How education helped one former youth-in-care look forward

Caitlyn Carpenter, Neegaan Inabin Worker and Champion for Education

At the age of 16, Caitlyn Carpenter was a youth in Tikinagan care with a hard choice to make.

As a soon-to-be mother, she recalls deciding between potentially losing custody of her child or raising her child while in care. Caitlyn did not want to continue this family cycle, so she made the brave decision to become independent.

“I didn’t want (my children) to be a part of the system,” now 33, originally from Lac Seul First Nation. “I wanted to break that cycle. With that comes education.”

While using local community resources in Thunder Bay, Caitlyn was able to complete her high school diploma while having to care for her child.

But she didn’t stop there. Caitlyn pursued her post-secondary education by enrolling in the Native Child and Family Services program. Shortly after, Caitlyn found herself pregnant again and struggling with housing.

“I ended up flunking out of college my first year just because I couldn’t keep up on all those responsibilities that I had on me and minimal support at the time. I was embarrassed to reach out for support, I think, because I didn’t want to be seen as asking for help.”

“It took me a while to get over myself and realize everybody needs help and it’s OK like you have to lean on community. You have to lean on your support networks and trust that people do want to see you succeed.”

Caitlyn was able to access the resources available to her within the community: housing workers; family services workers; childcare workers; and workers from Ontario Native Women’s Association (ONWA), who her helped secure a bank account and with housing.

While working for a brief time at the family treatment center in Muskrat Dam First Nation, Caitlyn began pursuing a first-year certificate in Chemical Addictions. It was here where she did a lot of self-reflective work on her personal and cultural history, as well as learning the effects of residential school and intergenerational trauma and how to heal to go forward.

“One of my professors had said during the program something that’s always stuck with me: ‘We don’t want to be going into the future looking into the past so it’s better to heal the past and then go forward.’ So with that, it really opened my mindset to the direction that I wanted to go in.”

Caitlyn’s thirst for knowledge and a thirst for her people and history helped moved her forward, leading her to apply for the Social Service Worker Program in Sioux Lookout. When she graduated, she was at the top of her class and top in the region.

Looking back today, Caitlyn reflected on the many challenges of pursuing her education, including switching schools, racism in city housing, and becoming a mom. Through it all, Caitlyn kept moving forward while reminding herself that no matter what she was doing, school was the key factor in her being successful.

“I think education, especially high school, was something that I had to do for myself. Even though there was so many changes going on around me like going from like different foster homes and different towns, and switching schools, one consistent thing was always school.”

Supportive people in her life, in addition to her own determination, helped Caitlyn succeed.

“I did have a quite supportive foster family. I’m In contact with them today, they’re still very supportive. Positive friends, that want to see you succeed.”

Caitlyn is now looking forward to giving back to young adults on a similar education and life journey as a Neegaan Inabin worker. Neegaan Inabin, which means “Looking Forward” in Oji-Cree, provides culturally-appropriate, holistic services supporting youth aging out of care and young adults formerly in care (up to age 26) from Tikinagan’s 30 First Nations.

Her personal goals include maintaining a home, supporting her children’s educational journeys, and maintaining a healthy lifestyle for herself and her family.

However, Caitlyn’s educational journey is not yet complete. In the near future, Caitlyn hopes to pursue her Bachelor of Social Work.

“When I was younger, I did not see myself coming this far. I think as a kid, especially a kid in care, you have so many people making decisions for you and no one really talking to you. I’m not sure how much that has changed today, but in the past, that’s what it was. It seemed like everyone knew what was best for me, but no one was listening to me. That left me feeling very powerless. I didn’t think that I would be here.”

Through her experiences, Caitlyn has learned valuable lessons that have helped guide her.

“No matter what you’re learning everyday you’re learning so why not throw yourself into education? And when you’re a kid, when things you don’t feel like things are in your control, education is in your control. You can go down any path, you can choose the arts, you can choose social work. There are so many different choices for everybody. Just find what you like, find what makes you happy.”

Listen to Caitlyn’s full interview below. To learn more about Neegaan Inabin visit today.