Mariah Knight poses for a portrait last month on the campus of Saint Joseph’s College of Maine in Standish, where she is a senior studying criminal justice. Knight was put into foster care as a young teen, and her goal is to someday open up her own nonprofit to help kids in foster care. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Mariah Knight said it took several attempts with different foster families before she finally found the right fit – as a sophomore in high school.

Knight said she entered foster care at age 12 because her single mother suffered from chronic substance abuse. The first two placements were with extended family, but there were problems that Knight said she didn’t want to discuss publicly.

Knight, 22, said her other experiences in foster care were mixed, some good, some bad. But she said a key for her success was being able to stay at Westbrook schools throughout her K-12 education.

“I threw myself into school and school activities,” said Knight, now a senior at Saint Joseph’s College of Maine in Standish. “It was my solace. I thought to myself, this is how I do it, how I get better. I belonged to National Honor Society, Key Club, math team, cross country, track, basketball, wrote for the school newspaper.”

Knight said one family seemed like it would be a good situation, but it soured quickly. The relationship became untenable when her favorite aunt committed suicide, and the family was cold to her during a time when she was mourning.

“It was not a nurturing environment at all,” Knight said.

So Knight said she became a self-advocate and petitioned the state to leave the foster family. Reluctantly, state caseworkers agreed, but they told her she had to find a willing family.

Through a friend of a friend, Knight said she found Jerry and Crystal Sands, who were welcoming and were the first to give her a say in things. They turned her birthday – which used to be a “sad day” – into a celebration.

“They were the first family who noticed I didn’t like cake and got me a giant cookie for my birthday, instead of a cake,” Knight said. “It’s the little things like that that make a difference.”

Knight said she felt at the Sands home like she finally had a place where she could do normal family things – have Sunday dinner, celebrate all the holidays together, attend parent-teacher conferences and go to her high school basketball games.

“They gave me unconditional love, and that is a really hard thing to find,” said Knight, who aged out of the foster care system and is now majoring in criminal justice.

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