“It wasn’t like God came down and said ‘hey you need to do this’, but we kind of both knew that when the opportunity arose, that this was something we needed to do… something we were supposed to do… something we were meant to do,” Mike shares emphatically. “It was in a matter of minutes. There was no thinking about it. There was no indecision.” We all want to grow and have new experiences as long as we don’t have to change our lives. But as the Kellys’ story teaches us, this is how big change happens – all of a sudden.
It started with an email from Sylvia’s close friend. Sylvia forwarded it to Mike. Then she called him. Adoption was never something the couple had considered, not even something they’d ever discussed, but from concept, to consideration, to conclusion, both knew it was to be. No one understands the full implications of fostering a child until they’re actually doing it. According to The Adoption Network, many people enter into foster care thinking that they are rescuing a poor child from an abusive parent. These foster parents believe that the child will be grateful and believed to be out of their home situation. This is rarely the case. But Sylvia and Mike, who’ve been with DJ for over 2 years now, have proven they have a lot of love to give. As a Christian, it was important for them to demonstrate to DJ that families are actually great places to grow up and develop into mature adults. Considering the pervasive threat to family life (“3 days and $249 get’s you divorced!” according to a billboard on Metro Pkwy), you realize that this responsibility has much broader repercussions than meets the eye.
The Kellys’ never knew this brand of joy existed before DJ, but they don’t pretend it’s been easy. “The earliest frustration for me, was just not really knowing him,” Sylvia shares. “They instinctively have these walls built up. They don’t trust – they especially don’t trust adults – but it was the other way around too.” Sylvia grins as she remembers circumstances from the past that were, at the time, probably contentious, but now, just another growing pain in retrospect. “The thing was, he didn’t know us either! So whereas Xavier (the Kelly’s 12-year old son) would know when something is upsetting us, or in general, would know our expectations, DJ would just ignore our rules.” She refers to the unsaid rules parents have with their children after years of ‘programming’ (for lack of a better word). “We just took it for granted that he would know our wishes.”From DJ’s point of view, it’s hard for anyone to truly identify with his life. Many of us grew up in households with no shortage of tumult – parents fi ghting, parents splitting up, siblings with behavioral issues, alcoholism, etc. However, the physical place that we called home, the characters in our play and the unqualifi ed love of our parents remained relatively constant. Part of the mistrust foster children develop is due to the “lie” that each new family tells. This is not an outright lie, where a verbal promise is made and not kept, but a situational lie.
This is your home. We are your family. You can depend on us. We love you. When promises like these are repeatedly broken, a young person’s readiness to trust again diminishes exponentially. “It takes a long time to break down the walls,” says Mike. “When DJ fi rst came, we could tell there was a big wall there. He wasn’t sure if it was a long term thing or not, and no amount of us telling him it was would have convinced him.” Mike looks a bit scared, as if he’s remembering the emotions he felt when he was met with that obstacle for the fi rst time. “It was hard to overcome.” Overcoming the legal red tape proved a bit easier, but still not easy. The paperwork was mountainous, but in DJ’s situation, his parents’ rights had been terminated so no chance of further litigation posed a threat. “They want to know everything about your personal life, and then some, but we could understand that,” Sylvia recalls. “There were some questions that I found personally offensive, regarding the ‘cultural’ differences between DJ and ourselves.” DJ is an African-American. Mike and Sylvia are of Hispanic origin. “A child is a child, and assuming that we’d educate them on matters of race differently depending on what race they were, is kind of offensive.” Like the DMV or the correctional system, the foster care system is broken on purpose. They make it diffi cult, but the light at the end of the tunnel is blinding.
Despite the minor defects in the system, Mike and Sylvia describe the process as largely positive. When asked what is was that blew them away about the process, I anticipated the answer to be a complaint regarding blood tests or investigators rummaging through their garbage. Conversely, the couple both mentioned the overwhelming amount of support they had from DJ’s advocates. “The Guardian ad Litem, his case workers – there were about 3 or 4 appointments per month where they’d come and check up on him. It was actually kind of comforting knowing that the people in The System really cared,” says Sylvia. She continues, “One thing I’d defi nitely like to see is more support. If there were other foster parents we could talk to that are going through the same thing, I would love that. But people need to understand that you’re not in this alone. There are a network of people out there dedicated to these children.”
On life with DJ, “he has a bunch of brothers and sisters, so we’ll have them over to stay and we get to see them reunite and be together… It’s like a bonus package or something.
Even thought they’re not all living with us, we get to have them all in our lives to some degree. It’s really cool,” Mike shares. On the greatest part of life with DJ, “It’s seeing the progress in our relationship. You know, he was 14 when we met him, so there was a lot of catching up to do, but we’ve made long strides in a very short period of time.”
Sylvia follows up immediately, “It comes down to those times when something clicks. We’ll go periods where we sit there and look at each other and wonder ‘Are we getting through? Does he get what we’re trying to do? Then all of a sudden we’ll see a light bulb, and he’ll let his guard down. I think, okay… we’re getting there.” Sylvia beams when she talks about this.
After two years, the bumps have been smoothed out, but let’s not ignore that DJ is still a teenager, with all the accoutrements of that stage of development. He’s a junior at Bishop Verot and plays football – any position that potentially involves scoring. He’s extremely athletic and runs a 4.6/40, which is faster than my fi rst car. Like a lot of guys that age, he’s a man of few words, but when I asked him what he’s learned along his journey, he said that he was surprised that there were so many good people out there without families. It was surprising to me also.
We all have our Story of Life, and often the lens we look through is so thoroughly constrained by our past experiences, that we don’t notice the path that God has delivered us on. Meeting Mike or Sylvia on the street, or even in their home, you wouldn’t get the feeling you were around extraordinarily ‘holy’ people. They weren’t clutching rosary beads when they answered the door, nor were there statues of Mary in their yard, but what they did – what they describe as a momentary, intuitive decision to adopt a teenage boy – is one of the holiest things I can imagine. As an outsider looking in, it’s diffi cult to look beyond the obvious adversity fostering a child would entail. But it’s Mike and Sylvia’s story – and DJ’s and Xavier’s story – that make it diffi cult to imagine what could have been. They could have ignored that email. They could have kept their contented lives the way they were. They could have stayed the path. But how often have we taken the road less traveled and lived only to regret it? Not often, maybe never. Deviating from our comfort zone and entertaining the Voice always winds up teaching us something. At the end of the interview, I asked DJ what the biggest difference was in his life after meeting the Kelly’s. As if I’d asked him the time of day, “probably, being happy,” he answered.