It was Sunday, October 3, 2004. I was 13 years old.
I lived with my eight year old sister Ashley, five year old brother David (who wouldn’t be diagnosed with mild autism until years later), and one year old sister Amelia. The four of us lived with our mom and our abusive stepdad. My mom worked all of the time, which meant that there were many weekends when I would be the caregiver for my siblings.
With Ashley’s undying assistance, we would make sure the four of us were fed, even if it meant walking to my friend Bethany’s house and her giving us saltine crackers to eat, or making mac n’ cheese at our own house. Without us taking charge, there are many days that we wouldn’t have eaten. Without me changing Amelia’s diaper, her diaper never would have gotten changed.
There were times when I secretly called my grandma, who had secretly sent me a phone card inside of a book, to tell of our horrible plight. She gave me encouragement and told me to hang in there, though at the time, my siblings and I were alone.
We were the means of our own survival.
David, unbeknownst to us, was developmentally disabled. There were times when he would leave food on the floor, and our stepdad would take a belt to David for it. A couple of times, my mom was beaten simply because she couldn’t find the car keys. One time, I stood up to my stepdad and told him that it was his and my mom’s job to change Amelia’s diaper, not mine, and he took the belt to me.
There were times when my stepfather would inappropriately touch me. Even in the midst of all of this, my mom didn’t make him leave.
On Sunday morning, October 3rd, 2004, when my mom was at work and my stepfather was out, Ashley’s 3rd grade teacher came to our house to make us breakfast. I still remember wearing that dress with a black top and orange patterned bottom, because it was my mom’s. The four of us were already dressed for church, and had planned on going there before the teacher showed up. I didn’t mind, because Cream O’ Wheat was a welcome change to our steady diet of mac n’ cheese and saltine crackers.
While we ate, police officers and a social worker showed up to our house. They asked us about everything that we had to deal with and we told them about the abuse and neglect. The cops had been to our house to check up on us before, but because my mom had been standing right there, I had lied and told them everything was fine.
Before long, the authorities in our house told us to pack our clothes. This didn’t take very long, because we hardly had any.
While we were packing, my stepfather showed up to the house. I remember him wearing a red baseball cap backwards on his head. When he was questioned, he said that everything was fine. This was to no avail, as the authorities had already learned otherwise.
As we loaded into the social worker’s car and were preparing to pull out, I remember being astonished. As we left, and my stepfather watched us leave, there were tears in his eyes.
We pulled into the parking lot of the home on West Front Street, not too far away from Mitchell Community College’s Continuing Education building, though I didn’t know that at the time. The parking lot was invisible to the street, because it was up the driveway and behind the other end of the house. The parking lot was formed by dirt and laden with small rocks.
For a while, we didn’t even get out of the car. I didn’t know it yet, but the house that we were at was an emergency group home and it was for temporary foster care. The social worker told us that we had to wait, because there were two kids already in the home and there were four of us, and Amelia was still an infant. The homes were not used to infants. We were told that if things weren’t approved, one of us might have to be placed elsewhere.
Leaving the house of abuse and neglect? Simple. Being separated from each other? Unthinkable. Up until now, our only comfort was that the four of us were together. What if we actually had to be separated? How would we survive?
Ms. Brenda was at the beach for her birthday, finally getting the vacation she so desperately needed. She was the executive director of the homes and it was there at the beach that she got the phone call.
There were four abused children who needed emergency care she was told. One of them was a baby. If she didn’t give approval for them to live in the Doyle Home, they would be separated from each other as needed.
Without a moment’s hesitation, she said, “Yes, we can accept the children in the home.” At the news of the approval, we breathed a sigh of relief. We were going to be together. No matter what happened, we would still have each other.
We were in the homes for almost two years. We had been in the care of Mr. Mike and Ms. Lisa, Ms. Tennille and Mr. Randy, and Ms. Keisha and Mr. Chris. Mr. Mike and Lisa taught us about respecting ourselves and respecting others, because everything else would follow. Ms. Tennille and Mr. Randy taught us how to respect others and to always do the right thing. Ms. Keisha and Mr. Chris taught us how to respect others, be confident in ourselves, and how to love life.
We went to live with our grandparents in California in July 2006. I lived with them for two years, until I graduated high school in June 2009. I had wanted to rekindle my relationship with my mom, so I moved with her back to NC after I graduated.
My mom had remarried my stepfather back in December 2005. In January 2007, they had a baby together named Anita. When I moved back to NC, I went to live with the three of them.
They lived out in the country, and it didn’t take me long to realize that I was alone. I wanted to attend community college, but we lived out in the country, which was too long of a walk from the main part of Statesville. I wasn’t in school. I had no job and no means of getting to one because I had no car.
In August, one day my mom’s car was free so I was able to run errands. As I drove by the Dearman Home, I noticed that they were having a car wash at the new house that was next to it. I found out later that it was called the Eisele Home.
As I waited for them to wash my car, I recognized one of the youths, who, along with her sister, had come into the Doyle Home a few months after we had moved in. We began talking to each other and she told me about a program called LINKS for kids who had been in foster care.
The next week, I went with my mom to DSS to find out what LINKS was. We spoke with a social worker named Shayna Rouson, who told me about an opportunity for kids who had previously been in foster care to allow them to be back in the homes up until age 21. It was a transitional living program which required you to either go to school full-time, work full-time, or to do both and add up to full-time. My mom gave me the same pleading look that she had given me the first time the cops had showed up to the house in 2004, and I said no thank you. However, another part of the program was to attend different LINKS events and classes, which I agreed to.
When the month of April rolled around, I couldn’t take not being in school anymore, and the toxic home environment hadn’t changed much from how it had been all those years ago. With Shayna’s help, and Ms. Brenda (AGAIN!), I was able to move into the homes and go to school full-time.
The time in North Carolina eventually took its toll on me. I missed my grandparents and siblings with all of my heart. This whole time, I had been without them. In May 2011, after having met Mr. Jay and Ms. Treecie, Ms. Sarah and Mr. Eric, and having seen Mr. Mike and Ms. Lisa and Mr. Chris and Ms. Keisha again, I went back to California, where my heart was.
May 6, 2017, It was finally the day of my college graduation! After I had returned to California in May 2011, I immediately began community college and attended it for two years, but because community colleges in California are immensely overpopulated, I hadn’t been able to register for too many classes. In August 2013, I began attending Azusa Pacific University. After changing my major halfway through my studies from Liberal Studies to English, I had finally made it to my college graduation.
The day was overcast and it was lightly raining. Due to the day’s weather, I wore a long sleeved shirt underneath my graduation gown. I had gone from feelings of hopelessness to hope for the future. I had gone from being a 13 year old girl to being a grown 26 year old woman, one who was graduating from a top university.
Looking back on it, while walking across that graduation stage in my graduation cap and gown and receiving my diploma signified the dawn of a bright and hopeful future, walking up those red stairs into the Doyle Home in that black and orange dress as a 13 year old girl was a lesser known version, only to myself, of the same thing.
Somehow, in the midst of all of my struggles, I had made it. I didn’t have to be a terrified person who focused on the overcast sky above my head, or the cold weather that life sometimes brings. I could climb up those stairs and I could walk through the door into a brighter future, a future that was mine for the taking, a future with love, and future of hope.
Thank you Children’s Homes of Iredell County. You made sure that those four children stayed together, that they had a stable and positive environment, and positive lessons learned that would translate into their future. Thanks for giving us the gifts of faith, hope and unconditional love.