From Homelessness and Kinship Care to the White House - Meet Vince Espino
"It's not what happened in your story which defines you. It's what you do with it," stated Vince Espino.
Homeless as an adolescent, Vince would sleep in a local park or on the roof of nearby schools. Little did others know about his struggles to remain safe and "couch surf" while navigating life as a teenager.
Vince is now a DCF Social Worker, a husband, father to little Ava, a big brother, and an advocate. The chapters in his story tell and describe resilience, determination, and the strength of a young man to persevere despite what life presented.
From homelessness and kinship care to the White House - this is the story of Vince Espino.
Vince was born to a 17-year-old father and raised in a single parent home as his mother left the family shortly after his birth. It was not until decades later that he first met her.
Family life was not easy for him or his siblings. Vince knew he had to make a change as living at home was no longer an option. This also meant he had to leave his younger brothers behind. Three days before his 14th birthday, the summer before his freshmen year in high school, Vince made the tough decision to leave home.
Eventually, while utilizing a local park to rest, he awoke to a couple of teenagers playing catch with a football nearby. After approaching them, they explained that they were on their way to football conditioning before the start of the school year. Vince joined the teenagers and met many other football players in his soon to be high school and built the courage to ask, "Do you mind if I sleep over?" The offer was accepted and for over the next year, Vincent with his "backpack filled with clothes, a blanket and a toothbrush," made an actual schedule with his teammates as to which of their homes he would eat and sleep on a given day. When school began, his options of homes expanded to his peers in his classes, especially his ROTC classmates
Initially, finding places to stay was easy. "If you are the smart kid in math class, everyone wants you around," he laughed.
When housing options became scarce, Vince slept in Fulton Park - just over one mile from the Department of Children and Families Office in Waterbury. His spot was a wooded area "between the swimming pool and basketball court," Vince remembered. This is where he rested his head between 15-20 times.
On multiple occasions, Vince slept on the roof of Kennedy High School noting that the roof was covered with gravel and sand making it hard to lay down. A short walk away was Westside Middle School where the roof was "smoother" and had the nicest view of the city.
In moments of desperation, Vince would jump over a fence at the Home Depot gardening section to take water or Gatorade from a cooler, as he had nothing else to drink.
Contact with his father or his siblings was almost non-existent. "Dad, I want to come home," he once said during an impromptu meeting. Vince recalls his father laughed at him and turned away.
Despite these obstacles, Vince went to school each day and excelled in the classroom.
Vince's story took a significant turn after a football injury. He sprained an ankle and suffered what was believed to be a hernia. Alone, he went to the emergency department and was questioned by the doctor as to where his parents were, if they would consent to treatment and why he was not living at home. Vince was clear in his response. "Don't send me back there," he told the doctor. He limped out of the hospital and slept in the park again that night.
Shortly thereafter, Vince was visited by two DCF Social Workers at school. He was informed that his father filed a Family With Service Needs petition (FWSN) indicating Vince was beyond his control, as well as a missing person's report with the police.
Vince was required to attend a hearing in the Superior Court for Juvenile Matters. He advocated for himself and obtained letters from school personnel expressing their confidence in his abilities. The judge presented Vince with tough options which included being remanded to juvenile detention; placement on house arrest and wearing an ankle bracelet while attempting to work out his relationship with his father; or going into foster care.
"I want to go to foster care," Vince told the Judge. From there, he was ordered into the Department's custody and was placed into a Short-Term Assessment and Respite (STAR) home which is a congregate care facility. He stayed for almost two months.
Vince pursued finding his own family to live with and had a conversation with a friend of his whose family previously allowed him to stay at their home two days a week and on alternating weekends. Vince explained his situation. "You are always welcome to stay here," Vincent remembered his friend's mother, Ms. Xiomara Nunez, saying to him. The Nunez family agreed to become licensed and care for him.
After almost two years of fending for himself, Vince found a home.
It was Vince's Social Worker, David Spagnoletti, who advocated for him to be placed with the Nunez family. Vince speaks candidly of how his relationship with David changed his life. "Dave had a lot of confidence in me that I did not have in myself," Vince stated.
"Vince was a great adolescent to work with. I continue to keep in touch with him and have enjoyed watching him flourish into a father, husband and professional. Vincent would take advantage of any opportunities he came across. Vincent is a diligent and hard worker. I think I got as much, if not more, out of being his social worker as he got from me being his social worker," explained David.
Vince excelled with the Nunez family. With the urging of David, Waterbury YAB Coordinator Lee Debarrows, and former Office Director Patti Zuccarelli, he became involved in the statewide Youth Advisory Board (YAB). He refers to Patti as his "guardian angel" for always watching out for him.
