The 37-year-old is a foster care graduate who took her experiences and used them as inspiration to create the Fostering Change Network, a nonprofit that creates avenues to a successful life while eliminating the stigma of being a foster care child. The organization is based in the Washington, D.C., area. When O’Neale was approached for this interview, she was eager to tell her story so that anyone who has gone through similar troubles will be encouraged. Check out our interview with Shalita below as she shares her journey from sufferer to survivor.
THE BEGINNING OF GOD’S CHARGE
O’Neale was thrust into a horrific situation that many do not survive, but her tenacity to be loved served a purpose and she was encouraged along the way by an unlikely person.
How did you end up in foster care?
SO: My mother was murdered when I was two years old and my father was never part of my life; he drank himself to death when I was 16, but I didn’t find out until I was 19.
What was your experience in foster care?
SO: My experience in foster care was extremely lonely. I tried very hard to fit in and to avoid being a burden, even with my own family. I was put in a Kinship Placement with my grandmother at age five, but due to her alcoholism and physical and verbal abuse I was placed with my uncle until I was 13. Unfortunately, he was also physically abusive. At 13, I gathered the courage to tell someone and officially went into foster care. I lived in two different foster homes before going to live in a group home and often felt I was being punished because I did not have parents. There were people along the way that encouraged me and spoke to my potential and I am forever grateful for them. It was this and my desire to prove everyone wrong that fueled my ambition to succeed.
What are some of words inspiration that kept you going?
SO: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” — Mahatma Gandhi
CB: Who was your role model growing up?
SO: Aaliyah! I was so lonely through my different living situations, despite that I had much older siblings (17 years older). My brother and sister were dealing with their own set of trials, because of our mother’s murder. But Aaliyah was the big sister I never had with her mix of tomboy and “girly” style, love of music, and humility that I could relate to. When she died I grieved heavily, but she still inspired me to grow into that type of woman, a woman who was loved and admired for all that she gave to the world.
Shalita chased the light despite her strenuous beginnings and went on to complete her bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and her master’s degree in social work, with a concentration in community organizing and social action from the University of Maryland. Looking at Shalita, she did not seem like the hard-core detective type like Misty Knight from Luke Cage. We laughed about that. However her past did dictate what her future would become and in this case it was a good thing.
What was your “savior” moment? What made you create the Fostering Change Network?
SO: I’ve had several savior moments. Every time I wanted to give up, even end my life, there was something that removed the despair. Almost as if in the next moment, the feeling was forgotten and my will to live and to continue to move forward, replenished. I believe God has consistently used people, angels and spirit guides to intervene on my behalf. I started Fostering Change Network to show others from foster care that they are valuable contributions to this world and that they are capable of great things. I created FCN to highlight the accomplishments of alumni of foster care nationally and internationally and to provide the support they need to take their personal and professional endeavors to the next level.
Do you feel like God handed you this journey for a reason?
Shalita poses with her family. She admits that her family’s love is what keeps her motivated in spite of her past.
SO: Absolutely! I have come this far, learned so much and kept my “crown” in place during all attempts to remove it. I accept the power that I have been given and understand it is my calling to help others do the same. I’ve been married to an amazing human being for almost 10 years. He has always been very supportive of and patient with me. He was the first one to show me that you can disagree with someone without leaving them. You can love someone and not agree with everything they do or say. From my experience with my family and in foster care, I used to believe that it was normal to just leave people or force them out when you didn’t see eye to eye. My husband and I have grown together through our different journeys. He is an amazing father to our 6-year-old son, Amani. Amani has shown me what it feels like to have a heart on the outside of my body. I was afraid that I would not know how to be a good mother or wife because I have never seen it, but they have awakened those instincts in me. I may not have known what unconditional love looked like as a child, but I knew what it was supposed to feel like. I let my heart lead and I now have a family of my own to pour into, in the way I would have wanted to be poured into.
THE MARCH FORWARD
Although living a Christ-like experience we are only human and can still hold animosity towards those who have wronged us. When Shalita was asked about this, she took a breath, and with wisdom explained why it was important to forgive in order to grow into who you must become; and more importantly how it affects the future of those around you.
Do you forgive your parents? Both biological and your grandmother and uncle?
