mainly. I threw myself into my schoolwork, my only refuge from reality. By the time I was 16, I was living in my third home. I still did not feel comfortable telling even my closest friends about my home life. I was too afraid of being labeled as a "lesser than." I had not yet found my voice.

That all changed when Kids Matter, an organization dedicated to helping kids reach their potential, invited me and other foster children to the Wisconsin State Capitol. We took the chance to speak to senators and representatives about providing more support for foster care. We shared our own personal journeys, goals and aspirations.

That's when something clicked inside me.

I went from hiding in shame to advocating for foster youth. I had not revealed this part of my life to my best friends — yet here I was, telling a room full of strangers, “I am a foster youth with the potential to do everything I dream of doing. And there are thousands more just like me.”

I leaned in, and from that point forward I continued to find my voice. I stopped using my life as a foster kid as an excuse. Instead, I used it as a platform to do good. I realized that all foster children have a purpose. I have a purpose.

I have a responsibility as a woman who managed to walk a different path to encourage others to tap into their own potential. I want others to discover what makes them happy and pursue it wholeheartedly. My mission is to live life by my own plan not one prewritten by a society that didn't understand me. My purpose is to help people whose dreams were tossed like yesterday’s trash.

Madeleine Albright once said, “there is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women." I feel the same about people who overcome obstacles and never look back, leaving others in the same confusing maze. If we can, we should try to make someone else's journey easier. In the world of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc. — where I am now a national officer — we call that sisterhood.

My advice: Fine tune your voice early on. Like any instrument, the more you practice speaking up, the better you will be at sharing your story. The better you are at sharing your story, the better you will be at guiding others. Now I know that the world is my stage, and I will proudly perform my part. By doing so, I will inspire others to lean in to theirs too.