“For years, I had dreamed of the day I would be freed from my home of abuse. I didn’t fully believe it was possible – but wishing for that day and envisioning it was a much-needed escape from my reality. I was blackmailed to stay silent, fully knowing I would never be able to speak of the horrors in my home if I wanted to live to see another day. A day came, though, where I no longer cared about living another day. I no longer had hope for a better tomorrow, and with suicide notes written and my mind made up, it’s by the grace of God that the very day I planned to take my life also happened to be the day I was placed into the foster care system.
There I stood, a 17-year-old standing in the middle of a busy grocery parking lot just a stone’s throw from my high school, fresh blood encrusting the deep cut just under my eye, my breath as white as clouds in the chilly Oregon night air, the headlights of cars driving by sending waves of pain into my black eye, and my body as stiff as can be – frozen by fear unlike anything I had ever felt before. On May 24, 2010, with just the clothes on my back as my only personal possessions, I became a ward of the state of Oregon as case # IK73509.
A whirlwind of emotions warred within me for not only the next few weeks but also the next few years. When you’re removed from all you’ve ever known, however bad or good it may be, it is absolutely traumatic. Though I was placed in a physically safe home, that feeling of ‘safety’ is not something I had known for over a decade prior to it. I trusted nobody – except for myself. Though the food was always available there, I always felt like there’d never be enough for me. Though I was never alone in that home, I always felt like I was fending for myself in this life I was meant to figure it out all on my own.
My behaviors reflected those of a terrified little girl: flinching at every sudden movement, bursting into tears at the drop of a dime, and guarded with walls so high it was impossible to get close. At the core of me, though, that same terrified little girl just wanted to belong. I dreamed of having a mom to squeeze when I needed a hug, who would teach me how to be a young woman, and a dad who would keep me safe and stick around to show me not all men were out to hurt me as I had experienced before. I dreamed of parents who would pray for me, advocate for me, and cheer me on. I felt anything but worthy of these dreams – but in the depths of my heart, it was truly all I wanted.
As the countdown to aging out of the system started to tick faster and faster, the reality that I wouldn’t be adopted became more real. I started to hear the voice of my birth mother taunting me, as she had done for so many years while I was in her home. Her constant words of, ‘You’ll never find anyone who will love you,’ rang through my head as each piece of my heart shattered. After I aged out of the foster system without a family, I did all I could to deny my
dream of being adopted. I felt foolish for thinking anyone would ever want me as their daughter.
What I did have during my time in foster care was a caring community that surrounded me in the highs and the lows: graduating high school, struggling through grief, winning an art scholarship, navigating the sudden death of my Independent Living Program caseworker, singing at church, constant changes of foster care, getting a dream internship, and teaching me to drive. They did all they could to be as present as possible, giving so much of themselves to ensure I always felt cared for. We often hear the phrase ‘one caring adult can change a life’ and I consider myself so blessed I got to have so many of those ‘one caring adults.’
Two of those ‘one caring adults’ entered my life in 2012 as the new worship pastors at the church my foster parents worked at and where I attended for years. I refused to meet them. I wanted nothing to do with them. I had experienced so many adults entering and exiting my life, that at that point, I was exhausted from trying to believe any would stick around. It quickly became apparent, though, this couple wasn’t like the rest – or like anyone else I had met in my life, frankly.
Every passing month of knowing them led to memories made, moments cherished, and healing experienced. They took me in – just as I was. They pushed me towards growth and walked with me through the paths I walked on. They gave me a room to call my own during my last year of college when I was in need. Their faces were the ones I looked for as I walked across the stage at my college graduation. That season of living with them was the first time in my life I had ever experienced what it was like to be ‘home.’
In 2017, we moved to the state of Washington, and our shared experiences only increased from there. They assured me they would be whoever I wanted them to be in my life, and reminded me often that I would always have a seat at their table. As the years went on, the longing to be adopted rose up within me in a way that shocked even me. I knew they were meant to be my parents.
