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Former Shelter Kid Returns to Boys Town Louisiana as Advocate, Ally of Youth

As a child, Sonya Brown remembers spending many nights in emergency rooms.

It wasn’t because she and her siblings were sick or prone to accidents. It was because they needed a place to sleep.

Sonya’s family was homeless and seeking refuge in any type of shelter was routine. Sadly, homelessness wasn’t their only misfortune. Sonya’s mother was schizophrenic; her father was an absent alcoholic.

The family was so adrift and their daily life so chaotic that Sonya and her siblings eventually wound up in foster care.

But Sonya’s life as a foster child proved just as problematic.

“I would leave my foster home for days and not return,” admitted Sonya. “My foster mom got overwhelmed and requested that I be removed.”

At 16, Sonya landed in a Boys Town Louisiana emergency shelter. There, staff members assessed her situation and worked to find a permanent placement. But despite having a warm bed, food and security at the shelter, Sonya, the self-proclaimed “know-it-all rebel,” still ran away.

For months, she couch-surfed from the home of one relative or friend to another. She hung out at bars, smoked weed and only occasionally went to school.

“I was in a really bad situation. I ended up living with a guy who had a couple of other young ladies living with him. The situation didn’t seem right, and I thought it could turn into something worse,” Sonya said.

Scared and tired of her rootless existence, Sonya reached out to her social worker, who was able to arrange the teen’s return to Boys Town Louisiana’s emergency shelter. This time, Sonya intended to stay.

“When I got there, I really did want to follow the rules. I just really needed stability, and I found comfort there. I could sleep in my own bed without worrying about something happening, and I felt content. I knew what Boys Town was and had a better understanding of the rules,” Sonya said.

But just as she was settling into a healthy routine, she was uprooted again. For reasons never explained to her, Sonya’s social worker transferred her to a group home two hours outside of New Orleans.

Sonya said that group home was a lot like living on the streets. Kids broke windows and ruled the roost. There was no sense of family, and staff members didn’t seem to care that the kids acted out or why. Unlike Boys Town, no one was teaching skills or showing concern. So, as she had done many times, Sonya ran away.

Sonya returned to New Orleans and fortunately found a stable home and returned to school. And while she never returned to Boys Town, she never forgot the compassion and generosity she experienced there.

“They were very caring; no one tried to hurt me,” Sonya said. “I’ve seen the other side of group homes, and even though it was a shelter, Boys Town staff treated me as if I was part of something bigger.”

After graduating high school, Sonya earned an undergraduate degree and a master’s degree in social work. In 2014, she saw a job opening at Boys Town Louisiana and eagerly jumped at the chance to come “home.”

“I’m one of those people who’s a rebel, and I can’t work for something I don’t believe in,” Sonya explained. “I’ve seen in different organizations people who don’t generally care about the young people they work with. When I go into a Boys Town Family Home and see the youth, I know they are being cared for.”

Sonya was hired as a Community Engagement Coordinator, a position in which she promotes and educates the public about Boys Town services and other local programs that are available to help children and families. She also spends time with youth who live in the Boys Town shelter and Family Homes, bonding with them through their shared experiences.

“When they learn I was in the shelter, it makes them more hopeful because they see someone who’s gone through what they’ve gone through,” she said.

Sonya doesn’t shy away from sharing her life story with the youth because she knows her story is their story. She represents a real, flesh-and-blood example of what’s possible when you’re willing to see past your current circumstances, set goals for your life and never give up.

Having gone full circle in her life, Sonya is now helping young people find their own path to healing.