Former foster child tries to help others succeed

Jameelah A. Love stands near Spaights Plaza on the campus of UWM.

Jameelah A. Love spent her childhood bouncing from house to house as her family life unraveled. At age 14, she went into the foster care system.

Now Love, who just finished her sophomore year at UWM, is helping others who grew up in foster care to succeed.

This summer, she heads to Washington, D.C., for an internship with the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute. She’ll be one of 12 interns nationwide each working with a federal legislator to develop a policy reform proposal on foster care. The recommendations will then be presented to Congress and published. (Tonisha Hora of UW-Stout is another of the 12 interns.)

Love, 26, isn’t sure exactly how she overcame a traumatic, troubling environment – “I think about it a lot.” (Her story was detailed in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel series “A Time to Heal.”)

But, she said she thinks her resilience is a combination of the positive and the negative.

“Sometimes I think it’s my personality because I’m sort of on the optimistic side,” Love said. “I find it to be a lot less stressful when you try to see the positive.”

On the other hand, she added, sometimes she thinks those negative influences and people that affected her childhood motivated her. “I didn’t want to be like them.”

In addition to this summer’s internship, she is president of the Wisconsin Youth Advisory Council, has testified to lawmakers in Madison about legislation on foster care, and is a young adult consultant to the ICF Capacity Building Center for States, a national organization working to reform the foster care and child welfare system. She helped organize a May 23 event – “Hands Around the Capitol” – to bring attention to the issue during May, which is National Foster Care Month.

Love is also part of a committee forming Fostering Success at UWM, an organization to support the needs of students who grew up in foster care. It will be the second program of its type in Wisconsin — the other is at UW-Stout — and one of the few in the Midwest. She is also planning to start a foster youth student organization at UWM. That organization will be specifically for students, though the group will likely work with the Fostering Success program on some projects, she said.

Life experiences inspire drive to help

Her own experiences drive her to make life better for other children and young people affected by the foster care system, Love said.

“Because of the experiences I’ve had in life, I just want to help other people go through these things,” Love said. “I had to jump over hurdle after hurdle and barrier after barrier just to get a fair chance.”

No one thought she would graduate from high school, let alone go to college, she said.

With the help of others who came in and out of her life, including a Bay View High School chemistry teacher who insisted all her students take the ACT, Love applied and was accepted to college. Education is important to her. “I knew what I did not want to become and college was a way to keep that from happening.”

Her initial experiences at UW-Stout showed her some of the needs other foster students would face. “I moved six hours away, and I didn’t know anybody. I definitely didn’t know any other foster youth, so when I started to face difficulties, I didn’t have anybody I could turn to.”

But she persisted. “I eventually chose UWM. I really wanted to go somewhere that was diverse and understood minority populations and the different cultures and circumstances that we face,” she said.

Gradually, she became an activist for foster youth.

“After some time in the system, I became very timid; I lost my voice, my will to speak.” But after attending a meeting of the Youth Advisory Council, that changed. “I found it empowering to be in a room full of other people that had had similar experiences, some even worse than mine. They were willing to use their experiences to advocate for other people. It gave my story value and some worth that I didn’t see in it at first.”

Advocating for children

Love is majoring in political science with the eventual goal of going to law school so she can advocate for children. She is minoring in Arabic and global studies to leave the door open for possibly working in the Middle East.

And politics may also be in her future so she’s taking part in programs that help prepare women and young people to run for office. In addition to her UWM studies, she also works as a life skills specialist at the Milwaukee Center for Children and Youth, a nonprofit that focuses on trauma survivors.

She would like to change the child welfare and foster care system to focus more on prevention rather than intervention and punishment to help children find that all-important stability in their lives.

“The outcome I want to work toward is doing our job so well, to be so great at what we do, that there is no need for a foster care system.”

In Washington, her policy report will be on a foster care bill of rights. She’s excited for the opportunity.

“I’m going to D.C. and advocating for change on a national level,” Love said. “This is amazing.”

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