Montclair State University sophomore Sharmain Jenkins, 20, wants to use her experiences in foster care to advocate for and help children as a policy maker, social worker or in another role in foster care. But now, she needs help.
Sharmain is recovering from Guillaine-Barré syndrome (GBS), a painful and rare condition in which a person’s immune system attacks its nerves and can lead to paralysis and breathing difficulties. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, the condition strikes one in 100,000 people. Some experts cite viral and bacterial infections as the possible causes of GBS.
While some of her medical costs are covered by Medicaid and benefits from New Jersey Department of Children and Family (DCF), Sharmain does not have parents or relatives who can help her pay for medical expenses that may not be covered by these sources. Costs could include physical therapy and adjustments needed to accommodate her condition when she returns to her home, daily living expenses and more.
“We can’t tell exactly what the costs will be,” says Cathy Brown, an assistant professor at Montclair State University (MSU), who is also a teaching specialist at MSU’s Center for Child Advocacy and Policy and one of Sharmain’s teachers. With the help of Mary Anne Fanning-Lauria, who has worked with Sharmain as program manager with MSU’s Center’s Adolescent Advocacy Program, the Sharmain’s Guillain-Barré Recovery Fund has been created. Fanning-Lauria also partnered with One Simple Wish, a site that matches wishes from kids in foster care with “wish grantors,” to create Help Sharmain Heal.
On March 27, 2014, Sharmain entered Morristown Medical Center’s emergency room after she felt tingling sensations in her hands and feet, could no longer walk and experienced trouble eating, swallowing and breathing. Doctors diagnosed her disorder quickly, according to Fanning-Lauria. Since she was admitted, Sharmain has been receiving treatment and has left the I.C.U. Today, she can move her head side to side and swallow without a feeding tube, but she has not yet regained voluntary movement in her arms and legs. “More than 90 percent of people with GBS have a full recovery—it could just take a year or more,” says Fanning-Lauria.
The program manager first met Sharmain in 2012 when she participated in a DCF-funded program that places foster youth in college who become homeless during the summer in housing. Last September, through another DCF grant, Fanning-Lauria hired Sharmain as a youth worker to share her 15-year journey through the foster care system with students and faculty and learn mentorship and advocacy skills.
While she clocked in 40 hours of work between her youth worker position and another job on campus, Sharmain was focused on her education and educating others about life as a foster kid. She shared events in her life with students in Brown’s “Introduction to Child Advocacy” class in which topics such as maltreatment in foster care were discussed. “A lot of students think it’s the most useful, interesting part of the whole semester — to hear this story of a terrible, terrible time told by someone who is so inspiring and strong and such a model of how a person can come out right, despite such hardships,” says Brown.
“She is amazing — she is strong, positive, always has a smile even if she’s not feeling well. She’s going to come through this,” comments Fanning-Lauria. “She’s already talking about starting some sort of foundation to make people more aware of what this is so other people don’t have to suffer prior to being diagnosed.”