Also by this author: Etched in Sand, Girl Unbroken
Rarely does a book come along that is both powerful and inspiring, but Regina Calcaterra’s memoir, Etched in Sand, is just that. A couple of months ago I reviewed her amazing memoir (thanks TLC Book Tours) and was blown away by her story and her candidness. It’s a tale of perseverance and redemption, but above all it’s a story about the importance of family. What’s just as exciting is that she works in Public Policy, which is what I’m in school for and I am both thrilled and honored to have had the opportunity to ask her a few questions about both her book and work! I hope you take the time to read the interview because it is sure to leave you inspired.
1. What made you decide to open up about something so personal? It isn’t a choice many in public policy make unless they are running for president or explaining a transgression. (Or are you planning a run in the future?!)
There are so many children and adults who are vulnerable and are in situations that leave them desperate. I wrote my memoir to empower them to find a way through it and to never stop believing that they have a lot to offer. My book chronicles my life growing up on the fringe of society with limited or no resources and provides readers a perspective on the life of foster, parentless, homeless and impoverished children who are swimming against the tides. These circumstances left me desperate, feeling powerless and often questioning the value of my existence at an age when children should not be so introspective. What I learned, and what I hope that others learn, is to not be resentful about the hand you’re dealt because in this world there are so many much worse off than we are here in the U.S. Be grateful that you live in a country where there are enough resources to propel you forward, if you choose to move forward, such as a public school education, the public library system, publicly subsidized colleges, financial aid and subsidized college loans.
I also wrote this book to show how children who live on the fringe of society really do live among us – and that we need to be careful not to marginalize them. I painfully chronicle the challenges of children like us when I revisited the fate of my younger siblings and my powerlessness over them. Nobody paid attention to my warnings for years and I had to go to extreme measures to try to protect them. I failed at every attempt, all because we were parentless kids and that status hurt our credibility in the eyes of others.
In the two short months since Etched in Sand’s release the messages that “no child is a lost cause” and that “we can control our destiny if we choose too” have resonated by the responses I get from readers – reinforcing the reason why I shared my personal story. As far as my future in politics and governing, for the past two years I have served in an executive capacity for the County of Suffolk and State of New York and have learned that you can be just as effective as a policy maker in the right appointed position as one may be in an elected position.
2. You’re a huge inspiration to many groups of people, especially women and adopted/foster children. Has that affected your way of approaching issues or how you go about your daily life?
What’s important to know is that so many women and adopted/foster children I have met over the past several years have been a huge inspiration to me! I have seen older kids in foster care set aside their fears, reach out, and embrace new, adopted parents and adapt to permanent homes. They have taken a leap of faith that, in other times, abandoned kids would refuse to take. The same can be said of their adoptive parents. But at the same time, I know we are at the very early stages of turning the tides – and much more needs to be done. And so each day – particularly with all of the notes and messages I have received since Etched in Sand was launched – I become newly aware of my ability to contribute to these very important and necessary changes and need to continue reinforcing the very reasons why my story was important to share.
3. You share a lot of personal information about your siblings in the book. Did you have any trouble convincing them to let you write the book?
There was some apprehension at first, but after following the development of the manuscript, they became empowered that our story is one worth sharing rather than hiding from. In fact I chose not to share their personal information since I determined that it is they who should share it, rather than me. However, once my sisters read through the manuscript they encouraged me to add in their experiences since it reinforced how we all suffered yet prevailed under dire circumstances.
4. It is safe to say the foster system failed you and your siblings. If you could wave a wand and change just one aspect of the system, which would it be and why?
We grew up in foster care during the 1960s-1980s. It was an era where people looked the other way, even when they saw that children were neglected or abused. Also, it was an era where there was very little communication between schools, social workers and the authorities, let alone between states. The ability to perform nationwide background checks on prospective foster parents was non-existent. Also, there was a standard policy that it was best to keep the family together even in abusive circumstances, rather than remove the children from the home. So rather than say it was the foster care system that failed us, it was the system during that era that failed us as well as the societal norms. In Etched in Sand, I share with the reader how Cookie, my mother, illegally took my younger siblings out of their New York foster home to Idaho. Although, the social services system knew of Cookie’s whereabouts, they did not consider her action illegal or kidnapping regardless of their knowledge of over a decade of severe child abuse and neglect. Today, such actions would not be ignored, she would be tracked down through the authorities with the assistance of mainstream and social media, and the states would communicate with one another to have the abducted children returned to their home state.
