First, her parents separated. It was difficult for Kristine to come to terms with the idea that her mother and father might never be together again. But what happened next was still more traumatizing.
“Shortly after my parents separated my mom was diagnosed with colon cancer.” Kristine said.
Nothing could be more devastating for a 14-year-old girl.
“I didn’t believe anything could happen because my mom told me she would get better. Of course, that’s what I wanted to believe. But then I remember one of the in-home nurses telling me that my mom had probably a week and a half left to live.”
Less than two years after her parents’ separation, Kristine’s mother passed away. Suddenly the world around the then-high school freshman became utterly unrecognizable. The people she had known for as long as she could remember were all gone.
It happened so fast and at such an important juncture in Kristine’s young life that she still has trouble recalling many of the events that came next.
“At this point I still can’t believe it,” she said.
With no other family members able to care for her, Kristine quickly found herself in the foster care system. For the next four years, she would do her best to maintain control of her life as she bounced through five different placements.
It was a trying time for Kristine, but she was determined to join the ranks of thousands of current and former New Jersey foster children who boast successful foster care stories. She would need to summon all the courage she could to push through the pain of separation and loss. She found that courage from the only source she knew – her mother.
“My mom was the most loving, caring, amazing person in my life. I realized that I wanted to make her proud and not let the fact that she’d passed away stop me. Even though she wasn’t there I would constantly remind myself that she is always with me and that I know I can do amazing things to make her proud,” Kristine said.
The young woman also gained courage from the many social workers she met while part of the foster care system in New Jersey.
“Through my time in foster care I’ve met many social workers, DCP&P (Department of Child Protection and Permanency) workers and foster families. Some of them have helped me tremendously and others have hurt me even more. This has made me want to carry on what I’ve learned from the good people I have met and do better than the ones who hurt me,” Kristine said.
And that’s just what she did. Despite all the hardships she faced, Kristine studied hard and graduated high school. Of course, her ambition didn’t stop there – on May 20, Kristine, a New Jersey Foster Care Scholar, graduated from Monmouth University with a Bachelor’s degree in social work and an outstanding 3.6 GPA. Two days before her graduation, Kristine was awarded FAFS’ Outstanding Youth of the Year award for all of her hard work. Like the many former foster youth with successful foster care stories before her, Kristine defined herself by her willingness to work hard to build a bright future.
Kristine is now an intern for the Rutgers School of Social Work. She’s also a member of the Social Work Society, Phi Eta Sigma Honor Society, Phi-Alpha National Social Work Society and Chi Alpha Epsilon Honor Society.
This past spring break, Kristine attended a community service trip to Chile where she lived and worked in a neighborhood to help plan summer camp programs for less fortunate children. During her stay, she attended lectures on subjects like human rights, indigenous issues and community organizing to help her better prepare for her future in social services where she plans to help children find pathways to their own successful foster care stories.
What once seemed like an insurmountable wall of loss and pain for Kristine Gunningham is now long behind her. The future is promising for the recent college grad, who plans to earn her Master’s degree in social work next year.
“Knowing that if I just kept on moving forward I could really help so many people always kept me going,” Kristine said.
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