Colesha Cormier knows why the caged bird sings.
Like the little girl in her favorite book by Maya Angelou, Cormier, 20, was sent to live with her grandmother — to Grand Bahama, not Arkansas like the book — after her parents abandoned her, only to have her grandmother die by the time she turned 6. For the next five years, she lived with family and friends in a Haitian community not always welcomed by Bahamian locals, before finally being shipped back to Miami to live with her father.
Within months, he was jailed. When he was released, Cormier came face to face with her future: a bully who often hammered home his point with a closed fist.
Not every prison, she discovered, has bars.
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“I couldn’t have friends. I was closed off,” she said of the next six years she spent with her father and his multiple girlfriends, repeatedly moving and missing school until an anonymous call was made to child welfare officials.
But she did have books, including Angelou’s coming of age classic. And dreams. Today, Cormier is living in affordable housing provided to aging foster kids by Casa Valentina and working at the University of Miami’s Mahoney-Pearson dining hall where she dishes out pizzas and entrees to students. In January, she hopes to enroll full-time at Miami Dade College, where she took two classes in the fall.
Yet like so many foster kids entering adulthood, Cormier has found herself ill-prepared for life on her own, even one free from abuse. For a time she was homeless.
What these kids go through is pretty much what any 18-year-old goes through with the exception that they have absolutely no support system.
Tania Rodriguez, chief operating officer for the Voices for Children Foundation
“What these kids go through is pretty much what any 18-year-old goes through with the exception that they have absolutely no support system,” said Tania Rodriguez, chief operating officer for the Voices for Children Foundation, who nominated Cormier for the Miami Herald’s Wish Book.
In Miami, hurdles for foster kids can be even bigger. The region offers little affordable housing, and often complicated immigration histories leave many without basic documents — like birth certificates and Social Security cards — needed to secure an apartment or drivers license. And while the state provides support for education, many associated costs are left up to students.
“What about books, supplies, and transportation?” Rodriguez asked. “The national rate for foster kids graduating from college is something awful, like 3 percent.”
For most kids who come under the state’s control, whether they enter foster care or remain with relatives, the state acts as their parent. They are watched over by social workers, attorneys and judges. In about 60 percent of the cases in Miami-Dade County, an independent guardian ad litem is appointed by the court, Rodriguez said. For these lucky kids, the independent guardian represents the child, typically monitoring only one or two kids compared to the 50 to 60 cases juggled by social workers, she said.
Guardians often follow the same kids for years, sometimes until they are 21 — or 23 if the child has an immigration issue — and try to soften the transition to independence by finding other services through a network of nonprofit groups that provide social services.
In Cormier’s case, her guardian, Riana Maryanoff, a supervisor in the 11th Circuit’s guardian ad litem program, came to her rescue.
When she first returned to Miami about 2006, Cormier said she moved in with her father and his new wife. But after he beat his wife, Cormier said she and her father were forced to leave. They moved briefly to Broward County, where he lived with several women before settling with a new girlfriend, who soon became pregnant. But then he began beating his new girlfriend, who had three children with him, Cormier said. Over the years, Cormier stayed in touch with her stepmother and finally told her about the continued beatings. At some point, Cormier said, an anonymous call was made to Florida’s Department of Children and Families.
“At first I didn’t want to go with them. I tried when I was in high school and it didn’t work out,” she said. But things were different now.
I was just tired. I was missing school and I couldn’t go out. I couldn’t have any friends.
“We were moving a lot and living in this trashy place,” she said. “I was just tired. I was missing school and I couldn’t go out. I couldn’t have any friends.”
Last year, she moved in with her stepmother for a year and then, as she approached 18, returned to the Bahamas hoping to reconnect with her mother’s family in Bimini and Freeport. She moved in with an uncle, who Cormier says, insisted she write about her difficult life.
“I said I didn’t want to because it was difficult,” she said. His response? “He hit me and punched me in the face.”
Back in Miami, Maryanoff swung into action, Cormier said. She connected her with Casa Valentina, a nonprofit started in 2006 to help aging foster kids by providing two years of safe and affordable housing and life skills. Cormier now has an apartment she shares with a roommate — a foster kid who, like herself, suffered years of abuse. Together the pair forged a friendship and encourage each other to be more self-assured.
She also has a kitchen where she gets to pursue her passion for cooking Italian dishes. And cleaning.
“I know I’m weird,” she jokes. “I’m in love with cleaning supplies.”
When she talks about her future, Cormier now sees so many possibilities she has trouble picking just one.
“I want to be a corporate lawyer, a psychologist and a business owner. All three,” she said.
Her biggest obstacle now, she said, is her own self confidence.
My father was strict and used to beat me if I wasn’t getting that [good] grade. Now I’m in control, and if I get a bad grade, I think I’m going to get in trouble or fail somebody. But now I’m only failing myself.
“All my life I’ve been told I couldn’t do it,” she said. “My father was strict and used to beat me if I wasn’t getting that [good] grade. Now I’m in control, and if I get a bad grade, I think I’m going to get in trouble or fail somebody. But now I’m only failing myself. I’m like, Colesha, I’m OK. But I’m still like I’m going to fail. I’m going to fail.”
Cormier’s struggles are not unusual for foster kids, Rodriguez said.
“There are things you just pick up in life when you have parents around that they don’t have. Like budgeting. Or after you go to the store, you can’t leave the chicken on the counter when you get home. All those unique challenges. Plus, they haven’t had an easy life to begin with,” she said. “So that carries over into the social dynamics.”
Because many have to work to support themselves in addition to going to school, they can be overworked and stressed by having to manage studies and finances, she said. Yet many are reluctant to reach out for help because they’ve already spent so many years in the system, Rodriguez said. Voices for Children tries to provide assistance until they’re fully ready to be on their own.
“They’re like regular kids,” Rodriguez said. “They leave. And then they always come back to mom and dad when they need something.”
Cormier’s Wish Book list isn’t much different from a typical kid’s list for Santa, except she has no family to send it to. She’d like a laptop for school work, some cooking appliances to help her develop her cooking skills and clothes so she can look good for school and interviews. And there’s one other request for the thing that helped her most over the years. Books.
“African American books. Urban books,” she said before rattling off a long list of authors. “One of the books I really like to read is from Eric Jerome Dickey. It’s a book about love and stuff and whatever. And then I like the Maya Angelou books.”
How to help: Wish Book is trying to help hundreds of families in need this year. To donate, pay securely at MiamiHerald.com/wishbook. To give via your mobile phone, text WISH to 41444. For information, call 305-376-2906 or email wishbook @MiamiHerald.com. (Most requested itmes: laptops and tablets for school, furniture, accessible vans.) Read more at MiamiHerald.com/wishbook