Somehow the year has flown by and November is now upon us, bringing with it cooler weather, pumpkin spice lattes, and plans for Thanksgiving dinners and holiday festivities. It is a time when families come together to celebrate the season, and a moment to reflect on the many blessings we have to be thankful for.
However, it is important to occasionally pause and be reminded that not all are so fortunate this time of year. Not everyone has a Thanksgiving meal to come home to or a family to call their very own.
Family is an important topic to me. I am not so sure there is such a thing as a “normal” family but I have a feeling mine lands on the more unusual end of the spectrum. Over the years, my parents adopted a total of 15 children. Most of those were children with disabilities and were not expected to thrive. Half were in wheelchairs. A few were not supposed to survive long past birth due to medical conditions. Others had once been the victims of horrific abuse or neglect. Many were deemed unadoptable.
The genesis of my family’s story was rooted in foster care. My mother and father were originally foster parents taking in difficult placements. These were typically children born with disabilities or children who, through abuse and neglect, had reached the point where they required advanced care.
There was, and still is, a desperate shortage of families willing to take medically fragile children. What is more, such children often have no biological family willing and able to care for them. This means there is often no long-term game plan for medically fragile children beyond a group home or a long-term care facility. In other words, medically fragile children typically face a reality marked by having no Thanksgiving table to sit at, no gifts under the Christmas tree to look forward to, no one to say those magical words, “I love you.” Put simply, it means having no family.
For these children who had almost no hope of a family, my parents found themselves time and again faced with a simple question that had profound implications: Could they give the child a better life than what would otherwise be possible? The answer was invariably: Yes. And so my family grew. And grew.
My family was a place for the children no one else wanted. It was a refuge where everyone had value. All were given an opportunity to be loved and to have the opportunity to achieve their full level of potential, irrespective of ethnicity, health or ability.
Now life was not always easy or pleasant. Growing up was an endless roller coaster of adventures, celebrations and scares. At times, it resembled a 24-hour acute care center. My family’s home was decorated with wheelchairs, feeding pumps, suction machines and oxygen tanks. Some days were bad days. Some days there were more tears than laughter. Yet the joys always outweighed the sorrows.
Sadly, for every child fortunate enough to end up in my family, countless more are not so lucky. Far too many children today are without families, unloved and forgotten. Such children are the most voiceless of the voiceless. So it is up to those who can speak up on their behalf to do so.
This issue is personal for me not only because it is easy to connect the dots between my siblings and all those still waiting for their chance to be loved. The fact is, I, too, was the beneficiary of an incredibly fortunate fate. I was placed up for adoption at birth. I could have been that kid who was tossed from home to home. I could have been that adolescent who became angry, bitter, neglected, forgotten, who eventually broke down and lashed out. I could have become another statistic.
To be placed into a loving home, as were 14 of my siblings, was, whether you want to call it divine providence or blind luck, highly improbable. Those facts resonate in my life deeply, and they compel me to give back to those who, through no fault of their own, did not receive the same chance I did.
In order to try to spark a public conversation on this issue, I had the privilege of partnering with Assemblymember Richard Gordon earlier this year to author California Legislative Resolution ACR 85, which declares November 2015 a month to raise awareness on behalf of medically fragile foster care and adoptive children. If a measure of a society is how it treats its most vulnerable, we should be sobered by the fact that so many children in California who want nothing more than a family, and who deserve nothing less, go without.
Of course, not everyone is in a position to adopt a child. But everyone can absolutely make a difference, whether that involves becoming a foster care parent, volunteering to work with children in need, or donating to one of the many wonderful yet often sorely underfunded programs that seek to place foster children into long-term families.
I know that making sure every child in California is safe and loved in the context of a family is a task of almost staggering proportions, and one that defies simplistic solutions. Yet I have faith that if everyone did their small part, the results might surprise us in ways we never could have dreamed of. And I firmly believe that if we will give these kids the same chance we would want for ourselves, not only will we never regret it – we will be a better people because of it.
Jonathan Nelson is an Associate with Weideman Group, Inc., a lobbying and consulting firm based in Sacramento, California. He is also a board member of Stanford Youth Solutions.