SO: Forgiveness was necessary for me to step into the person I am today. I will always be on the journey of “becoming,” but about a year ago, I was stuck and I didn’t know why. I realized that after so many years, I had not forgiven my father, mother, grandmother or uncle and so many others. I told myself I did, but the way I was living my life, making my decisions and attracting negative people and situations told me otherwise. Not only did I have to forgive them but I forgave myself, which was the hardest thing of all.
If there is never another like you, what is your hope for the future of foster care kids?
SO: I want foster children to grow up in a world where there is a universal understanding that they add value and are worthy. My hope for the future is that they see themselves and their greatness through people who have been in their shoes and lead by example. My hope is that they see the world full of opportunities that are available to them instead of a world full of people that mistreat and misunderstand them.
What is next for you. When it is time to remove your “crown”?
SO: I don’t think I will ever remove my crown; I strive to always be present with my power as a “Light Worker” in human form. Although some days its more challenging than others. In everything I do (foster care-related or otherwise) and with every person I meet, I hope even if only for a moment to help them adjust their own crown and to realize that it has always been resting there, gracefully, on their heads all along.
Do you have anything that you want the world to understand about people like you?
SO: It is time for adults who have experienced foster care at some point in their childhood to step forward. We are gifted. We are resilient. We have given so much to our communities and to the world. There are so many of us hiding in plain sight, waiting to bump into someone who can share in our experiences of foster care. We have wanted a safe space to heal and achieve with others that “get it.” Fostering Change Network is it. We are a network of alumni that have overcome the barriers associated with foster care and we are leading Fortune 500 companies. We are celebrities, legislators, community organizers, human service professionals. We are amazing parents to our children. We are not the stigma. To the alumni of foster care reading this I say: Welcome home.
The idea of suicide is absolutely unthinkable to most. However, if you look at it through the eyes of someone in the darkness of depression, the anxiety of schizophrenia, the confusion of bi-polar disorder and so many others, many people may consider ending it all to have peace.
According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death among Americans. However, mental health is nothing new in the black community, and those who are suffering silently may not always feel that they have a welcoming seat at the table to be comforted or healed.
Mental health is sometimes undermined in the Black community because those who have suicidal thoughts feel that they may be considered “insane” or too weak to withstand life’s circumstances. And then, there are those within the faith community who may say that dealing with suicidal thoughts is as simple as giving it to God or “pray it away.”
But what happens when you’re a Christian and still suffer from mental illness and suicidal thoughts? And what is the church’s role in helping these people?
Josceleyne, 28, had a late diagnosis of bipolar disorder. Amidst the diagnosis she injured her back, lost her job, and lost her insurance; however, she continued to pursue her Master’s degree while being loved by her loyal husband and children.
Due to her sudden loss of income, Josceleyne accrued more student loan debt and extremely was anxious about her financial stability. As a result of all she was going through, Joscelyne, a devout Christian, turned to her pastor for assistance and didn’t receive the response she was expecting. She also felt a lack of emotional support from her church family after her diagnosis, due to what she believed was a lack of understanding, according to family members.
And like others before her, Josceleyne was told to “pray harder,” instead of seeking professional help on how to cope with her current situation.
As time went on, Josceleyne began to take a combination of pain medication to subdue the wrenching back pain and sleeping pills because of her insomnia. Then, one night she accidentally overdosed on her medications and ended her life.
Josceleyne’s family says there was an overwhelmingly negative response to her accidental death that included gossip on her mental state, speculation on why she did not hand her issues to God, and limited support from the community.
Often, the stigma of mental illness in the Black community is that it is a personal issue, not a result of chemical imbalance. However, when people have cancer or other incurable diseases the community may offer sympathy and prayer. There is nothing immoral about seeking medical attention for those ailments, so why would there be criticism for incurable, mental illness?
As Christians, we cannot place the burden on those who suffer. According to Ephesians 6:18, we are told to “be persistent in your prayers for all believers everywhere.”
“Don’t Give Up Like Me.”
Often, members of the black community are raised to avoid cracking under pressure and staying strong even in the midst of chaos. So, mood disorders, such as depression, are viewed as a weakness instead of an illness, which often leads to thoughts of suicide.
Angie, an educated woman in her 20’s, knows this story all too well.
Just a few years ago, her budding, post-recession career was falling apart repeatedly, along with her long-term relationship. And although she appeared to have it all together, she lived just above the poverty line.
As a result of all that was going on, and despite her prayer and praise, Angie finally gave up hope. She made peace with ending her life because she got tired of repeatedly failing, being poor, and felt like a waste of God’s time. Upon making her decision she called her best friend, Elle, and said, “Don’t give up like me. I can’t do it anymore, but you can make it. Just don’t give up.”
