Hello! First can I start off with a “WOW?” I am humbled by being asked to speak again at the Ed Block Courage Award Luncheon in honor of this year’s Courage Award recipient- Israel Idonjie. I thought it an amazing opportunity and wonderful experience to be asked last year, but to be requested a second time is an honor I don’t know that I deserve. So I will do my best to leave an even better impression.
My name is Shantaye Wonzer, and I am proud to say that I am a former Maryville youth. It seems like forever ago since I first set foot on this campus. Ten years ago, sometime during the winter of 2000, I moved into the Redding home. I had no idea what to expect. I was in the 7th grade and that year alone, I had been placed in three different homes, and I was sure this placement wasn’t going to last either. At that point I had been a ward for more than 10 years, and had come to expect instability and figured trash bags filled with my belongings were just a normal part of life.
However, upon arriving and settling into the then Redding home, run by Beth Redding, I was met with a new experience- one that would last just under two years. I won’t say that my time here was utopian, but it definitely became a haven from the world I had grown up in and had fought to survive. As with many of my placements, my two years spent here were filled with ups and downs, but I am certain I wouldn’t be the strong, stable, soon-to-be college graduate I am today if it weren’t for the lessons learned here, the friends and family I gained, and the opportunities I had that led me to choose a path best suited for becoming a success and not a statistic.
Maryville gave me the opportunity and structure I needed to really get myself straightened out. I was constantly surrounded by strong adults who worked their hardest to make sure I had the support I needed to get where I wanted to be. Many of the professionals I met during my time here are still very much involved in my life, just now as my mentors. It was through their guidance that I quickly realized that I alone was in charge of my life; I couldn’t blame the system, other youth, or my circumstances for where my life was heading. I learned you do have the ability to create something from nothing, but only if you’re willing to deal with the hardships in order to create the change that you deserve in life. I’ve said this before, and it’s become my best advice for other youth- once you stop being a kid with a mouth, and become an adult with a voice- people will begin to listen and take notice. It was because of this shift in attitude that doors began to open, and I was able for the first time to see a new hope for myself, one filled with amazing opportunities.
I can already say that I managed to survive the foster care system with my wits intact…mostly. However in less than 40 days I will be able to also proudly say that I managed to survive four years of all nighters, exams that ate my soul, lazy Sundays spent watching Law and Order Marathons when I should have been chipping away at mounds of homework, and nights spent having too much fun and not getting enough sleep.
And although I was the one doing the homework, and taking the exams- I would have never been able to even dream of attending Bradley if it weren’t for the generous financial assistance granted to me through the Ed McCaskey Scholarship Fund.
I knew early on that an education would be my way out. However, for most youth in care, college only ever remains a distant daydream. According to the Casey Family Program report, only 37 percent of foster care alumni attempt a four-year university or college, but only 3 percent of these alumni actually make it out with a bachelor’s degree.
This happens for many reasons, the most important one stemming from the lack of financial assistance. I didn’t have the financial security and safety net that would afford me the opportunity to attend a college, much less a private university, and when I decided that Bradley University was the school for me, the Ed McCaskey’s Scholarship and the wonderful staff here at Maryville were there to make my dream a reality.
These last few years haven’t been perfect, but they have been exactly what I needed. There have been times where my strength has faltered, pain has found its way into my heart, and words have run from my lips. Yet, I learned to live my life with a purpose. I have learned to reject excuses and take responsibility.
Former First Lady Claudia Lady Bird Johnson once said, “Children are likely to live up to what you believe of them.” This is the simplest truth I have ever come to learn. You all believed that I could make something of my life, took a chance– and here I am. When I go to walk across the civic center stage and receive my diploma on May 15th, I’ll be thinking of two things… The first- concentrating on not falling, tripping or making a complete fool of myself, but more importantly, two- all the amazing people that took the time to show me they cared and were here if I needed them.
It is from the bottom of my heart that I applaud and thank you for all the work done through the charitable works of Maryville and the Ed McCaskey Scholarship Fund. Thank you for supporting this luncheon and giving other youth the same opportunity you gave me. And lastly, for the actual reason we’re here- thank you to the Ed Block Courage Award Foundation for helping to ensure our children are safe, loved, and given a chance to live in a world without hurt or fear.
Shantaye Wonzer is pictured above with Courage Award recipient- Israel Idonjie.