In my letters of recommendation there were two comments from different people that touched me.
One friend wrote : Valarie is like the pied piper for children, she is naturally at ease with them and they know it. Children are inexperienced about the world but they have an innate sense for identifying sincere adults that show them genuine love and concern. Even the most bashful or the toughest, misbehaving kids are like putty in her hands.
Another friend wrote: Some people have children and become mothers, Valarie was born a mother.
At my shower were two of my babies now 34 and 26. Children (uhmm...grownups) that entered my life almost 18 years ago.
- From 14-15 I worked as a hospital volunteer on the pediatric wing of a hospital.
- At 16 I was part of a special program that taught basic skills to fourth, fifth and sixth graders in economically disadvantaged schools.
- From 19-21 while a college student I mentored a 9 year old girl through Big Brothers / Big Sisters
- At 24 when I moved to Chicago I was a Junior Achievement adviser working with children who lived in between two rival gang territories and several of our students were known gang members. We spent very little time on JA projects. We spent much more time on life management, resolving conflicts, self-esteem, and growing up without parents. The facility had armed guards that sat at the ends of the hallways, there was a manned tower on the parking lot and I was escorted to my car each night. That is where I met a young 16 year old named Michael who shook me to the core when I asked him what he intended to do with his life. He told me that he would probably never live to be 18 but if he did he promised me that he would make something of his life. From that moment I learned that the outer shell was only that and inside was always a young child looking for unconditional love and acceptance.
- At 25 because of the many youth programs that I was involved in I was asked to work with a large inner city church to help them develop a youth education program. I lead a group of 40 adults over a five-month period to create Project Hope. It was a holistic plan for meeting children where they are and leading them to where they need to be. Parts of it are still used some 15 years later and led by one of my grown up kids.
- I stayed on at the church for several years serving as the Leader of Christian Youth education and spent most of my time teaching teen bible study and children's Sunday school. I counldn't teach it without living it and developed a system where we used the children's daily issues to lead the classes.
- It was the first time (far from the last) that I was asked and paid as a keynote speaker for Youth Education. That led me to graduate school where I further developed the HOPE principles and youth education programs that I began teaching to groups of adults who work with children.
- A two-year old family member in a pretty tough spot ended up coming to Illinois to stay with me over a period of time. She is definitely the child that changed my life and how I see children. She did not want to return to her home and letting her go was pretty tough on me too. Because of the circumstances she came back at age 4 and again at age 8 before becoming a ward of the court that would not allow me to adopt her from another state. She taught me that children are what we write on them and that they watch how we live more than they listen to what we say. I have strongly advocated for children every since.
- I worked in a program for teen girls and become the surrogate mom to a 16-year old for the next two years that had an absentee mother that would frequently take 1-3 week long trips out of town leaving the girl home alone.
- I met a 13 year old girl who told me that her goal in life was to DIE! Recognizing some struggles of other young girls like her, I created a program called Eyes Like Mine which was a 9-month mentoring program for girls 8-14. The girls spent one weekend a month in my home where we had structured events from Friday to Sunday. Many of the girls had never been to restaurants, or office buildings but we did it all and traveled to college campuses in other states. The girls came to know me as a strong advocate and a tough disciplinarian. I have a box of projects they completed, letters they wrote, and promises that I had asked them to keep. Several of their numbers are still in my phone and I am still "mom" to some of them.
- One of these children eventually came into my home on an emergency temporary order of the court. I am still mom to her and she will fight you (if I'd let her) if you say otherwise.
- One of the older girls, too old for the program but without a mother was brought to me with a desire to go to college, we scrambled and got her into a school in Florida and I had to work with the administration to manage a lot of situations that a parent would on her behalf.
- Another family member began spending summers with me at age 5 and eventually lived with me for part of second grade at age 7. Even after he did not live here, he and his brother was here each day after school. I had also been the babysitter of their mother when she was a child many years before. These babies of mine are now 12, 16 and 32 and my relationship with them is still that of a parental figure. My boys refer to me as their aunt but I do feel like grandma.
- Last year I completed a program with the Chicago Public schools teaching life, leadership, and conflict resolution skills to 5th, 6th, and 7th grade students with some pretty complicated backgrounds. Helping children set life goals when they can't see beyond next week can be heartbreaking.
I definitely don't know it all but I've seen a lot from the terrible 2s to the hot 22s. Without these experiences I would never I've jumped into the deep end of the adoption ocean. Parenting is a tough job but there is nothing more rewarding. I am so grateful to all of my grown up and almost grown up kids that allowed me to practice on them over the years and have encouraged me every step along the way towards adoption.
I love each of you babies so much!