On that day, Elle immediately became one of God’s vessels by crying with Angie, discussing her decision, offering encouragement and pushing her to get back up. Then, Angie received additional support from her cousin, Dylan, who sat up with her well into the night to bring her to the source of pain so she could begin to heal.
Soon after, Angie reluctantly went to her pastor and feared condemnation, but instead her concerned pastor simply asked,“Why.” And, even after she explained all of her reasons for wanting to end her life, Angie’s pastor offered both scripture and words of encouragement during her time of need.
Angie says that having Elle, Dylan, and her pastor allowed her to know that nothing was greater than love, especially self-love, which is an extension of God’s love.
How many of us have already written our mental obituaries with the headline, “Don’t Give Up Like Me,” because it was assumed that no one would be there to help us? Is it truly better to suffer alone when we are all a part of God’s family?
By bringing the issue to the forefront, it will help to erase the stigma, recognize the signs/symptoms, and create an avenue of help for those who are suffering.
Ways to Help Those Suffering from Mental Illness
Establish an understanding of what mental illness and mood disorders really are
Consider establishing resources right there in your church, including in-house training for staff, informational videos and pamphlets for parishioners.
Invite speakers who have survived mental illness to come in and speak to members of the congregation.
Consider preaching sermons on mental illness and mood disorders.
Organize events centered around mental health
Provide resources that will connect those in need with the right programs and medical professionals.
Available resources and support for people with mental illness
The instinct to protect our own is so ingrained in Black culture that it’s become a haven of toxicity instead of comfort. After the airing of Lifetime’s docuseries Surviving R. Kelly, social media and news outlets roared with condemning thoughts on the matter and, unfortunately, some defended him. This valid reaction does not attack the root of the cultural problem — silence on abuse in the Black home and community. This is not the first time R. (Robert) Kelly has been in the news about his alleged predatory sex escapades and accusations, but now through the brave testimonies of his victims, it seems as if we are ready to stop the cycle. Although sexual abuse hotlines saw a 20% uptick in calls, there are still many who have not spoken up because they were raised to be silent and carry on.
The documentary and an article onEbony magazine’s website revealed that R. Kelly and his brother, Carey Kelly, were sexually abused (at ages 10 and 6) by their older sister and never spoke about it to their mother. The reason:
“I was afraid to tell my mom, because of the person, who they were. I-I [sic] didn’t know if she was gonna believe me, so I was afraid to tell her,” Carey Kelly explained on episode 1 of Surviving R.Kelly.
Imagine a young woman shuffling home terrified after a brutal sexual encounter with her uncle and while quivering she bravely tells her mother what happened. With a stoic restraint the mother hugs her and forces her daughter to forgive him and deny what happened to save the family name. This type of forced denial is not uncommon because it’s hard to believe that someone who is loved and respected could ever commit a heinous act.
“Robert, him being my big brother, I brought that to him and told-told [sic] him what happened to me. And when I told him what happened to me, um…he didn’t, he didn’t really respond to it like I felt that he should. When-when [sic] I told him, he said, ‘Nah, that didn’t happen, that didn’t happen to you.’ And I said, ‘Yes, it did,’” shared Carey Kelly on episode 1 of Surviving R. Kelly.
Carey continued to describe how he was trying to “test out” whether or not he should tell their mother and since his truth was negated he left it alone. When their sister began to molest R. Kelly, he too kept it quiet and allowed it to continue for years. Not being able to communicate your pain for the sake of your assailant’s reputation is a form of gaslighting and is a common practice in these circumstances.
After he rose to stardom, his trauma turned into a habit of conquering younger women so that he may no longer be a victim. According to clinical psychologist Dr. Candice Norcott, childhood sexual abuse translates into seeking power and control through sex. Kelly did this by embodying his nickname, “The Pied Piper,” and luring teenage girls into the studio with promises of their own fame or fame by association. His trauma and silence transformed him into a version of his assailant, where he had the illusion of power and total control over the situation.
On social media, men weighed in on how this was another attack like Bill Cosby’s allegations. Unfortunately, like Cosby, Kelly, too, is guilty, but that did not stop Rico Love from weighing in and defending Kelly’s legacy. Upon further reflection, Rico Love changed his mind. However, it brings to question, how many times must a harsh truth be told about someone who is admired before it is believed?
