The following is part of the What’s Your Story series where people share experiences of personal development, overcoming obstacles and healing.
When I was 16, I was put into foster care. In less than two years I was placed with four different families in three different cities, all at the whim of the state and the courts. It was scary and confusing but most of all, lonely. Being thrust into the home of strangers, expected to adapt and fit in without causing any trouble. Learning new rules, different expectations with each new home, your things stuffed into trash bags with each new move. And all of it, completely outside of your control.
I arrived at Eula’s house 21 days after entering foster care. Following my case worker up the stairs to enter this newest stranger’s house. I didn’t know what to expect. My heart beating in my chest as I waited to meet my newest “mother” as we stood outside her parlor in the hallway. In the house behind me I could hear voices and laughter drifting through the air, and an occasional glimpse of the body attached to those voices. Looking around the large house, I thought to myself, maybe I could fit in here.
Knocking on the parlor door, my caseworker entered, leaving me to stand alone while I waited for them to call me in. A short time later, I heard them call to me to join them. I shyly shuffled in, looking down at my shoes, hands fidgeting in front of me. When I heard Eula say, “Look up at me child, let me see you.”
Slowly raising my head, I saw Eula for the first time, sitting in her chair, smiling at me. Giving me a nod when our eyes met, she raised her arms and said, “Come here child, it’s going to be okay now.” I walked into her hug, tears in my eyes, feeling as if I had come home.
Eula loved each of us, all of foster sisters and I, and we all loved her in return, welcoming us as we arrived on her doorstep like a long lost daughter. On warm evenings, we would all gather around her outside on the porch and share stories. She would listen to us talk about school, the boys we liked, and our lives in general, smiling indulgently at each of us as we talked. She accepted each of us for who we were, giving us unconditional love, no matter what our situation may have been prior to moving in with her. “A clean slate”, she declared to each of us coming into her home. What happened in the past was the past. From here on out, we would only be judged by how we acted now, both privileges and punishments based solely on our present behavior. I loved her dearly for that. I think everyone in her home did.
Sadly, I was only allowed to stay with her for four months before being moved again, to another city, with another family. None as warm or as loving as what I had had with her. But while I was with her, she taught me to accept people as they were and to never hold their past against them, to take in those in need of help and to love them while they were with me. I have carried those lessons with me for the rest of my life.
I now own a large house of my own, often filled to capacity, and sometimes beyond with people who need a second chance. It started out slowly, more by accident than design, a young 17-year-old girl who’s parents had chosen drugs over her. Then a 17-year-old boy who had been thrown out of a religious sect, left sitting at a gas station, all of his belongings stuffed into garbage bags. Then two young men, one recently released from the Army who had lost their apartment. From there, it snowballed.
Each person who left, to be replaced by someone else, brought to me by someone I had helped before. They come to me broke, desperate, often scared, and with nowhere else to go. They come to me because the system we live in is broken, without adequate safety nets, and very little compassion. They come to me because they need a second chance, a hand up when the world has pushed them down. They come to me, because they have no place in our society, but desperately want to have one.
I have for the last ten years taken in hundreds of people. I have taken in pregnant women, who when they could no longer work, lost their homes because there is no paid medical or family leave in our country. I have taken in ex-vets, who after going to war find it difficult to readjust to civilian life, and find our country has forgotten their service as soon as they took off their uniforms. I have taken in ex-cons who cannot find work or a place to live because they made a mistake. A mistake more often stemming from poverty and desperation, rather than any true malicious intent. I have taken in families when one of the parents has lost their minimum wage job and they could no longer afford to live on their own. I have taken in all those that society has washed their hands of or simply looked away saying, “It’s not our problem.” The ones that fall through the cracks of our fractured society.
I often laugh and say that I’m running a flophouse, but it not that well organized. It is not run as a shelter, it is my home, and while they are with me, it is their home too. Each person treated as family, free to come and go as they please, safely secure in the knowledge that there is someone who cares about them as they put their lives back together. There are very few rules in my house, only two really, help when you can and respect the people around you. My house is often filled with laughter, music, and chaos, each person adding to the tapestry of our lives here, making it a vibrant place to live. I have had artists, musicians, fire spinners, poets and painters, and a variety of other characters have graced my doorstep over the years. They stay with me for awhile, there is no time limit, only when they are ready do they move on. Stepping out of my house with confidence that they can make it on their own, to scatter across the city, and the country, some as far away as Alaska and Hawaii.
In all my years of doing this and all the hundreds of people I have helped, only twice have I had a problem with someone who, with regret, I had to remove from my home. The most common problem I have is simply that there is only one bathroom for sometimes upwards of twelve people. I dream of the day I will have enough money to put in a second bathroom, but until then we cope as best we can, while waiting for our turn. We share what we have, help each other out, support each other when things are bad, and celebrate with them when things are good. Each new person learning what it is to belong to a family again, or maybe even for the first time.
I give each of them my unconditional love, I accept who they are without reservation, and I give each of them a clean slate as they walk through my door. Everyone deserves a second chance to get it right, to learn from their mistakes without paying for them for the rest of their lives. To learn how to stand up proudly and feel worthy of being treated like a person, someone who matters, maybe for the first time in their lives.
I have made a difference. I cannot change the world, but I can change the world for one person, and for me, right now, that is enough.
If you would like to read more story’s about Lisa’s life, you can find her book on Amazon at: Amazon.com/dp/B0160LJXNC Or you can follow her on Goodreads at: Goodreads.com/author/show/14534843.Lisa_Orban
My life did not end up where I thought I would be when I was young and was asked what do you want to be when you grow up? I know the answer now, when I grow up I want to be happy. I still haven’t grown up, but I have learned to be happy, and maybe some day I will figure out the rest. Until then I will continue to stumble along, laughing at myself and my mistakes, learning from them and sharing them with others.
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