How hope and trust changed my life: Linda Lee Zambito found a family and future

By Linda Lee Zambito

The severity of my situation really didn’t hit me until I was lying in bed one night, thinking about everything I had experienced in my life up to that point. Suddenly, I felt stuck. Stuck in foster care. Stuck without any real parents. Stuck in the sense that I had nowhere to go.

I was just about to turn 13, and I had been in foster care since I was 9. On the last day of third grade, two official-looking people came to my school to tell me I would not be going home that day. The events of that day seemed to happen in a fog and in a flurry. By that evening, I was at a new home – a foster home – wearing someone else’s pajamas.

My biological parents were both Chinese. My dad was an American citizen, but my mom was not. Whenever my parents fought (which was often) and my mom brought up the subject of divorce, my dad told her she would get deported and never be able to see me again. So she stayed married to a man who was physically, sexually and emotionally abusive. Often, I was home alone with my dad because my mom went back and forth from where we lived in Florida to New York, where it was easier for her to find work because of the limited English she spoke.

I think my mom knew what was happening when she left, and I think she felt like she was doing the best she could. Our neighbors and my teachers in grade school were noticing signs of physical abuse becoming more frequent. The more the police came to my house, the more erratic and violent my dad would act. On several occasions, he threatened to kill me and anyone else who upset him.

From the day I entered foster care, I never went back home again. My foster parents stated their desire to adopt me soon after I arrived at their home, but they changed their mind. I found out after they casually announced they weren’t adopting any more children. I remember being confused and asking my foster parents whether they really meant they weren’t adopting anyone else after me. They said, no, they weren’t adopting me either, but that I could live in the home until I was 18.

So that’s where my head was at that night when I was lying in bed, feeling stuck. It seemed like an invisible force had erased the first nine years of my life. I remember questioning if my situation was something I deserved because I threw too many tantrums when I was little. I even asked God why this was happening to me. I felt like I had been abandoned.

My life in foster care had been difficult up to that point. My foster mother had a strict routine for the seven girls who lived in the two-bedroom house. Every day after school, I had to change into my pajamas and be in bed by 8 p.m. I remember in the summer, it would still be daylight out, but I had to be in bed. While I never rebelled against this routine, many girls did – and soon after, they were moved to another home. Some 30 to 40 girls must have come and gone while I remained. So while everyone else my age was experiencing the natural teenage angst, I lived in perpetual fear of being moved and not knowing where I would go. I was scared that the new foster home could be worse. I was scared that I would be moved not once, but multiple times. This is a common fear for youth in foster care.

When I turned 15, my foster parents announced they were closing their home and everyone had to move. I didn’t get to stay until I was 18 like they promised. The idea of moving to a new placement turned my world upside down because that meant also moving to a new school, and school was the only stability I had in my life. I was deeply involved in many school activities. I had friends, teachers and mentors who believed in me. They didn’t see the unhappy life I was living in foster care. They just saw a young person with potential.

So even though I had been placed in a new foster home on a farm far from my school, moving schools was not an option for me. With help from my guardian ad litem and caseworker, we found a school bus that could pick me up at my new foster home at 5 a.m. (school didn’t start until 7:30) and then return me at 4 p.m.

After about a year of enduring this grueling routine, someone very special took a personal interest in my life. Her name is Diane Zambito, and at the time she was the director of an independent living program for youth in foster care in the county where I lived. Having known me for a few years, she began to notice that the long bus rides and even longer days were starting to take a toll on my emotional and physical health. So she requested I go live closer to my school with her family, even though she wasn’t running a licensed foster home. The child welfare agency initially turned down that request over liability concerns, but she was not to be deterred because, well, Diane Zambito is not deterred by anyone or anything.

Through Diane’s persistence, I was able to move in with her family at age 15. At that time of my life, though, I already had decided that I never wanted to be adopted or be a part of an actual family. I just wanted to grow up, live on my own and not have to worry about anyone except myself. I had decided those things because I was scared of getting hurt by people who were supposed to be there for me.

But then, while not fully realizing it or understanding it at the time, hope found me. And I found hope. I found hope in my teachers and peers at school who gave me confidence. And I found hope in Diane Zambito, who made her family my family.

I’m happy to report that last year, the Zambitos formally adopted me and I officially adopted the family name – even though I don’t look one bit Italian!

In a community of hope, the only thing that matters is the potential we all have to achieve our dreams. All it took for me to reach my potential was a community of caring people – and one special person – who made the effort to change my life.

To them, I am grateful.

Linda Lee Zambito, 22, graduated from Florida International University in 2012 with a bachelor’s degree in public administration and a certificate in public policy studies. An alumna of foster care, she interned with the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute in Washington, D.C., and helped persuade Florida legislators to pass a law that gives current and former youth in foster care the services they need to attain safe and stable families and become successful adults.

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