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'Helping people makes me happy:' From foster kid, to guide for others

Photo by Brett Duke, | The Times-Picayune

This article ​is written by Diana Samuels of The Times-Picayune . It was posted on April 16, 2016.


As a teenager, Sonya Brown ran away from Boys Town. As an adult, she came back.

Brown, a 29-year-old Harvey resident, works as a community engagement connector for Boys Town in New Orleans, advocating on behalf of young people in the foster care system.
Brown, whose mother was diagnosed schizophrenic and whose father was an alcoholic, was put in the Louisiana foster care system at the age of 6. Separated from her six siblings, she spent time in seven different foster homes and 10 different schools. She was expelled three times, and ran away frequently. At 17 she was arrested for running away from a group home, and spent four days in an adult correctional facility.

Today, she's a licensed master social worker with bachelor's and master's degrees from Southern University at New Orleans. In addition to working directly with young people, she's become involved with political policy at the state and federal levels, including speaking on a U.S. House of Representatives panel about the need to improve the juvenile justice system for incarcerated girls.

WHY: "I grew up in foster care from age 6 to 18. My perspectives are shaped by going to court, dealing with social workers, having people who took a personal interest in my life. If I hadn't had all of these supportive individuals, then I wouldn't have achieved anything. I feel like I'm obligated to be there for young people that may not have that support that I had. That drives me."

PATH: "I actually lived in a Boys Town home for a while. After I aged out of foster care at 18, I went on to college and just thought, 'Hmm, Boys Town would be a cool place to work.' Some of the people who were employed by Boys Town still work here. They had some stories about things I did when I was in Boys Town. I was unruly."

FEAR: "I was very afraid entering into adulthood. You're sitting at a table and everyone is telling you, 'OK, you're going to be 18 in a few months, so where are you going to live and what are you going to do?' That's a very real fear and I connect with the young people that I work with because every single one of them aging out of foster care is going to experience that same thing. I always think about how I felt in that moment."

ALTERNATIVE: "I love music. I love live music. And I still write music, that's one of my hobbies. It's a good way to connect to the young people that I work with. I listen to every type of music; I'm so eclectic. When I'm developing a relationship with a young person, a lot of time music comes into play. Like we're in the car and we're listening to music. They think I'm old, and they're like, 'You listen to this?'"

MEMORY: "My most treasured possession is a picture of me in 3rd grade. That was the point when I got to my foster mom. That was the year I moved in with her. That's the only picture I have of me as a little kid. I don't have any baby pictures. I have it framed. It's on a little stand in my office at home."

HAPPINESS: "Helping people makes me happy. I like to see people smiling and I like to feel as if I've done something to make them smile."

UNHAPPINESS: "What angers me is people who are not compassionate toward others. People who are rude and not thoughtful. People who don't recognize that other people go through things and are insensitive to other people's needs."

FAMILY: "I am most proud of being a mother. I have two daughters and they are just growing up to be so amazing. I'd like to say that I take credit for them doing the right thing, but I don't think it's anything that I'm doing. I think they're naturally little givers and they're just growing up to be genuinely good. I'm so proud of that."

HEROES: "My heroes would be the social worker who kind of walked me into college, my family attorney who sticks by me, and my foster mom who is my mom. To me, these people had no incentive to continue to keep me involved in their lives, but they chose to out of love."

SUPERHEROES: "I love 'Wonder Woman.' I can't wait till that movie comes out. I don't know, there's just something about a woman who's glamorous and strong who saves the day."

SHOUT-OUT: From Bonnie DeSalle, who is working with Brown on Project 18, a new program to support foster care youth as they transition into adulthood. "Because she experienced the foster care system herself, that gives her another view that most people who work on behalf of foster care kids don't have. This is somebody that really loves what she's doing and is there for the right reasons, wanting to give back to these young people."

•     Support Boys Town
•     Learn more about foster parenting in Louisiana
•    Help young people successfully transition from the foster care system with Project 18.