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The Healing Power of Unconditional Love

Seventy-six abused or neglected kids find a home in the unlikeliest of places.

By Donna Martin, Center, Texas

As appeared in

“That’s because she steals the other kids’ lunches and snacks,” her teacher said. “Nobody wants to be with her.”

We’ll change all of that, I thought. Love can change anything.

In those first few weeks we did everything to make Mercedes and her little brother feel right at home. Stuff went missing: cookies, sodas, Vienna sausages, crackers. Was I not feeding the children enough? Was Mercedes sneaking into the kitchen at night?

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I investigated her room and didn’t find anything in her drawers or under her pillow. Finally under her bed I discovered a stash of food, most of it stale and moldy. I confronted her. She wouldn’t say much but finally it came out. Her mother had taught her to steal to survive. She thought that’s what everyone did.

At church we traded stories about our kids, how much we loved them, how often we had to reassure them. Trust was a real big deal. We promised them over and over that we weren’t going to send them back.

But those poor kids had big-time issues! Eight-year-old Michael? Abandoned and abused. Now he was in the home of empty nesters who doted on him. In the first six months, he ate like a horse. He must have grown nine inches. An obedient, polite child, he seemed to be doing fine.

But one night the family ordered in pizza. The mom told him to go wash his hands. He wouldn’t budge. Finally he said with tears rolling down his face, “Please don’t eat all of it. Save some for me.”

What these kids have been through could break your heart. Their past can just jump out at them like some monster in a closet. That poor boy thought he was going to miss his supper if he turned his back.

We did all we could to keep siblings together. Diann is a single mom and loved having Nino but wanted to add a sibling for him. Child Protective Services offered six-year-old Joshua—and his five-year-old brother, Randy. Could she give them both a home?

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She’s only got two bedrooms in her double-wide, but how could she refuse?

In the end she was so stressed she landed in the hospital with a thyroid situation. “Tell you what,” I said, “maybe Pastor and I can take Joshua. He gets on fine with Tyler and can see his brother anytime we get together or in church.”

Besides, like I said, Possum Trot is not exactly big. With all the extra kids, we’re like one big family.

Just like we planned, we adopted Tyler and Mercedes, and adopted Joshua. Yet that still didn’t feel like enough. That sweet cool breeze was still blowing. We signed up for one more, nine-year-old Terri.

Terri had been left alone so much and was so traumatized she insisted she was a cat. No therapist or psychiatrist could convince her to stop saying it. Well, it turns out that a tomcat was often her only companion. When we picked her up, she jumped into our backseat and curled up like a scared animal. “I’m a cat,” she said.

Lord, I asked, how am I going to help this poor girl?

Only thing I could think of was to tell her the truth. “Terri, we love cats in our family but out in the country where we live they sleep outside and we have a nice bed for you inside.”

We pulled up to our house. She crawled up to the front porch and stared at our yard. She crouched there on all fours taking it in, her eyes as wide as a cat’s. Then slowly she stood. “I don’t want to be a cat anymore,” she announced.

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Still, there were moments, especially in school. Mercedes kicked a boy; Tyler got into a fight. One morning when Terri was in ninth grade, I picked up the phone and it was the school policeman. Terri had been cutting classes and was flunking out—after swearing to me that she went to every class.

I hung up and collapsed in a chair. We’d wanted to make a difference in these kids’ lives, give them stability and a nice place to live. I wanted them to know they could trust us, yet they clung to their old ways. Lying, cheating, fighting.

I felt like a bad mother. Like it was my fault and I was doing something wrong. I burst into tears. Lord, I’m not sure I can do this anymore.