With Support from Youth Advocate Programs, New Jersey Teen Overcomes Odds and Heads to College with a Firm Foundation

This story is part of an ongoing series featuring the 2018 Youth Advocate Programs, Inc. (YAP) Tom Jeffers Endowment Fund for Continuing Education Scholarship award winners.

At age 17, Sierra Brown has already experienced more adversity than many people two or three times her age. But thanks to her determination and a strong support system, summer 2018 has proven to be the beginning of a new and promising chapter in her life story.

During the past two years as a high school student in Vineland, N.J., some of Sierra’s classmates knew her struggles. Perhaps because their own problems paled in comparison, her friends were always there for her. They knew that with all Sierra had going on at home, she was a good student; and they encouraged her to stay the course. What they and anyone who had seen her school records knew is that for years, Sierra has carried the weight of a grown woman — and then some.

L to R: YAP Cumberland County life skills coordinator Crystal Evans; YAP Deputy CEO, President Southeast & International Dorienne Silva; New Jersey Department of Child Protection and Permanency Caseworker Nathan Young; Sierra Brown; and YAP CEO Jeff Fleischer.

By the time she was 8, Sierra was fully aware that her mother was battling serious health issues. A few years later, with two younger siblings and their father in the house, Sierra had taken on the role of family caretaker. Her younger sister is autistic and her brother — the baby of the family — would often act out when their mother was coping with her disease and his parents were not getting along. Sierra helped as much as she could. At the same time, she studied hard and brought home good grades. “I didn’t want to be an extra burden to my mother,” she said. “Plus, my siblings looked up to me.”

When her younger brother was in kindergarten, aware that her mother was unable to get up early, Sierra would wake up in time to get both her siblings fed and dressed before walking them to school. The doors to their school opened at 7:15 a.m. and the morning bell at hers a mile away rang at 7:54 a.m. Sierra would always make it on time to her brother and sister’s school; but even walking fast and sometimes running, she’d often be late, herself.

School administrators suspected something was wrong, and social workers got involved. Soon Sierra’s siblings’ father would have to get up early to walk his son and daughter to school so that Sierra would be on time.

While Sierra stopped showing up late for school, her mom’s health issues came with regular trauma in the household. Her brother was still acting out. There were financial issues and a lot of accompanying relationship problems.

When Sierra was a junior, a guidance counselor called her into the office to tell her that she would not be going home. The landlord had evicted her family from their home. Sierra would be living with her aunt and uncle, whose heavy work schedules at the time, made keeping all the kids impossible. Her siblings would be together in a separate foster home.

L to R: New Jersey Department of Child Protection and Permanency Case Worker Nathan Young; Sierra Brown; and Sierra’s aunt, Shiamonia Bethune

Sierra missed her mother and worried about her siblings, especially her brother. She knew he would not do well being away from both her and their mom. “We had a lot of social workers,” Sierra said. “My favorite was Mr. Nathan Young. Fortunately, he told me about a program that would help me with everything I was going through.”

The program was New Jersey Youth Advocate Programs (YAP). YAP matched Sierra with an advocate, Annie Mae Jeffers, who served as a mentor to Sierra and helped her find a job. Through YAP, she also met Crystal Evans, a Life Skills Coordinator, who provided support through all the changes she faced.

When Sierra’s siblings’ foster family could no longer cope with her brother’s separation anxiety behaviors, she feared the three of them would end up in separate foster homes. She knew that would be devastating for both kids, as her sister’s stability is dependent on her being around someone she knows. Fortunately, the younger children were able to get additional support, which included after school care. This made it possible for all three kids to be under one roof at their aunt and uncle’s home.

In her senior year, Sierra was finally able to stay focused on her studies. She applied to eight colleges and received acceptance letters from six. After visiting several campuses and asking a lot of questions, she selected Stockton University in Galloway, NJ. In August, Sierra will begin studies there towards a bachelor’s degree in psychology. A big plus is that the campus is a 45-minute drive from home.

Graduation day is one Sierra will always remember. Not just what it meant academically, but because of what her aunt — her mother’s sister and the person closest to her in the world — said to her. “She said she was proud of me and admired my strength. That meant a lot to me,” Sierra said.

Sierra will receive full financial aid for her coursework, but there are still unmet needs. She learned about the YAP Endowment Fund, which provides $1,000 scholarships for eligible individuals served by the program nationwide. Sierra applied and received an award for a laptop, which will come in time for the fall semester. Sierra is more than grateful, knowing that with a laptop, a college education is possible; and for her that can be the biggest game changer of her life.