Dad Rich Valenza founded an organization to help find homes for foster kids. One day he met a 15 year old who made him feel needed more than ever, a boy who still needs the home of his dreams.
“There is something about this kid,” the social worker said through the phone. “He looked at me and asked me if I could help him find him a family.”
She went on to describe Chris as tall, talkative, and gregarious. She warned me that he was concerned about aging out of the system at age 18 and not finding a foster or adoptive family.
I went to meet with Chris. It was a beautifully clear and sunny day as I drove east on the 134 Freeway. Southern California traffic gave me plenty of time to fully imagine who this kid was and to envision how our interview would go. I had it all figured out even before I took the exit.
Chris is a foster youth who lives in a group home with five other teen boys in Pasadena, California. At first glance, he is a young man with a towering and solid frame. There I was, standing in front of him and a little intimidated by how tall Chris actually is. He wore a zip-front sweatshirt with the hood up. We were introduced and shook hands. He had a good grip. But he looked away and I read him as being aloof. This wasn’t the kid I imagined.
Within a few minutes, his social worker walked us around to the backyard of the group home for a quiet space. Then she stepped back. Chris and I sat on opposite ends of a green picnic table. He removed his sweatshirt and leaned against a gray wooden fence. The birds were singing loudly in the trees overhead. Chris was quiet and looking down to avoid eye contact.
Where do I start with this kid? Up to this point, small talk wasn’t working so well. So I figured that I would just jump in.
Rich: What can you tell me about yourself?
Chris: I am a freshman about to become a sophomore. I’m 6’1” and a half and weigh 221 pounds, so I am a pretty big fifteen year old. I like doing different things like football, skating, art and music. If you ask me what type of music, it doesn’t really matter to me. I like rock and roll, rap. I like trying new things out, you know? I’m not a straight A student, but I’m an average student I guess.
As Chris spoke, his posture changed and so did mine. We both relaxed a little. My mind worked fast to reconstruct the preconceived image I had of Chris. Here is a kid that has no problem speaking up. He is not aloof. In fact, at 15, he has already mastered a quality that I most admire in people. Humility. This kid is humble.
Chris: I am the youngest brother of three. I have a little sister. My sister is nine years old. She is in a foster home nearby. I have a 19-year-old brother who is actually gonna become a father soon. He’s gonna have twins and he is staying with his girlfriend. I have a 26-year-old brother who is staying with his dad right now. And a 31-year-old brother who is in prison. I have my mom who is 52 and she stays with her friends. I have a step-dad who I visit every week with my little sister when I get a chance.
Rich: What do you imagine the difference would be between living here in a group home and living with a foster family?
Chris: Well, there are a lot of things different between group homes and foster homes. In a group home there’s only so many staff. So if you have an issue, you don’t really know who to go to because they don’t have time because they’re busy with the other kids. Group home staff is mostly busy half the time cooking for the kids and all that. In a foster home there might be this one parent who might stay home or who might be home when you need a “talking to,” and they’ll actually have time. I don’t feel comfortable in a group home. I think I’d rather be in a normal home with a real family. This is like not a family. These are people who want to help you, but a foster home is like a family. That is what I really want. That’s the difference.
Rich: If you were able to move into a family, what are you most looking forward to?
Chris: Spending time getting to know them. Just to, like, catch up on what I’ve been missing out on, you know, with a family. TThe type of foster family that I would want is a family who enrolls you in school. Has you go to school everyday.Talks to you when you need talking to. Who disciplines you. Because I need someone. Because I never really had discipline as a child so that’s one thing I would want. Someone I could depend on, someone I could trust, someone that would watch over me. Someone who can help me with my homework. Just like an average family who doesn’t see you as different because you’re not a part of the family. I would want a family who has open arms, who will welcome you to their home, who are like, “You are one of us now.” That’s the type of family I would want. I didn’t really have parents like that because I have been in and out of the system. I mean I have a family and all that. It’s just they’re not doing what they’re supposed to.
I am amazed at how mature and clear Chris is about family and the roles of a parent and child. How did he come up with that clarity?
Rich: What would you like to say to someone who is considering fostering or adopting?
Chris: What I will say is you should look into it because there are kids out there who are trying to find a home and who are in need. If you are the type of person who wants to help someone in need, I think that’s a good job, you know? If there is a parent out there who wants to become or is thinking of it, I think you should.
Rich: You said a little bit ago, and if you don’t like the question you don’t have to answer, but you said you would like to be like a member of the family. Do you feel like you could love a foster family like your own?
Chris: Yeah. I show love. When you first meet me, at first you might think, “Oh, this dude looks angry.” But if you get to know me, I’m good. I’m a nice person. If you’re nice, I’ll be nice, too. I respect adults. I don’t disrespect adults. I respect my peers. I’m a loveable person, you know?
I marvel at how well this 15-year-old foster kid knows himself.
Rich: Would you be okay having parents who were gay or lesbian?
Chris: Yeah, I mean, I don’t judge. If a man and a man or a woman and a woman love each other, as long as it’s real love, yeah, I don’t have an issue with it. I don’t judge.
Rich: So, you’re a talented kid, too. You are an artist. I hear you’re a poet.
Chris: Yeah, I like poetry. Mostly, I use my poetry in my rap music. I like rap. I do abstract art. Sometimes I draw, but mostly I am trying to stick to my music. I’ve been rapping since I was in elementary. ’Cause, like, hip-hop is popular now, more popular than it was back then. It’s a good way to rap about your life. It’s like poetry, but it’s a way to actually flow, to be heard by people. That’s the whole reason I want to do music is because I want to be heard. I want people to hear my story.
Rich: Have you written something you’re most proud of that you’d want to share?
Chris: Yeah, I wrote this when I was probably twelve years old. It starts like…
My life is crazy,
I went into foster as a baby.
You wanna know why my momma was drugged up when she had me.
Now look at me
twelve surviving in the streets.
No mother no father but I still gotta find a way to eat.
I mean my father wasn’t there to take care of me.
My momma was.
She used to come and visit me when I was in the hospital on the bus.
They took me away
when I was just a couple weeks.
Sometimes when I rap this it kinda still hurts me.
I learned long ago that we live in a culture where youth is prized and age gets little respect. Unfortunately, the same holds true in the foster system where the older foster kids get, the less likely their chances of finding foster or adoptive homes.
At 15 years of age, Chris is a great kid who is looking for a family and home in which he can love and be loved. RaiseAChild.US wants to help.
Kids like Chris are the inspiration for our work at RaiseAChild.US, where we believe every child deserves a safe, loving, and permanent home. Chris represents tens of thousands of kids in the United States who, through no fault of their own, were simply dealt a bad hand in life. I believe that many of us have an innate sense of what it means to feel left out. If you understand Chris and his life’s challenges, I encourage you to open your heart and consider fostering Chris or any other youth in foster care. To inquire about how you could change Chris’ life, visit RaiseAChild.US.
Originally published here.
Photo: Flickr/Sudhir Banthia