Sources: Toronto Star & Metro News
Rosimay Venancio fled civil war in Angola as a child and was abandoned in Toronto by her parents as a teenager. Although foster care was a respite, her transition to independence was fraught with depression, a suicide attempt and homelessness.
Today, the bubbly 25-year-old is completing her second year of a bachelor’s degree in health policy at York University and working as an administrative assistant at the University Health Network.
The key to her miraculous transformation, Venancio says, was the encouragement of a supervisor at work who had been in foster care just like her.
“I thought, wow. If she could do it, so can I. Suddenly, anything seemed possible,” she says.
The epiphany prompted Venancio to create CHEERS, a mentorship program linking teens in foster care with young adults who have successfully made the transition to independent living.
“I have seen what this can do in my own life,” she says. “I want to ensure other youth get the same chance.”
This month Venancio is among 60 young people in the Commonwealth — and only three in Canada — receiving the prestigious Queen’s Young Leaders Award for transforming her life and the lives of others, such as Vivian Patruno, 18. As part of the award, Venancio will fly to London to meet the Queen.
CHEERS, an acronym for Creating Hope and Ensuring Excellent Roads to Success, has garnered praise from the Catholic Children’s Aid Society of Toronto, Covenant House youth homeless shelter and Ontario’s child welfare secretariat. But Venancio still needs $75,000 for a pilot project to turn her mentorship dream into reality.
“Everybody acknowledges that we need a mentorship program for youth in care, but nobody is following through,” she says. “I just feel that somebody has to do it. Why not use my experience to help?”
Venancio was 4 when her family fled civil war in Angola for South Africa and 9 when she arrived in Toronto. By the time she was 14, her parents had separated, the civil war in her home country was over and her mother — who was unable to secure legal status in Canada — was on her way back to Angola with Venancio’s three younger siblings.
“My mother left me with family friends because I was doing so well in school. She wanted me to have a future,” she says. But it was not the future Venancio or her mother had envisioned.
Her new family, an Angolan couple with a newborn, used the young teen as their nanny and housekeeper, while they worked as office cleaners. “I had an amazing foster mom,” Venancio says. “For the first time in my life I had someone to pick up my socks . . . someone to stay up late and help me with my homework. It was a real home. It was a real family.”
But it was short-lived. Legally, foster care ends at age 18. Since Venancio would be turning 18 in the middle of Grade 12, her children’s aid worker decided it would be best if she moved into her own apartment at the beginning of the school year. She was just 17. Within three months she crashed. She drank a bottle of floor cleaner and ended up in hospital. She recovered and the depression lifted. But it would be six more years of couch-surfing and struggling to stay in school before Venancio landed a part-time job at the University Health Network and enrolled at York.
When she discovered that a supervisor she admires at the hospital had gone into foster care at age 15, just like her, it changed everything, Venancio says. “That’s when I knew,” she says. “I had to do something for my younger foster sisters.” Venancio has turned to online crowdfunding to help launch her mentorship program at http://www.gofundme.com/cheersprogram
In another development, 25 year old Venacio became a Canadian citizen at a ceremony in Mississauga in June. “It just feels — how can I say it? — it feels real. Real, real, real,” said a beaming Venancio, a few minutes after reciting her oath of citizenship and singing O Canada as a citizen for the first time. It was a special moment for the York University student who says Canada is the “only home” she’s ever known.
In the meantime, she’s looking forward to finally getting a passport and seeing the world.
“I was looking it up — with the Canadian passport, you can travel to 175 countries, visa free. That sounds exciting,” Venancio said with a smile.
With files from Laurie Monsebraaten