Growing-up in an abusive, unstable home can have devastating impacts on young people well into their adult lives. Whether it’s physical or emotional neglect or abuse, the parameters that make-up a nurturing home environment are critical to a child’s perception of their personal worth and value in the world.
As a former young child in the care system, Meaghan Coneybeare not only understands this dynamic but the process of healing and self-discovery. We chatted with Meaghan about her journey from past to present, what she’s learned so far, and where she’s headed.
CHILDREN’S AID FOUNDATION: How did you first become involved with the child welfare system?
MEAGHAN CONEYBEARE: I grew up in a single parent household but most of the time it felt very parentless. My mother is an alcoholic and I grew up in an environment that was extremely unstable, unsafe, and filled with a lot of physical, emotional, and verbal abuse. As I got older I became to realize that the life I was in was, in fact, not normal. At 13, I reached out to CAS on my own to talk to someone for help. From there, I gained the courage to stand up against the abuse and two days before my 15th birthday I ran from home and entered foster care. By 16 I was a Crown Ward. You might think that by leaving such an awful environment things would start to get easier, but that can be far from the truth. By coming into care at age 15, there are not very many foster home options out there. Many prefer younger children, assuming teens to be more difficult. I was lucky to find one right away, but it came with a lot of adjustments. Having someone do my laundry for me, eating three healthy meals a day, having the electricity stay on, a bed to sleep in — all of these were very big adjustments. But so was figuring out how to respond to them all.
When you’re used to being yelled at and never given affection or kind words of encouragement, it can take a very long time to learn how to receive these. Fifteen years later it’s still something I’m learning.
CAF: What were some of the biggest obstacles throughout your experiences in the child welfare system?
MC: The environment I grew up in had already matured me beyond my years but while going through the child welfare system I endured more of that. Not only was I trying to get back on track with my schooling, but I was making court appearances, therapy sessions once, sometimes twice, a week, deciding with my social worker whether I wanted to have contact with my family, and moving from one home to another. All of this on top of just trying to survive being a teenager in high school is extremely overwhelming. I also found it very hard to find my voice in it all. I knew when one home was not right for me, but having a voice in that proved so difficult when the options were so very limited. I also went through a very rough time in my second foster home to the point that I not only had to deal with the trauma of my life in my biological family but also the hurt and lack of trust and safety from another family.
Going through all that I easily could have come out with a huge chip on my shoulder for the system. It has it’s flaws, not every child’s experience is perfect. But I know that my experience isn’t everyone’s. I chose to believe that because I needed to have hope that other youth in care would find the love, security, and hope to live a vibrant life. Also, that the negative experiences I endured were just a few amongst some of the most amazing life changing ones I had.
That is one of the reasons I use my voice, my experiences (the good and bad) to encourage other youth in care today. It may not be perfect, but you have a choice. You can choose to overcome it; to not let this experience define you as a victim but as a survivor.
Our youth in care today need to be encouraged. They need to be shown that there is a bright future for them out there. It’s our responsibility as a society to support these youth, to come along side them on the path to that future. One of the places this starts is in training foster parents. I’ve had a few opportunities to speak on panels at training sessions for foster parents and I get to speak to these amazing individuals who’ve opened their hearts to these youth and tell them what they really need, what can help them to be encouraged, to feel safe, to feel loved.
CAF: Can you talk about the Children’s Aid Foundation’s involvement in your life?
MC: Because of funding from CAF I had dark times that became a whole lot brighter. They assisted me when I wanted to take on extracurricular activities such as horse back riding and field trips, something I would not have had the opportunity to do before but had always dreamed of doing. I never imagined myself attending prom and with their support I was able to go in a beautiful dress and have the fun experience of getting all glammed-up for it. And when I wanted to attend college, CAF funding was there to support me in my dreams. All those experiences would not have happened without their support and the donors who generously give to ensure these experiences can happen for youth. Funding doesn’t just support youth for that moment or activity, it can help lead them onto a path filled with opportunity and a life of joy, hope, and success.
CAF: What are you up to currently?
MC: My work life is spent in events, marketing and PR. I’ve done much of that with non-profits as I feel a great need to give back to the many organizations in our world that help build those up who need the support, encouragement, and resources to live a fuller life. I also do work as a peer mentor for youth involved in the child welfare system. Through the FACS of Waterloo Region, I co-facilitate a program called Me to We: Going Local where we have youth come out twice a month to enjoy a meal and then go out into the community to not only learn about the many organizations in our community but also to volunteer time assisting them. We have spent time sorting food at the food bank, garbage pick-ups in parks, helping our local breakfast programs, and giving back to our own agency and the youth involved with it.
When not ‘working’ I’m busy being an activist. I feel that the experiences I was given were for a purpose — to encourage others. I’m using my voice for those who don’t have one… yet!
I’ve taken all that and put it to work with many different causes such as supporting youth in the system, those in poverty, and most recently human trafficking. I just wrapped up a campaign I founded that encouraged people to donate new pyjamas that would be given to those rescued from trafficking. My goal was to give these survivors a sense a sense of comfort, safety, and hope. I collected over 450 pairs of pyjamas and have in turn been able to donate these to several organizations that assist victims of human trafficking. Youth in the child welfare system are being targeted by traffickers. The more we raise awareness to this issue the more we can create change and work to end trafficking.
CAF: What are you future goals/ambitions?
MC: I would love to continue to find ways to be an advocate for youth in care. I always feel like I’m right where I belong when I get opportunities to speak about my experience and work to encourage youth in the system. One of my goals is to travel to several different countries and meet with youth who are in child welfare systems, those who’ve come out of them, and those working in them. I’m sure we could learn so much from how others work and live and I would love to put all of that data into a documentary for people to learn from and to raise awareness for these youth and those working with them. Funds from a venture like this would also help me create a scholarship for youth going into post-secondary school, which is another goal of mine. I like to dream big!