Little Details: Small steps, Herculean strides

By Katherine Bielawa Stamper

“I feel like I’m part of the family,” Anna* said as she reflected on her foster family. This is a powerful statement for a young woman who spent years in institutional settings—residential schools and therapeutic facilities in Vermont and Massachusetts.
Anna’s Vermont roots run deep. Her ancestors helped settle a Green Mountain town which bears her family’s name. Her biological parents, hampered by substance abuse and mental health challenges, were ill-prepared to care for their daughter. They lacked the skills to encourage, nurture and guide Anna, a gentle person who loves animals and is a voracious reader.
Anna was placed in the state’s custody at age nine. Her elementary school teacher noticed a pattern of neglect and suspected abuse. The young girl’s unkempt clothing and behavioral challenges hinted that something was wrong—broken—at home.
By age 15, Anna worked her way through a series of unsuccessful foster family and institutional placements. She’d grown prone to combativeness, a defense mechanism she learned to survive. She ended up being sent to live at an out-of-state residential program for children experiencing severe behavioral and mental health challenges.
She was eventually returned to Vermont and placed with a foster family where she had to unlearn the lessons of institutional life. She no longer had to seek permission to use the bathroom or eat a snack.
Closer proximity to her birth family provided opportunities to re-establish ties, severed by time and distance. Even though living with her birth family was not an option, safe, supervised visits started to refill the hole burrowed in her heart.
Anna enrolled in a specialized school equipped to address her complex learning and psychological issues. She participated in individual and group counseling, making peace with her past while looking toward a brighter future. She settled in with her foster family—and stayed. Anna finally felt truly at home after years of disruptive placements. Within a couple of years, she transferred to a local public high school. She earned her high school diploma, the first member of her immediate family to do so.
“My favorite class was mass media,” Anna said. “We analyzed books and movies.” She also enjoyed personal law and psychology classes, too.
Anna continued her education, enrolling in the Career Readiness Certificate Program at the Community College of Vermont. She received instruction in resume writing and interview skills while strengthening her math and writing. Although her biological father passed away, she established a positive relationship with her biological mother.
The last time I saw Anna, she said, “I hope for a very good job, something that will pay the bills and put food on the table.”
Young people like Anna exemplify the powerful message that, even if life presents challenges, hard work and a commitment to succeed can shift the balance in one’s favor.
Working as I do at an agency supporting at-risk children and youth, I am reminded that we are not all dealt the same hand of cards in life. Will Anna earn a college degree some day? Will she pursue a profession for which she is passionate? It would be lovely if she did. Just living a life free of abuse and being able to support oneself while living independently is, already, realizing several giant leaps forward.
*Name changed to protect confidentiality
Katherine Bielawa Stamper, a Williston resident, was a 2013 finalist for the Coolidge Prize for Journalism. Reader comments are welcome at or