Shalita O’Neale was named the 2017 Maryland Mother of the Year. She is an example of endurance and hope for all who know her. O’Neale didn’t just rise from a difficult childhood, she has built bridges around her so that other children can follow her example. American Mothers, Inc. has been privileged to get to know Shalita O’Neale this year and we look forward to spending a week with her at the United Nations Commission on the Status of women as she serves as one of our UN representatives.
I lost my mother when I was 3 years old which caused me to enter kinship care and ultimately the foster care system, of which I aged out of at the age of 21. I founded a non-profit in 2008 when I was 25 years old to help young people leaving foster care with emergency needs such as housing, food and clothing in Maryland. In the eight years the organization operated before being acquired by a larger organization in 2016, we served over 1000 young adults from foster care across the state.
In 2012, I started a company, Fostering Change Network LLC, with a purpose of helping child welfare agencies better connect with their foster youth. Through this company, I created a global network of adults who lived with people other than their biological parents as children and launched the Alumni Powerhouse Networking Conference (APNC) in 2015, which over the past 3 years has brought hundreds of “Alumni” of foster care to begin the healing process and learn from others with similar backgrounds on how to achieve their personal and professional goals.
There is a stigma associated with children in and adults who have experienced the foster care system. The general public is so grossly misinformed about people from foster care that most “alumni” of the foster choose not to reveal their foster care history because of the backlash they would receive in their personal and professional lives. I am determined to diminish this stigma and replace it with a sense of pride that stems from illuminating the strengths and contributions of people from foster care. Young people rarely witness positive examples of people who have been in the foster care system although there are so many which is why in 2017 I launched The Fostering Change Network Foundation with the purpose of uniting alumni of foster care globally and through the foundation’s Global Ambassadors Program, which will provide the resources and support that will allow them to increase their capacity to lead within child welfare and other fields that have an impact on children in the care of systems.
Despite my many accomplishments, the one I am most proud of is my seven-year-old son, Amani. I gave birth to him in 2010 which deepened my passion for giving back. I never knew I could love another person so much. I didn’t know how a mother was meant to raise a child because I lost my mother at such a young age. I was afraid I wouldn’t have a clue how to raise a child. But, once my son was born, it was almost like a natural instinct designed just for raising him kicked in. I realized how important it was for me lead by example because this little person was watching me at all times. I decided to begin taking better care of myself, spiritually, physically and emotionally because I wanted him to know how to do it and I want to be around for him as long as I possibly can. Whenever I get caught up in the stress of life, I look at him and remember just how much I have to be grateful for. I remember that he looks at me the same way I looked at my mother before I lost her and I am humbled and honored beyond measure.
My philosophy on parenting is one of love, clear communication and leading by example. My husband and I work hard to model the behaviors and morals we want Amani to apply to his life. It is important to me to ensure he knows how much he is loved through my words and my actions and to be gentle yet firm with him. I try to explain the world to him in a way that is truthful and that empowers him to be confident and fearless in his choices. Also part of my philosophy is letting him be a kid since I did not receive this type of rearing. I had to grow up very fast and in an environment that was very unstable. Through all of this, I hope to raise a young man that will be a tremendous contribution to this world.
Susan Emfinger, a friend and Senior Consultant with Fostering Change Network LLC said, “It is rare to see someone with Shalita’s talents as a mother. Shalita is all the more outstanding because she has transformed even her most difficult challenges as a foster child into a foundation of positive intellectual, physical and emotional experiences for her son, Amani.”