She is 15 years old and she's angry. Her nose is self-pierced; her hair is pink and black and very long and ratty. She curses too much and she has very little respect for authority. Her legs are covered in thin lines, some scars and some fresh, jagged cuts made from a razor blade.
She cares way more about her abusive boyfriend than her schoolwork and she's very close to failing out. She is on three different medications to treat depression. She has tried to commit suicide twice already. Currently, she lives in a treatment facility with other kids who have all but given up on themselves.
I didn't meet this young girl on this Ultimate Wish Tour that I am on. I've known her all my life. This little girl was me in 1993.
Fast forward 21 years and I am a proud wife of nearly 10 years, a doting mom of 2 beautiful 6 year-old girls and I run a fast-growing, million-dollar nonprofit. I've been featured on NBC Nightly News, Katie Couric and I was a 2013 Top 10 CNN Hero. (Anderson Cooper even told me he was a fan!) I've given a talk at TEDx and I've traveled more than 20,000 miles granting wishes to thousands of kids in foster care. People from all over the world write to me to tell me that my work, my life, inspires them to do more, to do better.
But I am still medicated -- down from three to one. I still suffer daily from bouts of anxiety and occasionally deep depression. Sometimes I turn to alcohol to get through a tough day. When times are really hard I still have to remind myself that cutting my legs is not going to solve anything. But still, I am thriving. I am successful, smart, fulfilled and helpful.
So how come no one gave up on me all those years ago? How did I get here?
This summer as I'm traveling all over this beautiful and diverse country of ours, I am meeting kids who are a lot like me. They are scared, they are a little lost and they are unsure of who they are or why things have happened to them. They don't know how to process their rage or their insecurities. They don't trust people.
But unlike me they don't have a loving mother who sits up with them throughout the night when the pain is unbearable and unexplainable, a mother who will just hold them while they cry and tell them the pain will go away. They don't have parents vetting countless doctors and pushing back on excessive medications or treatments that aren't making things better.
Instead they have a file. These children are labeled; identified by disorders that would scare anyone, especially someone looking to bring a child into their home. They are fire starters and sexually inappropriate and chronically depressed and hyperactive. They are profiles on paper or computer screens.
What if that had been me? What if I hadn't had a mother and a father who told me daily that I was beautiful and bigger than my illness? What if I hadn't had my sisters to laugh with every day and to grow up with and look up to and to mentor? No one gave up on me then and they still haven't.
The children I am meeting are so much more than you can read about in a therapist or caseworker's report. They are more than what has happened to them in the past. They are more than their behaviors and their illnesses and their diagnoses. They can be the next mothers, fathers, business owners, doctors, teachers, scholars and soldiers. These children are me...they are just waiting for their someone to believe in them enough to support them and advocate for them and most importantly, they need someone they can trust won't ever give up on them.
No person is easily explained. No photo or bio can tell you who someone really is. So I want to challenge all of you who have decided that children in foster care are "broken" or "needy" or "too much to handle" to look beyond what you can read on our website or any other adoption or foster care website.
Imagine how much progress the children could make if we gave each of them the voice, the shoulder and the hope that I had. Love is a powerful thing. It heals, it empowers and it truly saves. And I know there are plenty of you reading this that have lots of extra love to share.
For more about children in foster care in the United States waiting to be adopted and the Ultimate Wish Tour visit here.
Author's Note: I am in no way suggesting that people can just love away mental illness or other disorders. I myself continue to rely on therapy and medication to ensure that I am the best version of myself. Anyone interested in parenting a child with issues or illness should be prepared to be a stellar advocate for their emotional, physical and developmental needs.
If you'd like to reach out to me about to share your story, I'd love to hear it.