Thru the YAB, his advocacy began. He was asked by former Commissioner Joette Katz how the Department could make his life better. "I left my brothers behind," Vince stated while emphasizing the importance of developing statutes and policies which reinforce maintaining sibling connections. Vince also stated he was not proud of the "foster kid" title, as it had a negative connotation and requested the Department's language to change.
Vince became actively involved in developing the Siblings Bill of Rights, Reasonable and Prudent Parenting Standards for foster parents, and the Siblings Visitation Bills of Rights, all of which passed the Connecticut legislature. He also represented the Department at the New England Youth Coalition.
College was next. He and David were halfway to UCONN for a tour when he asked for David to turn back around as he was not ready to leave Waterbury yet. He began taking classes at Naugatuck Valley Community College (NVCC).
While enrolled at NVCC, Vince took a "random" social work class. "This is outdated," he thought of the curriculum. "This is what happens behind the scenes," is what he would tell the professor and his fellow classmates regarding the field of social work. Vince quickly decided he would graduate from NVCC with an Associates in Pre-Social Work. Before he knew it, he was just a semester away before his graduation.
Little did he know he would have much more to celebrate.
One of Vince's strongest memories while living with the Nunez family was President Barack Obama's re-election to office. The family celebrated and gathered around the television to watch the historic moment. Later that evening, Vince and his foster brother laid awake in their bedroom and imagined what it would be like to go to the White House. They questioned if "kids like us" would ever go. "I would definitely take advantage of the opportunity if it came our way," was Vince's response.
Just a little over a year later, the invitation came! Vince thought the e-mail was a joke, and it was David Spagnoletti who convinced him it was real. He would be going with other youth from Connecticut and Department Senior Administrators. Vincent immediately informed his foster family, and he and his foster brother shouted with excitement when they realized that their daydreams were becoming reality.
David bought Vince a suit and made sure it was color coordinated with his tie. It was David, teaching Vince with the use of a mirror, to learn how to tie that tie. "He always had my back," Vince stated while referring to David.
Vince visited the White House with four other DCF involved youth. They took a tour and watched a premiere of Annie. Vince met actor Jamie Foxx, after inadvertently sitting in his seat, and had a discussion with actress Cameron Diaz.
He also met Vice President Joe Biden, who would later become the President of the United States.
With Department support, Vince then began living in his own apartment, bought his first car, and enrolled in the Social Work program at Western Connecticut State University (WCSU).
The combination of his own resilience, care of the Nunez family and DCF support, assisted Vince in pursuing his dreams. When he was close to graduation, and in need of continued DCF services, Vince clearly remembers Deputy Commissioner Michael Williams granting him an extension to receive DCF support. Vince later graduated WCSU with a BA in Social Work while also receiving the Senior Social Work Student of the Year Award.
Vince was the first in his family, and in the Nunez family, to graduate from college.
Why did he choose to work at DCF? "Imagine how many people I can impact," was one of his thoughts. "I had a cheat code in my head," he would explain on how to support those the Agency serves.
Vince has now been an employee in the Danbury Office for approximately 4 years. He is an Ongoing Services unit and takes every opportunity to positively promote the Agency's work. He has even gone back to the New England Youth Coalition - as an adult supporting youth - and frequently speaks publicly about his experiences.
"Vince pulls from his own experience and brings energy and passion for this work to all of the families he works with. He has a great ability to connect with youth, encouraging them to engage in services and helping them identify permanent lifelong connections. Vince has a great ability to see the strengths in people, helping them recognize those strengths and build upon them for success," stated Program Supervisor Jennifer Birden.
Office Director Kelly McVey also spoke highly of him and the way he relates to others. "Vince’s passion for youth and adolescent work stems from his personal journey. He has a passion to help and see young people succeed. He leads that work with his own experience in mind. His value for preparing our young people is something he does daily and helps shape the work at DCF to assure access and opportunities for success. He’s real, open, and reflective. He’s relatable and that is by design. He knows that’s what young people understand and deserve," Kelly stated.
Vince has many messages for new employees. "Learn the job," he clearly stated while emphasizing its complexities. Vince explains engagement is the key to developing a supportive relationship with those we serve. He described one home visit where he brought a baseball glove and played catch with a youth for over 30 minutes to develop that trust.
Vince is also playing the role of big brother again as he has reconnected with his siblings after they read about his successes in the newspaper. His father is "proud" of him and last year, he met his mother. His wedding included his birth and kinship families.
"Each and every one of us has story," he stated.
The chapters in Vincent Espino's life are far from over, and we cannot wait to see what is next.