Fighting to Beat the Odds
Mackenzie never expected to be where she is today—a happy and healthy 19-year-old high school graduate working on a nursing degree.
Mackenzie spent years in the foster care system trying to find her place in the world. She entered the system when she was about 8 years old. She struggled to adjust, as many children do. She started acting out and wondered if she would ever find the right home for her. When she turned 15, Mackenzie had a realization. She decided that no matter her circumstances, she would try her best to beat the odds.
“I realized it was now or never to get my act together or I wouldn’t have the good life I wanted,” said Mackenzie.
While she was living in a group home in Charlottesville, Mackenzie learned that she could stay in the system and receive services and support until she turned 21. She gathered information about DePaul’s Independent Living program and decided to move forward in that direction. She knew the program was the key to unlock the future she wanted.
These days, Mackenzie looks back on her time in foster care and does her best to understand the difficult emotions and memories that come along with it. She remembers being a young girl in school trying to explain to her peers what the foster care system was, and why she was in it. She remembers the feeling of trying to protect herself from the questions she wasn’t ready to answer. She wishes people of all ages had a better understanding of what the foster care system is, and she wishes kids weren’t made to feel different just because they are growing up in the system.
Mackenzie is thankful for everyone who has guided her and helped her through tough times. She is also thankful for the power she found inside herself to fight for the life she wanted.
Entering the World…and the Foster Care System
Children enter the foster care system at all ages. Some when they are older, some when they are younger, some when they have just been brought into this world.
Meet Rachel. Today she is a happy, energetic, and thriving 4-year-old. She has an older sister that loves her fiercely, and a mother and father who are devoted to her. But her life did not always look like this. She spent her early moments on this Earth in the foster care system.
On December 9, 2015, Shelly and Brent received a phone call about a 3 ½-week-old baby girl in need of a home. Shelly and Brent had thought about fostering to adopt for many years. After feeling the call in their hearts and seeing ads about becoming a foster parent, they decided it was time. They found DePaul after learning a friend at their church was a foster parent with DePaul. When they received the call on that December day, Shelly and Brent were ready and willing to welcome that baby girl home.
As Shelly was saying “yes” through the phone, she learned that the baby girl, Rachel, was born with spina bifida. Shelly and Brent weren’t sure what that would look like from a caregiving standpoint, but the next morning, they arrived at the hospital NICU to meet Rachel.
“As soon as I looked at that baby girl, I knew it didn’t matter what she was diagnosed with, she was ours for however long she needed us,” said Shelly.
It was an easy decision to give Rachel the home she needed, but it was a hard realization that her life was changing so soon. As Shelly pulled out of the hospital parking lot with Rachel, the tears began.
“The precious moment of taking this new baby home would forever belong to me. She was starting her life and we were the ones who would be at the beginning of her story,” said Shelly. “We felt the privilege and the tragedy of that moment. She was experiencing loss, even at 4 weeks old.”
During the next two years, Shelly and Brent devoted their days to caring for Rachel and working their way through the foster care system, with the help of DePaul. They learned how to properly care for her and unlike in most foster care cases, they were involved in meetings with her birth family. They answered questions her birth parents had about spina bifida, doctor appointments, and therapy.
At the end of those two years, Shelly and Brent were able to adopt Rachel, and officially welcome her into their family. The sweet little girl who had spent her early days floating in the foster care system had finally found her forever home.
Shelly and Brent hope more people will recognize the need for loving foster families. They hope people recognize that there are so many children out there that need a home and a family that will support them and help them grow.
The Turning Point
Chris Stanley is finishing up his day at the Army station he calls home. This is his first unit after graduating basic training. He stays busy here; he’s getting ready for a training that will teach him to rappel out of a helicopter. He is mature and considerate. He finishes most sentences with “ma’am” and “sir.”
Chris’ journey to this place was not easy.
Chris entered foster care when he was 15 years old. He had been living with his grandmother, who was sick at the time, and extended family. A lack of support led him to start skipping school and acting out. When he came into care, he struggled. He admits he didn’t like to listen or follow rules. He wanted to do whatever he wanted whenever he wanted. He spent a couple years going from foster home to foster home, but he was never able to find his forever family.
Staff in DePaul’s Abingdon office began walking alongside Chris during this time. They encouraged him, supported him, and worked to find the right home for him. Then, it happened.
Chris was welcomed into Helen’s home. She was a foster parent ready and willing to love a teenager who was struggling. After some time in her home, Chris, who was 18 at this point, decided he would try life on his own. He chose to leave Helen’s home, and put the foster care system behind him.
“I saw that the world wasn’t what I thought it was going to be. I thought I could handle it and take it on alone,” said Chris.
It’s hard to imagine what Chris was feeling at this point—wrestling with the fact that he was 18 and completely on his own. While most teens his age would be starting their college years, or a career, he was struggling to support himself and on the verge of being homeless.
It was in those dark moments that Chris made a decision that would shape the rest of his life. He pulled himself out of the fog he was in, and admitted he needed help.
“Sometimes you have to see it yourself to believe it, and you have to go through it to learn. I realized by struggling and going through that time that I wasn’t where I needed to be. I still needed support and help,” said Chris.
He reached back out to DePaul and asked for a second chance.
“DePaul was there for me, in my corner 100 percent, ready to help me,” said Chris.
Chris came back into the foster care system under Fostering Futures, a program available to teens and young adults after they turn 18. The program is voluntary and provides participants with financial and social support and services until they turn 21.
Helen, the foster mom who Chris had left, welcomed him back with open arms. He began receiving counseling services through DePaul that helped him open up, stop suppressing his emotions, and start planning for his future. He had a home, he felt love, he felt supported, and that transformed his life.
Chris had always wanted to join the Army. It was a dream from an early age. Through his turbulent time as a teen, he lost that dream. At that time, he was struggling to hold onto anything—the dream slipped right through his fingers. When he came back for his second chance, he was able to dream again.
Today, Chris is excited for his future. He is proud to be part of the Army. He is 21, which means he is officially out of the foster care system. But that doesn’t mean he’s alone. He keeps in touch with DePaul staff members, who were some of the first people to congratulate him when he graduated basic training. He has a home with Helen and feels like part of the family. Her name in his phone is “Mom.”
“She went through a lot with me and never gave up on me,” said Chris. “She helped me build myself back up and become the man I am today.”
Chris knows that his story could have been so different if he hadn’t found Helen. Or if he hadn’t had the unwavering support of DePaul. Or if he hadn’t been given a second chance. He hopes that his story will show how life-changing love, family, and support can be for a teen “aging out” of the foster care system.