Vanessa Payne was in our very first cohort of 11 scholarship recipients, more than 20 years ago. Like so many Pivotal scholars, her path was not always clear. While she was in foster care, she had close to 17 different placements and the constant upheaval meant she struggled to complete high school. When she finally got her GED, she applied for and received a Pivotal scholarship. Although she had hoped to go to college, she wasn’t in a place where she could focus on academics and ended up leaving school. When she became pregnant at 19, she realized that if she was going to give her child the future she wanted for him, she had to get a college education.  

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She came back to Pivotal and applied to college again. She was accepted and started at San Jose City College in 2005. In two years, Vanessa graduated with her AA and transferred to San Jose State University where she got a bachelor’s degree in behavioral science and psychology. While she was still at community college, she joined the Pivotal Youth Advisory Board where she and other Pivotal scholars could share their advice based on lived experience to help inform Pivotal’s programs.  

“Foster youth aren’t given a lot of opportunities to speak up and contribute to the plans for their own future. Through the Youth Advisory Board, Pivotal really helped me find my own voice, and my passion for advocating for others facing similar challenges.” 

Vanessa also began to get involved with the Department of Family and Children’s Services in Santa Clara County. She wanted to become a social worker, so she decided to continue her education and get her master’s degree in social work. It was while she was doing her master’s degree that she was asked to join Pivotal’s Board of Directors. 

“The Board already had many strong advocates for foster youth, but they really wanted to have someone with lived experience to be on the board, who would be able to speak to those challenges that foster youth experience and the things they really need to survive, succeed, and thrive.” 

Today, Vanessa is a Social Worker with the Santa Clara County Department of Family and Children’s Services. She started out as a foster care eligibility worker and when she completed her master’s  degree in social work in 2018, she moved into the Safety and Wellbeing and then Dependency Investigations departments, helping children and families navigating the child welfare system. She has since moved into a supervisory role as a Child Family Team Meeting Facilitator where she works with families to help them understand the system, find ways to prevent children from coming into the child welfare system while still maintaining their safety. 

 “We try to find other family members or other options for the child to prevent them from being further traumatized and taken into the child welfare system,” says Vanessa. “In many ways, I feel like I’ve come full circle – from being in foster care to helping other young people and educating others about the foster care system. 

“Pivotal coaches are often in the Child-Family Team meetings so they can understand what’s going on with their scholar’s case, so I get to continue to work with Pivotal in that capacity.” 

At her desk at work, Vanessa still has the graduation card that Pivotal sent her back in 2007 which has a photo of her and her son on the day she graduated from Community College. “Money and resources are important, but it’s this kind of stuff that we save. We don’t always have photos from our youth, or tokens to celebrate our accomplishments, so these things are special memories that we hold with us. In that photo, my son was probably three or four, and now he’s finishing up Community College and is getting ready to transfer.” 

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Vanessa is still in touch with most of the people who were in that original cohort of scholarship recipients, as well as her original mentor at Pivotal. As her children begin to leave home and build their own lives, she is considering what comes next for her. She’s contemplating going back to school to get a doctorate. She's also interested in finding ways to use her lived experience to teach other social workers or students about the system, the challenges, and the unlimited potential in young people from foster care. 

“Having people to guide and mentor you is so powerful because it allows you to find your own path and learn for yourself rather than relying on someone else. It's all about planting those seeds and nurturing and watering them until they just blossom and grow and then go on to help other people.”