With Foster Care Just a Memory, Nefertiti Pursues Her Destiny

Photography by Amelia Coffaro
Story by Vanessa Arriola

Wide-eyed and smiling, 24-year-old Nefertiti is anxiously awaiting news from the Borough of Manhattan Community College. “I won’t hear back until March or April,” she says, struggling at times to get out the words, “but I can’t wait that long.”

Nefertiti dreams of being a social worker so that she can help kids who are going through difficult situations. Listening to her talk about her plans for the future, one would never guess the obstacles she has overcome. As she openly describes her path from one abusive environment to another, Nefertiti’s story is a beacon of hope for children in foster care. She is well on her way to achieving her goals thanks to the support she found in her late teens from her adoptive mother, social service staff, and volunteers from non-profit organizations like You Gotta’ Believe.

Nefertiti’s biological mother was addicted to crack cocaine and likely used drugs while she was pregnant. Nefertiti spent the first three months of her life in the hospital and continued to suffer from her mother’s drug use until the age of 8. “I remember being so embarrassed when my mom came outside where I was playing looking like a crack-head,” Nefertiti recalls with a self-conscious giggle. Often home alone for extended periods of time, Nefertiti learned to care for herself. Though family and friends tried to help, her mother’s drug use continued. Before the Administration for Child Services (ACS) could intervene, Nefertiti’s grandmother took her away from her Mother. Nefertiti recalls, “My mom handed me an orange laundry bag with my clothes in it. She said I was going away for the weekend, but I knew I wasn’t coming back.” Nefertiti cried the entire trip from the Bronx to the Marlboro Projects in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn, where her grandmother lived.

Life with her grandmother was better initially. Nefertiti’s godmother, Sandy, and her brother helped her adjust to her new surroundings at Marlboro. She enrolled in a new school and began to make friends. But after a year, things changed for Nefertiti. Her grandmother became angry and took out her frustration on Nefertiti. Physical and verbal abuse became routine, and Nefertiti’s brother left the home. At an age where most kids learned how to ride a bike, she learned to cook, clean and take care of herself. Feeling unsafe at her Grandmother’s house, Nefertiti saw school as her escape. She recalls earning academic awards like Student of the Month and Honor Roll with pride. Despite her accomplishments, teachers at school recognized something was wrong.

The relationship between grandmother and granddaughter continued to deteriorate. Nefertiti’s Grandmother accused her of trying to kill herself by leaving on the gas stove. Nefertiti defends herself explaining she cooked for herself often and the gas stove was unreliable. Regardless of the misunderstanding, she was taken to a mental hospital in Queens for psychiatric evaluation. Diagnosed with depression, Nefertiti stayed in the institution for a month. She witnessed other patients act out and be treated with heavy sedatives or straitjackets. Nefertiti was scared but determined to get out. She dutifully attended individual and group therapy sessions, where she reports staff agreed that she didn’t belong in the institution.

Once she was released back into her grandmother’s care, Nefertiti bravely announced she didn’t want to live with her grandmother anymore. At the Family Court Office in Brooklyn, Nefertiti’s grandmother announced, “You can have her,” and walked out of the building.  Full of mixed emotions, Nefertiti was taken to an ACS office where she spent Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. “I was happy to know things would be different, but I also knew life wasn’t supposed to be like this,” Nefertiti explained.

Nefertiti spent the next three months at the Euphrasian Residence for Girls, undergoing evaluations and awaiting a permanent placement. Nefertiti recalled, “It felt like jail, but at least I got along with the staff.” An opening at St. Helena’s Community House meant another transition and another opportunity for Nefertiti. With the help of the trusted staff and social workers, Nefertiti adjusted to her new surroundings. Quiet and reserved at first, Nefertiti eventually opened up and got along well with everyone in the house. She enjoyed family dinners and became close with her housemates and the staff.

Her transition back to school was slow but successful. After the tumultuous year, Nefertiti had to repeat the ninth grade, and she transferred to the Coalition School for Social Change, located within walking distance from St. Helena’s. Again, with the help of her social worker and her teachers, the transition went smoothly. She jokes that her favorite subjects were gym and lunch, and praises the tutors who helped her through challenging courses such as math and chemistry.

The time she spent at St. Helena’s was the first step toward a stable life for Nefertiti. When the facility announced they were moving locations, Nefertiti was devastated but another opportunity presented itself. She had been spending time with Loretta, a Credit Suisse employee who volunteered at St. Helena’s through the company’s Reach for the Stars program. “Loretta would come to the house every Tuesday and we started to get to know each other,” remembers Nefertiti.

Some might say it was destiny. Years earlier, Nefertiti and Loretta had also participated in a job readiness workshop at Credit Suisse. In 2007, Nefertiti moved in to Loretta’s house and spent her first real Christmas with a family.  Loretta’s friends and family sent Christmas wishes welcoming her to the family.

Nefertiti’s face lights as up as she explains what it was like to be part of a new family. The love and support that Loretta gives to Nefertiti comes through as Nefertiti tells her story. Although she stammers when recounting the numerous obstacles that she has overcome, ultimately confidence, optimism and clarity shine through when Nefertiti speaks about Loretta. Their love for one another is unconditional – the main tenet of You Gotta’ Believe, the organization that supported Nefertiti’s adoption. Nefertiti and Loretta are examples of the successful work of this organization. With Loretta’s support, Nefertiti is ready to take on any challenges as well as celebrate successes.

For the past 15 years, You Gotta’ Believe has been working to find permanent homes for older children and teens like Nefertiti before they age out of the foster care system. You Gotta’ Believe provides families interested in adopting older children with supports such as parenting course, legal advice, and counseling throughout the adoption process.