Alumni Spotlight is a new and ongoing blog series that features interviews with a variety of Darlington alumni about their careers and the impact their Darlington experience had on their lives. This week, I am excited to share a Q&A with Heather Cox Rosenberg ('93).
Heather lives and works in the Tallahassee, Fla., area and was recently appointed children's ombudsman by the Florida Department of Children and Families. As such, she serves as the liaison between children involved in the child welfare system and department leadership. She has served as president of the Tallahassee Area Foster and Adoptive Parent Association since 2014 and has received several awards for her volunteerism and victim assistance. She and her husband have three adopted children and, since 2009, have fostered 16 additional children. Heather holds a bachelor's degree in political science and master's degree in applied American politics and policy from Florida State University.
Hear directly from Heather below.
Why is Darlington important to you?
Darlington was the first stable home I ever knew. I grew up in an incredibly dysfunctional family with a lot of domestic violence, substance and alcohol abuse. My paternal grandmother and aunt stepped in when I was 15 to get me out of that situation and sent me to Darlington since my grandmother’s health prevented her from parenting me directly. As a result of my childhood experiences, I had a hard time trusting people and an even more difficult time being comfortable with quiet and stability.
By the time I came to Darlington my freshman year, I was angry at so many things I didn’t even know where to start or who to direct my anger towards. But that first night on my own in the dorms, Mrs. Hawkins came in to just sit and talk with me like I was a normal, regular kid. And the night after that, Mrs. Buice came in to do the same thing. Little bit, by little bit, I started developing trusting relationships with the families in the dorms and started to see them as my own surrogate family. I even became a regular babysitter for the Murrays' three kids when they lived in Trippeer.
Darlington was the first sanctuary I had from the crazy. My brain was being stimulated in class unlike the school system I came from – and because I wasn’t struggling with the abuse at home anymore, I was able to focus on becoming the me I was supposed to be all along. My creative side began to blossom, and though I was still angry, my anger was being channeled into healthier outlets like The Darlingtonian or managing the wrestling team. I struggled with my religious identity prior to coming to Darlington, but being exposed to so many different aspects of so many different religious practices opened my willingness to connect to a variety of experiences.
The stability Darlington gave me was the secure base I used to explore the world around me, and without that, I doubt that I would have become the person I am today.
What is your best memory from your time at Darlington?
I have so many wonderful memories of my time at the Dar. I can still remember riding back from spending the weekend with Kristi Keef and Stephanie Hill listening to the Eagles at full blast with the windows down and the crisp air stinging our faces. Or going horseback riding at Mrs. Waddell’s house – she had taken a particular interest in me while I was in her physics class and would let me ride her Tennessee Walkers with her. I remember being tossed in the lake on my birthday and having to walk around that lake virtually every morning of my Darlington career because I had such a hard time following the rules appropriately – something I may sheepishly admit stays with me to this very day. But while there is no one memory that stands out above the others as the “king of memories,” the collective memory of developing such close friendships with people I came to love so deeply is the thing I cherish the most.
Which teacher(s) had a positive influence on your life?
Mr. Bugg stands out from my freshman year because when I first came to The Darlingtonian, I had never really been given any direction to help focus my writing energies. But I was given an assignment to write about the guidance counselor, Marg Suffill, and the discussions we had about developing the headline for that article made me realize there were so many cool ways to use language to convey an idea. My physics classes with Mrs. Waddell were so much fun, and she truly had one of those service personalities that just makes you want to be a better person. Coach Rhodes' biology class taught me how to take notes like a champ (which served me very well in college I might add).
But the teacher who had the biggest impact on me and my ultimate college and career paths was Mr. Killian. I had never considered that one person could make any kind of a difference in society – and I most certainly would never have thought that one person could be me. But the year I had Mr. Killian’s class I had just turned 18 and voted in my first election (which happened to be a presidential election). I sealed off my absentee ballot and had Drew Lindsey sign it as my witness in class. Mr. Killian turned that exercise of my right to vote into a whole class lecture. I never imagined I would end up being such a politically active person – but that lesson has remained with me ever since!
As far as staff that were not teachers, Mrs. Hawkins was my dorm mom and someone I grew to love dearly. There were many nights when my big feelings threatened to overwhelm me, and she was really good about helping me refocus and find center again. She was the surrogate mother figure I had so desperately needed to step in to fill the void of not having my aunt and grandmother with me on a daily basis. And she taught me how to make really yummy cookies!!!
How did your time at Darlington prepare you for college and the professional world?
Darlington taught me to think critically, to question everything, and to challenge the status quo. I was a rock star by the time I was ready for college – which I will admit did not happen immediately upon leaving Darlington. The trauma of my early childhood left me delayed from my peers in ways that I couldn’t fully understand as a young person – but have come to understand so well as an adult. Darlington helped me make up the ground I had lost by showing me what a new normal could be and gave me that emotionally stable base from which to build my own new normal so that I could work through my big feelings in a positive and constructive manner. The academic preparation I got at Darlington made my college experience a breeze – and even when I started teaching at Tallahassee Community College, I saw from the work and struggles my own students experienced just how well prepared for life Darlington had made me.
What was your career path after graduating from Darlington?
My career path has more closely resembled a rambling garden path than a well-defined and laid out course. I was the office manager for a mental health advocacy group and then worked as an accountant in the insurance field. It wasn’t really until I met my husband and became a foster and adoptive parent that I discovered my true calling.
