By Dawn Teo.
This past November, my husband and I adopted our Mackenzie from foster care. She was only six months away from her 18th birthday and had spent more than half her life in the care of the state.
"Mom, we need to do something to show people the magnitude of foster care in Arizona. Most people can't even picture 17,000 kids, much less understand just how many of us there are," Mackenzie said one day, out of the blue.
"Let's create a video. We can get 17,000 pieces of candy or something and give people a visual."
Mackenzie knows too much about foster care. She lived in 26 "placements," which she says is really "just a dressed up way of saying I left everything and everyone behind 26 times in my life."
She has had so many "homes" that it took her several tries to remember them all.
"When I moved in with you," Mackenzie confided to me, "I didn't believe anything you told me. You told me you were buying me a phone so that I could call you in an emergency. I didn't believe that. You told me that you would buy me decent clothes. I didn't believe that. You said all these things, and I didn't believe any of it because that's just not what it's like in foster care. I'd never lived anywhere with people like you."
At this point, our conversation turned to shoes and hoodies. Busted, outgrown shoes and threadbare hoodies. The unofficial uniform of foster care.
When our daughter first came home to us, weeks before her "sweet 16" birthday, she had one pair of shoes. A pair of old, dirty, split-down-the-sides tennis shoes. Her lone pair of shoes were split in all the right places. The growth spots. They were split around the outer edges of the balls of her feet and around the bend of her heel and on the inner edging and on the tops of her big toes. They were a full two and a half sizes too small.
Mackenzie wore this pair of shoes on her first visit to meet her forever family (that's us) for the first time with a very pretty size-too-small dress. She wore this pair of shoes to church. She wore this pair of shoes to school. She wore this pair of shoes everywhere because it was all she had.
Our daughter did not come to us straight from a home charged with neglect. She came to us after nearly a decade in the care of state-supported foster homes who were responsible for meeting her basic needs. Yet, she had only one pair of shoes that did not fit.
The second time Mackenzie was placed with us, she had no shoes.
After being moved from our home, she lived for several months in a group home where conditions were so bad that she risked life and limb to hitchhike back to us.
Mackenzie appeared on our doorstep with her size 10 feet stuffed into size 7 sandals. It looked incredibly painful, but she swore she just borrowed these sandals because she liked them. Later, we learned that she no longer had any shoes, and the group home had done nothing about it.
She was going to school every day with bare feet. A few times, teachers asked why she was not wearing her shoes, and she told them, "I don't have shoes." When they asked why not, she replied, "I live in a group home." That was always where the conversation ended.
"If I lived with my birth parents and came to school with no shoes every day, they would have called the Hotline to report neglect, but no one calls to report neglect or abuse on a CPS group home," our daughter explained matter of factly. "They just expect it and ignore it."
After nearly a decade of this treatment, when Mackenzie arrived in our home the first time, she did not believe our promise to buy her new shoes. Shoes that she did not ask for because she did not expect to receive them. She was appreciative to just be in a home, far from the violence and instability and drama of the modern day orphanages that we call "group homes."
When she arrived the second time, Mackenzie knew she was finally coming home to safety, stability, love, and shoes.
Mackenzie did live in one good home, once upon a time. We want to acknowledge that, and she acknowledges it with gratitude often. L & G, you know who you are. You had a profound, positive effect on our daughter's life.
Almost every foster child who has come into our home from another foster home has had only one pair of busted, ill-fitting shoes. Most of these children could put fingers through the holes in their shoes. One child, after our first shopping trip, showed us how two fingers would fit through the bottom of the single pair of shoes that this child had arrived with.
In this moment of recollection, it dawned on us. Shoes. Mackenzie could create her video with shoes. Then, the shoes could be donated to foster children.
Foster children need shoes. Good shoes. Shoes that fit. Shoes that they are proud to wear with a pretty dress or a Sunday suit or with a favorite pair of jeans. Shoes that are good enough to join a sports team. Shoes that give a kid confidence to make friends at a new school when moving from home to home.
What better visual to show people just what 16,990 kids in foster care truly looks like than 16,990 pairs of empty shoes laid out in rows?
So, my daughter asked for 16,990 pairs of shoes. One to represent every child in Arizona foster care.
What better gift to a child who has no stable home, no family, and no shoes.