I am honored and proud to share this blog space today with Sharde Armstrong, a remarkable young woman who is currently a candidate for a Juris Doctor at New York University School of Law. She went to law school because of a belief that child welfare reform can often be accomplished via legislative and judicial action. Her interest in the foster care system stemmed from her own 12 years in foster care in Indiana and Michigan. After graduating from Taylor University in 2008 with a Bachelor’s in Psychology, she interned with the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute and Senator John Kerry.
You will never be too old to want a family
After unpacking my belongings on Taylor University’s campus in 2004, I melted onto my twin-sized bed in relief; I was officially an adult. Starting that August day, I was financially and emotionally on my own. There would be no more moving homes, no more veiled threats, no more walking on already cracked eggshells around new people. Two days later, it hit me that the oft uttered “on my own” was a mere euphemism for the estimated 29,000 children who will age of foster care this year and will be “all alone.” I was paralyzed by the knowledge that there would be no one to check on my well-being, no financial safety net, and no one to help navigate various barriers in place on a college campus. That first year was terrifying. I was alone, depressed, broke, and furious that, at 18, the system just dumped me.
While I could speak volumes on the aging out process and the system, this not a commentary about a foster care system under increasing pressure to find permanent homes for the hundreds of thousands of children in foster care. This is a post for the families. An ode of sorts for those who give with no ulterior motives, who never stop inviting people into their homes and their hearts, who never lock their refrigerators, and who endlessly and (some might say) recklessly pour into the lives of foster youth.
I was a sophomore in college when I found my forever family; well past the age of “adoptability.” I had long given up on finding a family and was focused on just “making it” when I miraculously stumbled into a loud, boisterous, laughter-filled, caring, and passionate family. It started when I came home with my “sister” for Thanksgiving to escape the dull of the dorms. They were the craziest, loudest, biggest family I’d ever had the pleasure of hanging out with. I came back for Christmas, New Year, and Easter. Each year for every holiday, I was invited back. In 2009, I reached a milestone. Five years was the longest I had ever spent with any family in my life; after that, it was just icing on the cake.
I won’t lie and say that it was easy to come into a new family at 19. It was awkward at first. I spent most of my time during the holidays quietly devouring books so as not to disturb the family dynamics and so I wouldn’t mess things up. Eventually though, my cousins conned me into one of their silly games, my “sister” would flop dramatically on my lap, an Indianapolis Colts game would be on, or we would all just gather for a few moments to listen to Grandma and Grandpa talk or pray for the family. I wept over simple things like actually having a stocking at Christmas, and family members who spelled my name correctly. Our relationship functioned much like a call and response — and they always responded.
As time has gone on, things have also gotten “real.” As a family, we mourned the loss of close friends from Taylor, and later, the loss of our grandmother. I battled with my own trust issues and the wondered if I was “good enough” for my family. I often hid my struggles from them in an effort to prevent rejection. Eventually my own strength failed me: I reached out to the family who surrounded me with love, prayer, and grace as I battled through my first year of law school. They were beside me during the midnight calls, the times of self-doubt, and the two weeks that make up finals week.
The value of my family comes from the extraordinary things they do that they believe to be ordinary. Like making dried apples, mixing homemade hot chocolate, giving me one of Grandma’s quilts, sculpting butter trees (don’t ask), talking all night, doing crossword puzzles, and eating grapefruit while watching “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” This year, I got to give Mother’s Day and Father’s Day gifts; and that is extraordinary. Most recently, while rushing out for work I glimpsed a letter in my mailbox from a member of my family letting me know that she thought I might like a nice note. Thank you Grandma S., I liked it very much. My family is not perfect, nor would they claim to be, but as many groups have stressed, you don’t have to perfect, to be a family.
I write this blog to highlight a simple point: You will never be too old to want a family. My family is this wonderful, unexpected, hilarious, and compassionate gift from God and I feel honored to have them in my life. But it also saddens me that there are 107,000 other children waiting for their own imperfect family. Even more disheartening are the 29,000 children who will age out of foster care this year by stumbling into adulthood with little support.
So to the families who have heeded the call and continually open their homes to my many brothers and sisters in foster care … thank you, and may you inspire the masses.