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Samaria Vance, program manager at Spohn Avenue Home for Girls in Madison.

PHOTO BY SAIYNA BASHIR

When Samaria Vance was a teenager, she was sent to live at Spohn Avenue Home for Girls, an adolescent group home for girls who have been sentenced there by a court to learn life skills and have support. She is now the program manager at the home.

Vance was born to teen parents, both of whom had drug abuse issues. She bounced between family members’ homes growing up, entering the foster care system in third grade. She was sent to the Spohn Avenue Girls Home when she was 14 and lived there for 8 to 9 months before running away. She became a mother at 19 and eventually began volunteering at a mentoring program for adolescents, helping girls who were struggling.

Vance started working at Creative Learning Preschool and spent time in nearly every part of the school’s operations, from a cook to managing programs to teaching, for more than 12 years. She earned an associates degree from Madison Area Technical College in 2007 and came to Spohn Avenue as a program manager two years ago.

How did your challenging childhood inform how you do your job now?

I feel like when you experience traumatic stuff in your past, I can’t say that you’re ever going to fully heal from it. It’s just how you deal with it. Like I tell my girls, you have two choices, this is going to be the hardest thing in life, being at this home. Something happened to get you in this house and it may look like you’re not ever going to go through it. I had family members my entire life who told me, "you’re not going to be anything, you’re going to be a ho, you’re going to be on welfare, you’re going to be on assistance, you’re going to have a house full of kids." Of course, when you hear that, you believe that about yourself and I’m not saying I didn’t. But that’s where my limits were set because that’s what I was told my worth was nothing, but something inside of me did not want to settle. That was not going to be my happiness and even though I feel like I’m just now coming out of that. I came out of it, you know? It took a lot. I still had to experience some things as an adult, but I want to be happy and I am happy. It’s like I tell my girls, "if you continue to live your life as a victim you’re never going to experience happiness."

I always wish I had that great childhood, those happy memories, but my story is not that. I feel like my story isn’t that because this is where I’m supposed to be. I look at these girls, and even though I went tough a lot and I can relate to everything. I’ve had a taste of everything there was really nothing that I did not witness.

What does your job at Spohn Avenue entail?

I do the hiring, I supervise the staff, I take care of the girls. I’m doing doctor’s appointments, I’m the mommy of the house. But I have to take care of my staff, it’s a very hard job. I just kind of make sure that I am one with the universe, as one would say, so I can be there for full mental support, cause I have to be. I take that responsibility seriously. I have a wonderful team, I feel like I’m a good people reader just through life experience. All of my team members are very passionate about what they do and I feel like that’s something you can’t teach. And I know it’s needed. If I don’t feel any compassion coming across in the interview, I don’t hire you because I can’t teach you that. Because these are my daughters. They might not come from me, but these are my babies, and when they’re in my home, I need to feel that. Growing up in a group home, I knew who was there for a paycheck and who was there because they wanted to be there. And so it’s my goal to make sure that every staff that I hire wants to be there.

How do girls come to the home?

We can have up to eight residents at any given time. All the girls are court-ordered to be there. There is a process. They are referred by a social worker, the process they’re referred, a social worker will send us a referral. I review the referral just to get bigger-picture information. Any personal things about the child themselves. I don’t even pay attention to it, I make time to be with that child.

We review the referral and we look at if they’re going to be a good fit for the current population we have in the house. We always do an interview. Every referral that comes across our desk no matter what we do an interview with that child and if we feel the interview went well, and if they’re going to be a good fit then we give a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down to the social worker. When they have their court hearing, a placement hearing is called the lawyer or social worker will report to the judge that we’re an option. If the judge sees fit they’ll court order them to our home.

How long can girls stay at the home?

There is not a max (amount of time) but we really don’t want to see girls stay there too long. But we treat that house like a home. That is one of my main goals: if you’re here for a week, if you’re here for a month, if you’re here for two years, I want there to be some kind of home comfort here. So we follow the rules, but keep it real relaxed.

What have you learned now that you’re running the program?

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Working with these girls has given me a different outlook on everything that I went through. It’s like there was a purpose for it for me to get over it. There is questions that I need to be answered, like "God, why did I have to experience that?’ As a kid, you think ‘why didn’t I get all those happy movements?" The only answer I can come up worth is I had to go through that to do what I’m doing today and to do it the way I want to do it. That’s not saying that people who have not experienced these things cannot. It’s just saying that for myself and my own development that’s what makes me feel good.

What misconceptions does the public have about group homes?

Group homes are viewed as a place you go because you’re “bad.” First of all, let’s not title them just yet. Yep, we do get girls that have a variety of issues, but what teenager doesn’t? Being a teenager, period, comes with a variety of issues. But then you throw in the mix a child who has been neglected, a child who has not had structure and then they’re titled as bad, and it’s not their fault.

Where were we when we saw this stuff going on earlier in their life? Where were we when those CPS calls were made and ruled out? You can’t label these kids who have not been delivered anything but bad since birth and then blame it on them. That’s not fair. That’s one of the biggest issues that I have. It’s hard for people who haven’t had anything happen in their lives that can make them relate to what these kids are going through, but a lot of my kids have gone though more than some adults have in their 50’s. That’s a lot and to be able to come out of that takes a strong person.

It takes me back to those two choices you have: you got to make a choice. You got to deal with traumatic things in a healthy manner. I took the time and energy to not let it affect me to where I can’t live a meaningful life. I don’t want to be depressed. I don’t want to be taking meds. I have two children who are young black males who I need to raise to be somebody. I can’t do that if I’m blaming everything that happens in my life on my past. At some point you got to take control of that. And it’s hard. You really want a healthy life, you have to invest in it.

What is the biggest problem we need to fix in the foster care or juvenile justice system?

One of the biggest issues on the foster end side, is something that can’t be fixed without community support, it’s opening up homes. I know it’s hard and I know that It’s scary, but people need to realize that this is our future. These are the same kids that are going to be the doctors and the lawyers and the people in the community when your kids get older, so why not help one? Somebody helped you. Nobody got to where they are without help. So it would be nice to see more homes opened it would be nice if money would fall from the sky to make more programming available for these youth. Again, these are our youth. This is our future.

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Katelyn Ferral is The Cap Times' public affairs and investigative reporter. She joined the paper in 2015 and previously covered the energy industry for the Pittsburgh Tribune Review. She's also covered state politics and government in North Carolina.