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This is unusual for me.

Writing and reporting on CSR and sustainability issues, I have always preferred to keep personal stories out of my writing. However, this once I’d like to talk about an incident that has me rattled. And like everything else I write, I’d like to share it with you and hopefully together, help make someone’s life a bit easier.

There is a girl who recently started working at this store I frequent in my neighborhood. Yesterday, as I stood in her checkout line, she seemed flustered, stressed, worn out.

Was it the recent storm? No, she said. “It’s my life.”

The girl, 19 years old, was clearly upset and I asked her manager to give her a 10 minute break so we could chat.

She is one of thousands of abandoned children in New Jersey. Her father is in prison. Her mother, who remarried, abandoned her and she was placed in one of the state’s foster homes.

Then, she was in school.

Yesterday, however, was her first day of college thanks to New Jersey’s Foster and Adoptive Family Services (FAFS) program. Instead of the usual excitement, however, she was scared. Here’s why:

Her foster home parents, from the Division of Youth and Family Services agency (DYFS), have encouraged her to study and work at the same time. What makes it harder for her is that unlike the other kids in the house, she doesn’t have a car.

So she ends up spending hours everyday taking the NJ Transit bus from home to school, school to home, and then home to work, and back home. The problem: NJ Transit buses run every hour or so with limited runs after 10pm. Her shift at work doesn’t end till 10pm so she has to wait for the next bus, which doesn’t run till 11:58pm.

Here’s how her day goes, she explained:

5:00am: Wake up, rush for college

6:30am-1:00pm: Classes

1:00pm-2:30pm: Bus, lunch at home

3:00pm: Back on the road heading to work (shift starts at 4pm). She only lives 15 minutes away but is dependent on the bus schedule

4:00pm-10:00pm: Work

10:00pm-11:58pm: Wait for the bus

12:30am-2:00am: Finish homework and complete weekly assigned house chore

2:00am-5:00am: Sleep

She doesn’t have a case officer anymore, she says, because her father got sentenced and that’s when the case closed. Her mother doesn’t support her and the DYFS workers receive half of her bi-weekly paycheck, which doesn’t leave much for her to save between food and textbooks.

She also told me that those funds are “supposed to be used toward weekend trips and expenses like a bus pass for the kids,” but that in reality, none of those trips take place.

Can she report this to someone? She doesn’t think so. After all, they are helping finance her college education. And she doesn’t have an assigned case officer.

She is also thankful for “having a roof on her head and health insurance.” She realizes that leaving the home would mean financial instability and she certainly cannot afford independent health insurance.

But why work that exact shift at work? Perhaps an earlier shift can help get her home sooner, giving her more time for homework and sleep?

The DYFS staff insist she work in the evening to support her expenses.

Clearly, she has a complex mix of logistical and puritanical policies to deal with. How does she want to move forward?

Take a year off of school to save enough money to buy a car and afford rent so she can get out of foster care.

The hitch? She says, the DYFS folks insist that she go to college; that it is part of the arrangement of living in foster care.

All through her narration, I’m thinking, there has to be two sides to the coin. DYFS after all is a social services agency built to protect such children. Surely, she is biased and simply stressed with trying to balance work with studies? Most adults have a hard time juggling work and home, she’s just a teen at her first job.

But at the same time I was also thinking more on lines of how I could help.

Regardless of whether she is biased, simply venting or stating the honest truth, can I help improve her life in any way? What can I do to help her cope with life and believe in herself?

Mobility is clearly her biggest obstacle. Would a car be the solution?

Or financial help?

Or something else?

Living in the country of “everyone’s dreams,” makes it easier for us to forget people who are worse off. Growing up in India, poverty, destitution and neglect were visible, right there for everyone to see. The jhuggis (straw huts) coexisted with the brick and granite mansions on the streets of Delhi. The Mumbai slums–now that everyone is familiar with them thanks to Slumdog Millionaire–are in your face, there everyday, alive and naked.

Here though, in one of the most expensive states of the country, girls like her are invisible — and stories like these so much more shocking.

So, what should I do? What would you do?

Connect with me @AmanSinghCSR or leave a comment.

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