By Tricia Breton
Blue and red flickering lights shone through the windows of the apartment where Jade Figueroa lived with her mom and brother in 2011. Half asleep, the 12-year old gazed up from her bed only to be blinded by the glare of a polished badge.
“My first instinct was to protect my brother,” she said. “I was scared and confused because my mother was nowhere to be found.” But quickly, Jade began to understand—they were being taken away because of her mother’s struggle with drug addiction.
As the police yanked her clothes from her bureau and stuffed them into black trash bags, Jade felt her childhood disappear. “We couldn’t say no; we couldn’t run away; and we didn’t know where our mother was,” she said. “I clung to the stuffed animal they gave me, while my brother was held in the arms of a stranger.”
On September 5, 2017, Jade stood under the bright September sun and shared the story of that life-changing night with hundreds of UMass Dartmouth students, faculty, and staff at Convocation. As the first-place winner of the Provost’s Essay Contest, she took the stage in the Vietnam Veterans Peace Memorial Amphitheater, along with two runners-up, to read her winning essay.
“The purpose of the essay was to share what I believe in,” she said. “I believe in perseverance because that’s what my life has stood for, today and every day.”
Pride, perseverance and grit
Jade didn’t focus on the bleakness of her past, however. Instead, she spoke with pride about her perseverance and grit, about loving someone with a drug addiction, and about finally finding a loving family where she could thrive.
As a foster child in and out of the system for six years, the odds were against Jade ever reaching that podium. In 2015, the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families oversaw services for 51,684 children between birth and age 17, and they assisted 6,914 youth ages 16 to 21. The most recent research suggests that fewer than 10 percent of college-aged children in foster care will graduate from college.
Jade was placed in seven different foster homes, but never found a place to call her own. It became a pattern. She’d get to a new home, and it would be awkward. The family would either be overly nice at first or push her aside. They’d leave Jade home and attend family gatherings without her. They’d overreact when she made a mistake. For the most part, Jade did not feel accepted.
But then she landed in a home in Bellingham that was unlike any of her past foster placements. From the start, Pauline and Emilio DiSpirito treated Jade like she was their own. They didn’t force anything on her or expect her to talk before she was ready.
“I was never just a foster child to them, and that is something that I loved,” Jade said. “Never in my life have I ever had a mom and a dad at the same time, but in just a matter of a few months, I was already calling them mom and dad.”
With Pauline and Emilio’s guidance, Jade flourished as she experienced what it was like to have a family, to be cared for and loved. In April 2014, they took full guardianship of Jade.
“They told me that college was a necessity, and that I should set out to be a role model for my 13-year-old brother,” Jade said. “My brother only has me to look up to, so I want to show him that college is a possibility for him too.”
Acting more as a caretaker than a sister, Jade watched her brother when they lived with their mother. "I would have to be there to get him off the bus, make him dinner, and put him to bed for the majority of the week,” she said. “I never thought of it as a chore, but as a responsibility or obligation.”
About eight years ago, the siblings were moved into separate homes, but they remain in touch. Jade intends on continuing to be someone he can look up to. “I will try to guide him on the right path,” she said.
“I want every foster child, troubled kid, or anyone that was told they couldn't do something to keep pushing and defy all odds.”
Growing up surrounded by drug addiction, Jade dealt with situations that could have overwhelmed a less determined child. Her mother would disappear into the bedroom early in the mornings, and left Jade to find her own transportation to school.
“I knew what was going on in my mother’s room,” Jade said. “I knew I needed to find a way to get to school because it was my safe place, and kept me from abusive situations.”
As a foster child, she struggled with uncertainty. “I doubted my own worth because I was always labeled as that girl who didn’t really have a mom or dad,” Jade said. “It felt horrible because I wanted people to see me as anything but a foster child, I just wanted to be a normal girl.”
Jade is no longer that girl. In September, she took her place among the Class of 2021 at UMass Dartmouth. She plays lacrosse and is pursuing a degree in crime and justice studies, with a goal of one day joining the FBI.
“It’s great to be here and to know that I’ve succeeded,” she said. “But my journey isn’t over, I still need to keep pushing and persevering, so I can be a UMass Dartmouth graduate.”