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Former foster child becomes a social worker to help kids who have no one

Tamara Vest was 16 when her brother dropped her off at a homeless shelter.
Tamara Vest was once a foster youth and a homeless teen. Today, she's a social worker sharing a message of hope.
Tamara Vest was once a foster youth and a homeless teen. Today, she's a social worker sharing a message of hope.Courtesy Jenny Wells-Hosley
/ Source: TODAY

Tamara Vest was 9 years old when her father, who was her solo caregiver, died of lung cancer.

"They had to carry me out of the funeral home because I couldn’t bear the thought of leaving him,” Vest told TODAY Parents. “It had always been just the two of us. I didn’t have anyone else.”

Vest’s mother, an addict, had been out of the picture since she was a baby, and her older brother and his wife were awarded custody. Vest, then in fourth grade, moved into their home across town in Lexington, Kentucky.

“From day one, they made it very clear that they didn’t want me,” Vest, 25, revealed. “Every night that I spent in that house, I had dinner alone while they sat together in another room.”

But that wasn’t even the worst of it. During the six years that Vest lived under their roof, she said she was subjected to emotional and physical abuse.

One time, Vest said she was physically punished for using a tampon because her sister-in-law believed it took away her virginity. On another occasion, she said she was struck for talking to a male friend on the phone.

“I was only allowed to eat or drink when they said I could,” Vest recalled. “One night I was so thirsty that I drank snow cone syrup from the pantry. If they heard me turn on the sink to get water … it wouldn’t have been good.”

She said the only place she felt safe was at school.

Tamara Vest with her late father
Tamara Vest with her late fatherCourtesy Tamara Vest

Entering the foster care system

Vest said that after she turned 16, her brother decided that he'd had enough and dropped her off at a homeless shelter. She arrived with nothing but a child-size suitcase containing three outfits.

“I was upset because I didn’t have my textbooks, and schoolwork was always my escape,” she said. “I was worried I would fall behind.”

She didn’t. 

Vest was bounced around to different foster homes until she was eventually placed in an independent living facility for teenagers. After working late nights at McDonald's to pay her utilities, she would return home to an empty apartment and write papers.

I remember begging people to adopt me. All I wanted was parents.”

“I remember begging people to adopt me,” she said. “All I wanted was parents. You never outgrow the need for someone to care about you. It was incredibly lonely living on my own when my friends all had families cheering them on and teaching them to drive and stuff."

Related: Sandra Bullock reveals her daughter hid food, dealt with trauma after foster care

But despite all her obstacles, Vest finished high school a semester early with straight A’s. 

"My home life did not reflect who I am or my character, but my school work did — it showed my work ethic," she said. "I've always taken school seriously."

According to research, less than 10% of foster youth graduate from college. In 2020, Vest graduated summa cum laude from the University of Kentucky with a bachelor’s degree in social work. And she didn't stop there. Now, she’s earning a master’s degree from the university and sharing a message of hope. 

Finding a path forward 

Growing up, Vest always had one constant in her life: The kindness of social workers.

“They were the only people who heard my voice and believed in me when no one else did,” Vest explained. “One social worker paid my phone bill out of her own pocket. One social worker would help me with feminine hygiene products. In many ways, they were my family.”

In many ways, (my social workers) were my family.”

Now Vest is paying it forward. Today she works as a social worker herself and supervises the Kentucky Foster Youth Advocacy Council, which is made up of current and former foster children.

“I help them tell their story to the public and I also plan recreational and educational events for foster youth across the state of Kentucky,” she said.

Related: How to become a foster parent: What you need to know

Vest noted that she feels a feels a deep connection to the children she works with.

“They trust me because I’ve been there. I’m able to get on their level and say, ‘Hey, I understand,’” she said. “I love being somebody they can look up to. These kids aren’t getting nurtured and told, ‘Hey, you can go to college.’ So I want them to see me and say, ‘I can do something with myself.’” 

Crystal Dillard, Vest's supervisor and director of Murray State University's training resource center, couldn't agree more.

"You look at the statistics for alumni of foster care (and) if they age out without supports in place, if they're not adopted, or they don't have some kind of mentor, it's really tough," Dillard told TODAY. "So to see somebody with that lived experience succeeding and succeeding so dramatically — it's amazing."

Vest said she spends the bulk of her time writing policies to improve the foster care system in the state of Kentucky. In April 2020, she helped pass a bill that provides a tuition waiver for foster youth covering 150 consecutive or nonconsecutive hours of higher education. Previously, the hours had to be consecutive.

“This didn’t allow (students) to take time off if they had a crisis or if they wanted to attend part time,” Vest said. “The new policy … allows foster youth who typically struggle with financial instability or housing instability or mental health issues to take their time with higher education.”

Related: Here’s how to help foster families around the country

Vest sometimes marvels at how far she has come. She dreams of moving to Los Angeles, but at the same time, she can’t fathom leaving Kentucky when there are more than 9,000 kids in the foster care system. 

She also has her eye on Washington, D.C.

“I’m so serious when I say this,” Vest said, “but I’m probably going to run for president.”