If there were just one aspect I could change with my magic foster care wand, I would change the way older foster children are perceived and how the system plans for their future. At age fourteen I was told I was unadoptable – so the perception was that because I was in foster care because I was a bad kid, when in reality, I had a bad parent. This perception has yet to change. As I explain below, every child is deserving of a forever home.
5. You’re heavily involved with You Gotta Believe. Can you tell the readers more about the organization and how someone could help to support them?
When I was fourteen, in foster care, I was told that I needed to plan on being homeless at eighteen, when I aged out of foster care, because at fourteen I was too old to be adopted. Imagine the fear of facing such a reality! But I was not alone. Unfortunately, every year more than 40,000 older foster children in the U.S. age out of foster care, to no one but themselves.
As a result of this aspect of my experience I joined the board of You Gotta Believe in 2007. You Gotta Believe is a not for profit that works towards getting older foster children into forever homes. When a child ages out of foster care, at 18 or 21, without parents or a safety net, they are expected to determine how to survive on their own. As a result, many end up dependent upon public assistance, drug or alcohol addicted, homeless, incarcerated or worse. This is because the policy of many states is to teach teenage foster children how to live independently once they age out rather than acknowledging the fact that every child, regardless of age, needs a forever home. Regardless of what instruction a teenager receives on how to live independently, they still need a safety net, a safe place to put their head down and adults they can count on. You Gotta Believe has changed the dialogue and brought attention to the plight of older foster children and the fact that older children are adoptable and has placed so many older foster children into forever homes. Regardless of our age, we all need the stability and consistency of a loving home.
If you’re interested in supporting You Gotta Believe please either contribute atyougottabelieve.org to assist in the supporting of mentors who work with prospective older adoptees on finding the best forever home for the child or by becoming a mentor yourself. You Gotta Believe has found that by the time a teenager is preparing for aging out they have had countless positive interactions with adults, from teachers to the parents of friends, who would be interested in providing them a forever home. So the responsibility of the mentor is to incorporate the positive adult figures into the family finding effort for each child. With the hope of matching children with those from their past that have cared for them already. You can also join our mail list to receive invitations for upcoming events.
6. Who have been your biggest inspirations (personal or public policy-wise) over the years?
As a child, I read as many books about Amelia Earhart that I could find, and would imagine myself flying alongside such a woman of strength on her many adventures. Amelia’s courage gave me strength and her fearlessness was infectious. She did not allow societal norms to define how far she can prevail and she never took no for an answer when she believed it was the wrong answer. Below is one of my favorite Amelia Earhart quotes that I relied upon many times in my professional and personal life:
“The most difficult thing is the decision to act, the rest is merely tenacity. The fears are paper tigers. You can do anything you decide to do. You can act to change and control your life; and the procedure, the process is its own reward.”
In just one generation, with our collective strength, my siblings and I broke the cycle of abuse, homelessness, drug and alcohol dependency and poverty. They have also raised twelve compassionate children who are committed to giving back through church and charity.
By reading Etched in Sand, readers will learn about the roles we played in each other’s lives. At times each of us served as the provider, the protector, the parent, the planner and the confidant – while we ourselves were just children. Our inherent ability to raise each other resulted in the sharing of a unique, unbreakable bond – they never stop serving as my inspiration.
7. What advice do you have for young women seeking a career in the public sector?
Once you decide which aspect of public service you are interested in, become an expert in it. Also, consider alternating between the public and private sector throughout your career. There is much to be learned in the private sector that will make you a much more analytical and objective public servant. You will learn that every decision that is made in government has an impact on many – when in the private sector you will see the positive and negative ramifications of such governmental actions. This awareness will compel much more thoughtful analysis before implementing public policy and practices.
Also, always be mindful of supporting those around you as you are supported as well – one doesn’t achieve success on their own, they owe it to others who lifted them up along the way, You just need to make sure when the opportunity arises that you are ready for it.
**Inspirational Women is a series in development to highlight amazing women!