On May 31, 2019, I was adopted as an adult in a local courthouse that historically served as an orphanage. I walked in that day, a young woman with no parents, and walked out that day as a daughter to the only mom and dad I would ever want – a story only God could’ve woven together.
If there are two words in my life that were robbed from me, tainted for me, and distorted beyond all means, it would be ‘mom’ and ‘dad.’ Two words I never even was allowed to speak – but also two words I wished with all of me I could have in my vocabulary. Getting to have those words added to my life at the age of 26 has brought healing to my soul.
You never age out of the need for parents, for family, and for belonging.
It has taken me years to find my voice, to know I can speak up, and to use my voice to advocate for others. As a youth in foster care, I ached for a family to be a part of. I longed for a mom and dad to do the rest of my life with. I craved for a reality where forever, permanency, and security existed. I never outgrew the dream in my heart to be adopted.
There are scars left on my body that are visible, but the scars left within me are not obvious to the naked eye. I’ve had to learn to regulate my emotions. I’ve had to research the effect that trauma has on our nervous system. I’ve had to do the hard work of digging into that which I learned in survival mode so I can choose health and wholeness as I go on into the rest of my life.
I’m unlearning that which no longer serves me and learning for the first time the rhythms of being a redeemed person. Healing from a traumatic childhood is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do – but it wouldn’t be possible without the unconditional love and endless grace of my parents who are always there for me. Every single child from a hard place deserves to have people who will be there with them to cheer them on as they heal from their pasts and step into glorious futures.
When I was first asked to share my story in 2019, I remember feeling as if I was naked and exposed, feeling completely raw as I invited others into my world as I peered from behind a curtain. The difference I feel now, at the end of 2021, sharing this all, is one of great contrast. It proves to me that though trauma changes the brain, so does the healing. Though hurt is unavoidable, healing is possible. Though pain touches us deeply, so does the healing. There is always, always, always hope for healing.
Being adopted at 26 created a foundation that changed everything for me. As I continue to walk the healing journey, I have parents who will always walk right beside me. I’ve met so many family members and family friends who have taken me in as their very own. I never have to question my place to belong. Adoption has added so much to my life.
Memories are created daily that are etched into my heart, rewriting spaces left empty from my past, and constantly making me think that we could have missed this. I’m so glad we didn’t. Permanency creates stability. Stability leads to healing. Healing solidifies belonging. Belonging establishes identity.
The reality is that at this very moment, over 120,000 children and youth in our nation are waiting for families to belong in. They’re closer to us than most of us even know: in our neighborhoods, within our cities, all across our states.
I share because every child deserves a safe place to call home. There is a great need for foster homes in our nation, and especially for teens and sibling groups. These young are deserving of a nurturing and peaceful place to lay their heads at night, for however long it may be. Never underestimate the impact you can play as the ‘one caring adult’ that they all deserve to know. I share because if just one person reads my story and is compelled to care, it’s worth every inch of vulnerability, boldness, and emotion this has cost me to write.
I share because we can all play a part in caring for vulnerable children and families.
I share because I believe in a world with longer tables and higher fences.
I share because the waiting children and youth need me to – so that one day, you can hear from them, too.
Maybe you’re reading this and you’re thinking back to a moment when you thought about fostering. Maybe you’re reading this and you’re thinking about a friend you have that was adopted. Maybe you’re reading this and for the first time, you’re faced with the fact that there are vulnerable children and families all around you, and it’s time to do something about it. Whatever it may be, if you’re looking for a sign, this is it. ”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Annika Marek-Barta from Tacoma, Washington. You can follow her journey on Instagram. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories.
Read more from Annika here:
‘I’ll be back for you, I promise.’ I looked back with tears in my eyes. Her life is a revolving door of state workers and strangers.’: Adoptee becomes volunteer foster care advocate, ‘No act of love is too little’
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