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Like the legendary Phoenix who rises from the ashes to soar to even greater heights, I refused to accept defeat when my own life spiraled downward when I was a teenager.

I was born in Rhode Island and raised in a single-parent household. When I was younger, my mother struggled to provide for me and tried her best despite her own life challenges, which resulted in me being bounced around from one family member’s household to another. An unstable home environment began to reflect negatively on my grades, and my school took notice. Ultimately, I was placed in the foster care system at age 14.

As unstable as my home life had been before foster care, it was nothing compared to my life in foster care. I felt neglected and hopeless. Without proper parental guidance, I began making poor choices. Eventually, I became a teen mom. Being pregnant in high school added another layer of difficulty. There weren’t many pregnant students at my high school, and I fell behind my peers.

But the difficulties I faced made me a fighter. I was determined to finish high school and to create a better life for my son and myself. Aging out of the foster care system was another crossroad I had to face in life: I was forced to balance how I would support my son, finish high school and have enough money for basic necessities like housing, food and clothing. Young, inexperienced, and fraught with fear, I faced daunting odds that most foster youth who age out of the system are forced to confront. At the age of 18, I was forced to question how I would survive on my own.

Ultimately, I realized it didn’t really matter to whom I could, or should, cast blame; it was up to me to set goals and move forward to achieve them. Shortly after I aged out, I landed an internship at one of my former foster group homes, where I helped provide young mothers, like myself, with education in care and with resources from employment to education. I finally graduated from high school with my baby in my hands and was offered a full-time job at the group home where I once lived. Being at this job helped me realize the need for former foster youth to get involved with the system and my passion to help others achieve better outcomes than the ones they had. Who better to help change the child welfare system than those who grew up in it?

Although the odds were against me I never gave up. By the time I was 20, I had become a leader in my state and helped to create bills that changed the direction of the foster care system in Rhode Island. But change isn’t just needed in Rhode Island. I’ve advocated on behalf of foster youth across the country, who like myself, have found themselves struggling in a world that seemed devoid of love, predictability, and stability.

Advocating on behalf of foster youth seemed only natural to me. Before long, I was sought out due to the example I set for others with my determination to overcome the past and focus on the future. I knew education was very important, and all the years of hard work paid off in May of 2018, when I earned my associate’s degree from the Community College of Rhode Island. The day after graduation, I traveled to Washington, DC, to attend the 7th Annual Foster Youth Shadow Day, a program hosted by Congressmember Karen Bass and the National Foster Youth Institute, which brings more than 100 current and former foster youth to our nation’s capital to shadow their Member of Congress. After learning about the legislative process and techniques to share our stories effectively, I spent a morning discussing my ideas with Congressman Jim Langevin, who is also from Rhode Island. Being able to discuss ways to improve the child welfare system with a Member of Congress was empowering and inspiring. Recently, I returned to participate in the 8th Annual Foster Youth Shadow Day, this time in a leadership capacity as a Regional Coordinator. In this role, it was my job to help participants, who were former foster youth just like me, have a similarly empowering experience like I did the year before. I was honored to spend time with this year’s Shadow Day delegates to prepare them for Shadow Day and to encourage them to also pay it forward.

At the end of this term, I will be graduating from Rhode Island College with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. My plans are to continue to give back to children in the foster care system who may feel as hopeless and neglected as I once did. I want to show them that anything is possible to those who believe. When I was 14, I would’ve never guessed I’d make it to the halls of Congress. No odd or statistic is impossible to overcome.

Yolonda Washburn spent 4 years in the Rhode Island child welfare system. She participated in the National Foster Youth Institute's Foster Youth Shadow Day both as a Delegate and a Regional Coordinator. Today, Yolonda resides in Rhode Island with her two sons Kiel and Yahmair.