Once I became involved in the dependency system as a foster parent, I felt the pull of advocacy work tugging at me constantly. I had done advocacy work previously for victims of sexual assault and in the mental health field, but the work I was called to do while fostering spoke to the trauma of my childhood and made all of the puzzle pieces just click into place. For the first time in my adult life, I started feeling like I could do something positive for kids growing up in conditions like I had – like I had the ability to help change the trajectory of a life in such a profound and meaningful way.
It started out small – a phone call or email here or there as I found places in the system practice that could be improved. That snowballed into becoming the president of our local foster and adoptive parent association, which led to working closely with the statewide group and then earlier this year being chosen by Advocates for Families First to go to D.C. to attend Super Advocate training and testifying to members of the House Committee on Ways and Means about the needs of children in foster care.
What do you like most about the career you have chosen?
I love that my career takes all the little pieces of my life experiences and ties them up with a little bow. Seriously! I have come full circle in my life in that I was once a hurt and abused child and now am a fierce advocate for other hurt and abused children not only in my own community and state but at the national level as well. I love that my work puts me in direct involvement with so many truly amazing families who are working so hard to make a positive impact on children who come from hard places, and while I hear stories of terrible things every single day, I hear far more positive and see far more hopeful things occurring that make me believe in the resiliency of our children. I’ve been lucky to be on the front lines of a powerful mechanism of social change and to have witnessed the beginnings of dozens of new families as my friends have finalized adoptions. I literally get to see the birth of a new normal for children every day. That’s incredibly powerful stuff.
What impact has Darlington had on your career success?
When I get frustrated or start to get lost in my big feelings (can you tell I work with a lot of children?), I recall those life lessons I learned from Mrs. Hawkins and Mrs. Buice and Mrs. Waddell and Mr. Bugg and so many others. I draw upon the strength I was given while at Darlington to organize my feelings and my thoughts and then to game out a plan to overcome whatever challenges pop up. The stability and calm and nurturing environment I was exposed to at Darlington gave me that platform to go back to in times of distress – and trust me when I say there is a lot of times of distress when working in dependency.
Can you tell me a little more about your current role with the Florida Department of Children and Families?
In my role as the children’s ombudsman, I will work closely with youth and young adults in care to help improve the quality of the foster care system. This is a new position and a new role for the department, so we’re currently working on the procedures that will allow the children in the system of care to have every opportunity to securely and confidently communicate with me on a regular basis.
The way I envision the role developing is that when the youth have issues they need help addressing – whether it’s bullying or harassment, unmet needs, or other concerns – they will be able to reach out to me and I, in turn, will help address their needs through a variety of avenues. In fact, this position will use the information gained from working the individual contacts to identify trends across the system of care to help make improvements to the system itself as well – which is really an exciting thought for me personally.
What is your greatest career accomplishment?
I don’t know that I would chalk this up as a career accomplishment because it happened before I made this an official career, but I worked with several entities this past legislative session to have a bill passed called “A Child’s Best Hope Act.” What this act did was streamline the language between Chapter 39 (dependency) and Chapter 63 (Adoptions) to allow a dependency judge the ability to review a private adoption Motion to Intervene in a dependency case to see if that intervention would be in the child’s best interest.
Prior to the passage of this act, a child could have been with a caregiver for many years only to have an intervention done just prior to termination of parental rights (typically out of spite to punish a caregiver) and to move the child from a secure, stable placement with a caregiver with whom they had formed a bond and attachment to an unknown party. The science behind the importance of attachments for children shows us this was an incredibly bad practice – and the legislature agreed and passed the bill. It became the law of the land on July 1 of this year!
Darlington’s Motto is “Wisdom more than Knowledge, Service beyond Self, and Honor above Everything.” What ways have you applied the motto to your life?
I will admit that I love having random tidbits of knowledge and am usually quite good at trivia as a result, but the thing my tenure at Darlington taught me is that knowing how to apply good judgement in my actions is far superior to applying individual facts to a scenario. I’ve been able to take a broad approach to life and layer different experiences across my decision methodology so that I problem solve from many different perspectives with the recognition that I don’t know everything (though my 6 year old will tell you otherwise).
The exposure I had to principles of service helped awaken my desire to change the world by giving me a road map for how to put my feelings into action. I have come to know so many people in my life who have incredible servant’s hearts – and I wonder if I would have been able to recognize them if I hadn’t seen the importance of these principles in action in a global setting at such an important age?
And what more important principle to live by than honor? Particularly in the field I’ve chosen, honor is one of the most important principles by which to set a moral compass. In every action I take, I choose to honor some aspect of a child’s life – whether that aspect be their birth family, their story, their foster or adoptive family, their wishes and desires, their hopes and their dreams. There are some parts of the work that I do that bring me into direct contact with actions I find reprehensible on so many levels, but those actions and experiences make up the fabric of a child’s life, and I have to honor those origins in order to help the children I serve.
What do you hope for the future of Darlington and its students?
I hope that each student who comes to Darlington will have the ability to create such a rich tapestry of experiences and friendships like I did. I look at the friendships that have stuck with me over the years and I’m struck that so many of the kids and teachers I made friends with almost twenty-seven years ago are still with me to this day (obviously I started at Darlington when I was just a baby). I hope that Darlington is able to continue to foster that feeling of emotional connectedness. I hope that other students who come from hard places like I did are able to find the calm and stability that I did and that they are able to turn that into a service oriented life for themselves as a result.
If you are an alumna/nus interested in particpating in the Alumni Spotlight blog series, please contact me. I'd love to hear from you!