She Did It!

Hard work helps foster teen find a way to make it to Obama’s inauguration
Sunday, January 18, 2009 3:36 AM
By Simone Sebastian
THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH

Cierra Light, 17, and her foster mother, Vanessa McNeal, pack for Light’s trip to Washington for the presidential inauguration. She left yesterday with fellow students from Walnut Ridge High School.

ERIC ALBRECHT | DISPATCH

Cierra Light, 17, and her foster mother, Vanessa McNeal, pack for Light’s trip to Washington for the presidential inauguration. She left yesterday with fellow students from Walnut Ridge High School.

Barack Obama isn’t Cierra Light’s father, but she feels as if he is.

He has given her advice. He has encouraged her to pursue her dreams. He has inspired her to do things that others thought she couldn’t.

The 17-year-old foster child has never even met the president-elect, but he has changed her life.

Motivated by the grass-roots fundraising that characterized Obama’s early bid for the White House, Light embarked on her own campaign for Washington, D.C. She sold crafts she had made, wrote letters to potential donors and did odd jobs to raise the $1,000 she needed to get there.

Light boarded a chartered bus to the nation’s capital last night with 22 other Columbus schools students. She will join the millions of people who are expected to witness the inauguration of Obama, who has written about his own father’s absence.

“By him taking step by step to get there, I knew I could do the same thing,” Light said.

“For those that never had a father, he’s saying, ‘If I can do it, so can you. Don’t let nobody keep you from doing what you want to do.’ That’s what he’s saying to me.”

Life has given her few reasons for her positive outlook.

The Walnut Ridge High School junior has spent most of her 17 years moving among temporary homes, centers for troubled youths and the street. She doesn’t have a relationship with her biological parents.

When asked how many foster homes she has passed through, the effervescent teenager laughed.

“I know it’s not funny,” she said through irrepressible giggles.

There have been so many, it’s laughable to try to remember them all, she explained.

For the past seven months, Light has lived in an East Side apartment with Vanessa McNeal, a child-care worker she calls “Mommy.” Light said she bounced among eight foster homes in the couple of months before she settled there.

“She had a lot of family issues. Sometimes she wanted to create problems because that’s all she knew at that time,” said Alfreda Josey, a staff member at the Rosemont Center, for teens affected by crisis and abuse, where Light lived between foster-home placements.

“But as different people started to invest in her, she realized she should invest in herself,” Josey said.

When Walnut Ridge social-studies teacher Ann Wagner-Hill announced early last year that she would take students to the 2009 presidential inauguration, Light was eager to join the group. The trip was being planned by WorldStrides, an educational travel company, for $1,000 a student, a price too high for her new foster mother.

While at Rosemont, Light had taken up crocheting as a way to relax. She would quickly run out of yarn and do extra homework and chores to earn money to buy more, said staff member Eve Asamoah.

Light turned her hobby into a fundraiser, charging customers $20 to $65 for knitted afghans and winter ware. She earned $40 cleaning up a teacher’s classroom before and after school, and launched a phone-calling and letter-writing campaign to solicit money. Her efforts yielded $250.

“I didn’t think we could knit enough to make a dent in that payment,” Wagner-Hill said of Light’s work. “There was a lot of apprehension trying to raise $1,000 a kid.”

There was a moment when Light and McNeal lost hope. But on the eve of the deadline to make the trip, Franklin County Children Services and Youth Advocate Services, the agencies that paired McNeal and Light, responded to their donation requests with a $964 grant from a Children Services fund.

“Her belief in herself, in society and mankind has been completely changed,” Wagner-Hill said.

Light and her classmates will tour Washington through Wednesday and plan to watch Tuesday’s inauguration from the National Mall, which will be open to the public.

“For a kid like me, with the predicament I’m in, it changes my perspective,” Light said of her chance to see the historic event. “If I can do it, I know any foster kid — any kid — can do it.”

1 Comment

  1. Pingback: What’s Happening? » Blog Archive » Sublime Healthblog:Medi/Health Briefs » Blog Archive …

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>