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Theresa Cameron, associate professor of urban planning at Arizona State University, was born in Buffalo, New York, during the mid-1950s. Her mother swiftly disappeared after leaving Cameron, as an infant, with Catholic Charities in Buffalo. She never signed the papers for her to be adopted. And Cameron never was. She grew up in 11 foster homes, institutions, group homes, a juvenile detention center, and an orphanage. For the next 18 years, she waded through a treacherous swamp of unspeakable emotional confusion and a life so poisoned that, as a teen, she attempted suicide.
Despite decent shelter, Cameron yearned for a sense of belonging. Questions persisted, such as her mother’s whereabouts, when she would return, even what her mother looked like. “My story is not so much of physical abuse. But it was benign neglect — people just not giving a damn. And sometimes that’s worse because it’s an invisible scar that stays with you,” says Cameron.
Through it all, Cameron says there were people who cared along the way. During her senior year in high school, a classmate observed Cameron’s shyness and distress as she sat with her head hung low. “The person, Kim Godby, (along with her parents Joyce and Plummer), extended her hand. I didn’t push it away; I had enough sense to grab on,” says Cameron.
The connection led to a friendship between the two that remains today. Godby’s family, without assistance from child welfare, allowed Cameron to live at their home for about two years. “I was fortunate. In the black community, it isn’t uncommon for people to take in a child. They just don’t get any credit because they don’t go through the traditional system nor do they trust it,” she says.
Education became a top priority for Cameron after high school. With honors, she earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology from The State University of New York at Buffalo. But before graduating, she won a fellowship and spent her senior year of college in Copenhagen, Denmark. There, she studied the social welfare system and how it cared for vulnerable citizens. Her experiences in Denmark inspired her to earn a master’s degree in planning at the University of Michigan and to later graduate from Harvard University with a degree in urban design and planning.
Cameron, the author of Foster Care Odyssey: A Black Girl’s Story (University Press of Mississippi; $29), also shares her heart and time. She is board president of Foster Angels of Arizona Serving Together Inc., a nonprofit group that raises funds for foster children and prepares them to leave the foster care system. She also volunteers with Gabriele’s Angels, a group that visits children in homeless shelters and foster homes.
Her after school program is where Cameron mentors and tutors homeless children. Her goal is to establish a social services foundation for applied research to help children and to provide grants to individuals with related projects.
“If I can help some other young person make peace with their past and not struggle with it for some 20 odd years,