Stephanie Fontenot lives at the Louisiana Baptist Children’s Home in Monroe.
How she got here would be difficult for most people to even talk about.
At six years old, she and her infant brother had to separate from their parents.
“Both of my parents were never really in the picture,” Fontenot says. “My dad is in prison. He’s been in prison for…my brother’s going on 15, so he’s been in prison about 15 years. My moms just never been completely there, altogether. In her head and in her life, she can’t take care of herself, so she couldn’t take care of two young children.”
They were taken in by their great aunt and uncle, already approaching their sixties.
“It was a very different adjustment because like I said they were older people,” she says.
Then, after nine years with her new family, Fontenot again had to find another one.
“Both of them got sick at one time, so it was up to me to take care of them and my brother.”
She chose the Children’s Home so she and her brother could stay together.
Because they knew they’d have to rely on each other.
“My aunt went to the nursing home the same year we got up here and my uncle passed away a week after we got up here. So it was, come up here, get ready, get everything situated, go back down for his funeral, come back up here.”
A heartbreaking situation to imagine a child going through.
But unfortunately, adversity isn’t rare for kids in Louisiana.
A 2017 study shows over half of children in the state have experienced a significant adverse event…things like parental divorce, physical or emotional abuse and neglect, or living with parents who abuse drugs or end up in prison.
Events that can create problems well past childhood.
“What I experience, or what you experience in life early, if it’s traumatic we tend to hang on to it,” says Gatha Haynes from the Children’s Coalition of Northeast Louisiana.
According to Haynes, many people aren’t aware of how issues you go through as a youth impact you as an adult.
“When children are going through things very early in life when the brain is at it’s most tender age, tender development…it is crucial and it really does impact them later on going forward in life,” she says.
Physical problems like heart disease, diabetes, and stroke are all linked to childhood adversity, along with mental issues like depression, anxiety, and suicide.
“We all go through adversities in life,” says Haynes. “But when they’re more pronounced, they alter the brain structure.”
This all leads to a sort of vicious cycle.
Children go through adversity, putting them at a higher risk for physical and mental problems, leading to a less stable home life for their own kids down the road.
So, how do we break the cycle in the Pelican State?
Haynes says it starts with understanding what the problem is.
“Knowledge is very, very powerful, and critical for us here in Louisiana,” she says. “I find that if people can trace back to what that particular issue is, and it’s done through therapy or journaling, they can’t divorce the memory, but it does provide healing. Just knowing the fact that, this is what happened to me, and this is why my behavior is, and what can I do to change it.”
From there, whether you’re an adult getting over the past, or a child getting through the present, you need support.
“That one person that can make a difference in somebody’s life, or a change in environment can make a difference,” says Haynes.
For Fontenot, that came from her great aunt and uncle.
“They took care of us the best way they could,” she says. “They loved us like we were there own kids. Frankly we were.”
She’ll tell you that’s why today, she’s doing great.
Working at a preschool in Monroe, while taking classes at Louisiana Delta Community College on her way to being a teacher.
“I’m blessed,” Fontenot says. “I can’t thank the children’s home or my family enough…I would be living on the streets or probably in prison myself. Same with my brother. It’s just, we came from a bad background to a good background and you know how they say parents shape you, you are who your parents are…that’s not who we are anymore.”