It took me less than 1 day to read this remarkably written memoir, not because it’s what I would consider an “easy read” but because I was captivated to the point of not being able to put the book down.
Written by Shenandoah Chefalo, Garbage bag Suitcase offers a personal look into the life of one child – one small girl who faced abuse and neglect in her daily life – a life that was worth saving even though no one was there to step in and be a savior. In her memoir, Chefalo describes the intense trauma she suffered at the hands of those ordered to care for her by the people that she was supposed to love and trust most in this world.
And after living in chaos and instability for 13 years, transferring her few belongings from place to place in a garbage bag that came to be known as her suitcase, she found the immense courage to make a choice – instead of remaining under the parental umbrella of addiction, abuse, and mental illness, Chefalo chose herself.
Sadly, making life-altering choices usually come with a consequence or two. And in Chefalo’s case, she wound up in the foster care system. Lost and struggling with her identity, she writes of facing each new school, each new home with an underlying drive to make a way through her struggles, to become one of the 3% of foster children to go to college, and one of the 1% to graduate.
In her memoir, Chefalo relays even more staggering statistics about the foster care system. She shares the mental and physical complexities that are common among children who have aged out of their foster homes with nowhere to go, no one to turn to as support. She reflects on her own struggles with lying , food, and relationship – how they weren’t just behaviors that needed to be “fixed” as our society proclaims, but how they were a way to stay alive and a way to reinvent herself, especially since her family and a broken system left her wondering who she even was.
The inside glimpses she vulnerably shares in Garbage Bag Suitcase challenged me to look at my own children through a different lens. To understand the helplessness and fear that can still grip a child that has been through such trauma, who has been taken away from all that they’d known, as dysfunctional as it was, and placed with strangers – to see how one can walk away from the wreckage of it all and to make yet another choice, one of forgiveness… well, there aren’t words to describe the miracle of it all.
In the second section of her book, Chefalo tackles her ideas of how to reform our current foster care system, changing it in ways that promise hope and success for many more children than the current statistics show. Personally, I have always felt that vigorous and constant early intervention services would be the best preventative measure for keeping children out of foster care, helping parents learn to parent in their own homes, bridging that gap and averting the formative years from being overlooked in our young children. Because, once a child gets to school, even if a teacher or administrator notice that something just “isn’t right” with a child, will they report it? Will anything be done? Will the child just be taken and traumatized further? Instead, Chefalo offers brilliant suggestions that are currently being tested and used in our country, offering children a better chance at life.
And if one child is able to make the choice for themselves, and the choice for forgiveness, then this little girl’s story, with her garbage bag suitcase, will not have been in vain.