Kelly is ingrained in our culture and, for many millennials, part of our youth was memorizing the lyrics to “I Believe I Can Fly.” His dual power of celebrity and nostalgia served as a cloak to his wrongdoing during the first two uproars surrounding marriage to a 15-year-old Aaliyah and the infamous circulating tape that featured intercourse with a 14-year-old girl. Enablers of Kelly, such as his manager and bodyguard (featured in Surviving R. Kelly), turned a blind eye to his pedophilia due to their loyalty to friendship, fame, and legacy.
“The story of sexual predation as an inconvenience in popular music is so old. It’s been going on for decades, for centuries. Nobody wants to give up the music they love. And nobody wants to think badly of the artists they love,” said Ann Powers, music journalist, on Surviving R. Kelly.
Some in the Black community voice the distaste for their friend or relative’s abusive actions, yet do nothing because of their adoration or sympathy for the individual. By carrying on with a “no snitch” and “do you” culture paired with empathy for the root of a predator’s actions, we give passage to an unremorseful and relentless tirade of causing others the same pain they experienced. The loyalty to not destroying a community, family, or legacy is louder than the crime. And that is worse than the silence itself, contributing to untreated mental health issues, loss of faith, and possibly the secret dying with them.
In the era of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, forgiving and forgetting is slowly fading away. Women are awakening people blind to rape culture and toxicity of keeping “the little secret.” Youth and older women are emboldened to tell their stories in order to prevent future injustices for young women. Unfortunately, both men and women still shudder at coming forward because of the shame of allowing this to happen.
People were asked on the Whisper app if they had ever been sexually assaulted and why they did not speak up, these were some of the responses:
To err is human, to forgive is divine, but where is the line drawn?
Forgiveness is a staple of Christianity, however it could be to the detriment of someone’s mental state if justice is never served. The Kelly brothers were abused by their sister, but no one would believe them if they spoke up because she was a “good member of the community.” Even if they were believed, would she have been punished for her actions or excused under the law of the faith?
We need to stop allowing ‘the cloth’ to blind us from the reality of a person or situation. Community worship, having a relationship with God, and practicing the word of God are three very different components of Christianity. The assumption that someone is active in all three components because they hold a position in the church is asinine. The false anointing given to people who have a proprietary role within the community or church assist in the damage created when the abused are silenced and forced to forgive; sweeping away the mental and emotional turmoil that morphs the innocent into a person like R. Kelly. Therefore, without support and justice for the crime, the cycle continues.
Is this our fault?
We have celebrated R.Kelly for his musical genius and ignored his scandals, reducing them to jokes. Similar things happen in families where traumas are pushed aside or made into comic relief that masks their disappointment. It is not R.Kelly’s fault for the trauma he experienced, but it is not an excuse to torture young women because therapy was not considered.
If we are going to protect our youth, they need to be educated on how to advocate for their mental health and safety. We need them to understand that trauma can happen and there is help available to redefine their lives beyond it. We’ve seen the damage caused by someone who could not advocate for themselves.
To break the cycle let’s do something we’ve never done before… watch and listen.
It’s not easy to be hated by the person who is supposed to love you most, and unfortunately, being toxic has become normalized in our culture.
Many see misdirected aggravation, gaslighting, physical abuse, and more as “love tactics.” When a child only knows pain as a source of love, then they too love in that way and any other form of healthy love seems abnormal.
However, the question is, can a person ever love authentically if they were raised to be toxic?
The assumption is no. When someone is exposed to consistent, toxic stress, they are vulnerable to mental and physical illness that can sometimes develop into a genetic trait, according to Hey Sigmund; therefore this behavior is biologically passed on through generations.
However, despite the science behind the effects of toxic love, there is always hope for a better life.
Fighting for Love
“I just felt like I wasn’t loved by my mom, says Monique, a woman in her 40s who was often told she wasn’t good enough. “I felt growing up in my mom’s house I wasn’t allowed to be me, an individual.”
To suit her mother’s perfect image of a family, Monique, was to participate in certain activities without any consideration of her talents or desires. While at the same time, her brother was given free reign to participate in activities of his choice throughout their childhood.
And to make matters worse, Monique’s father suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and would often abuse her. She recalls him touching her to satisfy his physical desires and severely beating her when she reported it to her incredulous mother.
