By Elizabeth Shimer-Bowers

Growing up as a foster child on Long Island, New York, Regina Calcaterra never thought about her future. She just tried to survive the day.

Along with her brother and three sisters, Calcaterra lived behind supermarkets, in cars, and in homeless shelters. “My mother was alcohol and drug addicted and mentally ill, and she would abuse, neglect and abandon us,” Calcaterra explains. “There were many days we had to steal food to eat.”

When they weren’t with their mother, the five siblings lived in foster homes. Some of the homes were wonderful. In others, Calcaterra was physically, emotionally — even sexually abused.

Determined not to repeat history and become like her mother, Calcaterra took the one path she knew might lead her out of poverty and despair: education.

One small step at a time, she climbed her way out. She went on to become a successful partner in a New York City law firm and bestselling author of “Etched in Sand,” her memoir about life growing up in the foster care system, and “Girl Unbroken,” her younger sister Rosie’s tale.

Calcaterra admits she beat the odds. During a fall visit to Alvernia’s campus, she told first-year students that when she was a child, less than 2 percent of foster kids went on to college.

“Today, the statistics aren’t much better: less than 3 percent,” says Calcaterra. “I want to spread the word about how many children are still suffering and in need, and I want to make students aware there are probably a lot of their classmates who grew up in less than ideal situations who don’t speak about it.”

At the same time, Calcaterra wants to show students that no matter what their background, they can succeed. “You just have to believe in yourself and keep moving forward,” she says.

It was fitting that Calcaterra made her remarks at Alvernia. The university’s Francis Hall, which first opened its doors in 1926, served as an orphanage and educational facility for young women before college students walked its halls.

Safety in the stacks

In the midst of the chaos of her childhood, Calcaterra says her two safety nets were the public school system and the public library.

“I moved a lot, but I always managed to find teachers who would tell me how smart and talented I was,” she says.

In libraries, she found a set of nonfiction books called the Landmark Series. Published in the 1950s, the books highlighted historical figures such as Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, Betsy Ross and Pocahontas.

“The message I took away from all of the stories was that these were people who grew up under challenging circumstances and faced tremendous odds and not only overcame those odds, but prevailed and did something to give back,” she says. “I enjoyed reading these stories, and they inspired me.”

The stories also instilled a love of history, which motivated her to study political science in college. “In all my jobs after I graduated from college, I dealt with public policy and the law. This gave me the confidence to consider law school. So, I applied and got into a night program at Seton Hall.”

Once again, Calcaterra’s path was tougher than most. “I worked in politics all day and went to law school at night in my late 20s.” But she made it work and now spends every day fighting for justice and showing a new generation of foster kids that they can do it, too.

The plight of older foster youth

In her spare time, Calcaterra (pictured second from right with her siblings) serves on the board of a nonprofit called You Gotta Believe — an organization that helps find families for young adults, teens and preteens in the foster care system. It’s an age group she says is in particular need of support.

“Each year, there are 400,000 kids in foster care and at least 25,000 of them age out at age 18 or 21 (depending on the state), meaning they lose their funding and are often kicked out of their foster homes,” she says.

One former foster child who knows this all too well is Elizabeth Fortuner ’13, a lifelong foster child who aged out of the system during her first year at Alvernia.

“I remember crying for the first week of my freshman year because of that feeling of detachment. I thought, ‘I’m on my own and this is it — there is no safety net,’” says Fortuner, whose story is chillingly similar to Calcaterra’s. Fortuner and her four siblings went back and forth between a drug-addicted, criminal mother and 15 different foster homes.

Luckily, County Youth Services granted Fortuner independent living foster care until she was 21, and Alvernia allowed her to live on campus during the summer and holiday breaks. She graduated with a degree in social work and became a caseworker helping foster children.

Unfortunately, many older foster kids’ stories don’t have similarly happy endings.

“When I was a little kid stealing food, people looked the other way,” Calcaterra says. “But when you are an 18-year-old stealing food to eat, what happens? You are much more likely to be arrested, which starts the journey into the criminal justice system. In fact, one-third of incarcerated adults are former foster kids.”

The power of kindness

Calcaterra’s main goal when talking to college students and community groups is to bring awareness. “I want to make people aware of what some kids actually go through,” she says.

And she also wants to inspire her audience — both those who are struggling and those who can help.

“I want to show kids who are asking themselves why they were dealt the hand that they were dealt that there are resources here in the U.S. — public schools, public libraries, and public college — that can pave their pathway out,” she says.

To the people surrounding these kids — teachers, librarians, parents of friends — Calcaterra says, be kind and caring.

“Even though I was a transient kid and moved around a lot, I still found people who encouraged me and built up my self-esteem,” she says. “We might not have control over a child’s destiny, but we have control over our interaction with them at the moment in time when they are before us.”

Having been a foster child, Fortuner says Calcaterra has real power to persuade.

“Many foster kids think this is it for them — this will be their life. But when they see success stories like Regina’s and mine, they are more likely to think they can be successful, too,” Fortuner says. “It’s really great that she takes the time to speak up for others.”