Student Draws on Foster Care Experience to Help Others

January 10, 2014
by Cursta McCullom
Maurissa Sorensen with the Inspiration Award. Photo by Sean Szilagi.

By age 12, Maurissa Sorensen had experienced abuse, depression and much uncertainty. She knew something needed to change. So Sorensen made an adult decision: she advocated to enter herself into the foster care system to seek a better life, one that didn’t include mental hospital visits and an abusive home.

“I figured out early on in life that I needed the support of people, and I knew if I stayed with my mom that I would have never gotten better,” Sorensen said.

After choosing not to be adopted by her first foster family, Sorensen lived at The Help Group, a group home and special-needs school in Sherman Oaks, Calif., that served as a source of comfort and healing for the next six years, as well as laid the groundwork for Sorensen’s social work aspirations.

“While I was there, I got the therapy I needed and had a great relationship with the principal there. He found out how determined I was to be healthy, so he gave me the support to learn and grow. By 13, I was already helping and guiding others,” said Sorensen, who is now a Master of Social Work student at the USC School of Social Work.

The team who manages the group home thought Sorensen’s growth, diligence and dedication to helping others were a perfect fit for the Inspiration Award, given by the Association of Community Human Service Agencies to recognize those who have overcome hardships in their lives and used them to inspire others. She said being recognized was a surprise and that it encouraged her to continue pursuing her goal to improve the foster care system. 

“I didn’t know I was nominated until I was interviewed, which meant I was a finalist,” said Sorensen, who was one of two people chosen for the award from more than 150 applications. “It’s nice to know other people are acknowledging my goals, but to win was amazing.”

Sorensen regularly mentors children in foster care and helps raise money for The Help Group with public speaking events. Through her mentorship, she is able to use her personal journey to impact others with similar obstacles.

“I use my own story of adversity to support and encourage other youth to make a difference,” she said. “I’m able to show them that there are people who are successful when they leave [foster care].” 

After Sorensen aged out of the foster care system, her determination continued in her education. The high school Sorensen attended focused on emotional wellness as opposed to academic rigor, and although the experience brought her restoration, she spent nearly 10 years completing her studies at a community college. She didn’t allow this extra time to discourage her, though. Sorensen moved on to earn a bachelor’s degree from California State University, Channel Islands, and a master’s degree from Harvard University. She has now returned to school to earn an MSW at the USC School of Social Work’s Skirball Academic Center.

Alyson Mischel, an adjunct lecturer at the School of Social Work, said Sorensen’s academic history speaks to her resilient character, which has already been exemplified at the school.

“She comes from an underprivileged background, she’s been exposed to different types of people, and she’s paying for her own education. She’s already the roll-up-your-sleeves type of social worker,” Mischel said. “She has lived the life of the clients that she is seeking to help. She’s interested in helping the underdog, and that’s part of being a social worker.”

Sorensen is still in her first year in the program, but the lessons she has learned have already widened her outlook.

“The readings and the subject matter have helped me learn how to isolate my personal experiences with the [foster care] system’s norms and expectations,” she said. “It’s hard for me to separate myself when I’m working with kids. This is teaching me boundaries and how to understand perspectives that are not just my own.”

Studying social work at USC was an ideal choice for Sorensen because Los Angeles supports a large population of children in foster care. When she finishes her degree, Sorensen intends to continue the work she started when she was 13 years old.

“All of my life I’ve been working with kids in the foster care system. As I get older, getting awards and speaking at events keeps me fueled to finish my education and start working,” she said. “I’ve known since I was younger that I wanted to be an expert in the field and have my own practice so I could change the system from the inside.”