Fortunately, Monique found refuge in her grandmother’s home, where she found the kind of love her mother envied. Monique remembers her mother punishing and verbally abusing her as a result of the love she received from her grandmother.
Like many girls, Monique found herself looking for love in empty relationships during her teen years that lead to a forced, terminated pregnancy and physical and emotional abuse similar to the treatment she received from her own father.
Eventually, Monique met a gentle and caring man named Laz. However, Laz’s compassion and gentleness were unfamiliar to her, which ultimately lead to Monique returning to one of her previous, toxic relationships.
She went on to marry a former flame named Xavier and stayed in her abusive marriage for eight years.
“Towards the end of my [3rd] pregnancy, I found out he was cheating and when I confronted him, he hit me,” says Monique who recalls her toxic relationship that mirrored her childhood. “He asked, ‘Who are you to question me?’…It felt like because of the way I grew up, if I wasn’t getting hit, then it wasn’t love,”
After her divorce, Monique fought against her toxic past. She made the decision to rise above her father’s mental illness, her mother’s jealousy and apathy, and their collective effort to make her their emotional punching bag for their marriage troubles.
Although the struggle did not end after her marriage when it came to love, her children, and health, she remains hopeful enough to fight for the love she deserves. She charges her will to carry on to God, because without Him, she would have taken the final blow to end her suffering.
Turning Off the Gaslight
Bella was born to a Catholic family that rejected her mother for having a baby with a man that she later learned was married. The rejection caused her mother to make multiple attempts to prove her worth to the family by making Bella seem exceptional, but in private her mother was spiteful and unloving as the list of accomplishments grew.
“[My mother] did everything for me to prove herself, but not for the love of me,” Bella explains. “She worked hard to put me through private school and extracurricular activities, but at home I was repeatedly told I was nothing; sometimes she even called me a waste of a human being. To this day, she has never told me she loves me.”
Whenever something would go wrong in Bella’s life, she would automatically blame herself as a result of her relationship with her mother. Even when her husband and father of their two children committed adultery, she took the blame.
As time went on, Bella lost the love of her life, her job, and believed that she would never be loved which drove her into a suicidal state .
Until one day, Bella decided that she had enough and began to fight for her life, beauty, and self-love through therapy. “Once I figured out that I wasn’t this awful, unlovable monster that I was made to believe as a reality by someone who was unloved, it turned my world upside down in a great way,” Bella says. “It never would have happened without me doing the work in therapy.”
As a result of her treatment, Bella was led to a love that she has been enveloped in for the last four years. Even though the pain of rejection transcended through two generations, love won in the end.
“In the middle of all of this, I met a man who just rained love on me,” Bella joyfully exclaims.
Is there hope after a toxic upbringing?
“But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of [your abuser], which I also hate” (Revelations 2:6, NIV).
In the beginning of this article, the question was, can a person love authentically if they were raised to be toxic? The answer is yes, but you must fight for it.
It is easy to nurse the scars of someone that you love, because love is to be unconditional, right? But what good is unconditional love when a person’s pain has replaced the spirit that you desperately want to love?
That is spiritual warfare and it is best to back away and allow God to handle it if they are unwilling to get help. It is important to recognize the signs of someone who has been abused and trying to regain power, which can include verbally sharing memories of their toxic loved ones.
Fortunately, Bella and Monique worked past those painful memories found a way to defeat them so that the tradition of toxicity ended with them and a reign of love could begin.
What healing advice do you have for someone who grew up in a toxic environment? Share your thoughts below.
Moments of Surrender: Revealing the Missing Pieces is a realistic walk through the growing pains of surrendering your life to God. The book is written by Author, Life Empowerment Coach, and Speaker Charlene Bolden who uses her journey from being a child in the foster care system to being whole in Christ as an example for readers seeking peace.
With chapters such as “Fear Paralyzes Your Faith but Faith Paralyzes Your Fear” and “Cross Your Red Sea,” readers will witness various aspects of the faith journey that are not usually discussed when giving your life to Christ. Historically, African Americans are forced to overcome statistics and stereotypes, especially as a foster child, and Charlene’s story is no different. Instead, the author chooses to look the foster care stigma in the face and deny its power over her.
“I wanted my book to serve as a resource and guide for people to unpack their own journey of surrender,” said Bolden.
Moments of Surrender tells the author’s story of her powerful act of defiance that led her to living a healthy life and answering a call to lead others to God by example. Charlene reveals parts of her journey in the featured segment below: