The Healing Power of Unconditional Love

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

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

Possum Trot is so small you can’t find it on a map (not even on Google). We’re “back in the woods,” as folks here in East Texas say, a stone’s throw from the Louisiana border. No paved roads, not even a traffic light. There’s no need.

Lots of us work at the flooring plant or at Tyson Chicken over in Center. We live in double-wides on neatly maintained lots. No big fancy houses or swanky cars. Just a church at the edge of town called Bennett Chapel. That’s where my husband—I call him Pastor—preaches.

Everybody knows everybody and we look out for each other, especially one segment of our little community: 76 foster kids Possum Trot families have taken in. Not bad for a town of 600, right?

The idea to take in all those kids came to me after Mama died. I missed her something terrible. I was one of 17 children and she treated each of us like we were special. Never screamed or talked down to us. She gave us firm but unconditional love. She was our rock.

That morning 16 years ago, Pastor left for work and our two children, La-Donna, age nine, and Princeton, 15, went off to school. I was washing the dishes when I just broke down and started sobbing something awful right there at the kitchen sink.

“Lord,” I cried out, “I can’t take it anymore.” I threw down my dishtowel and stepped out the back door. Went out to the old wooden rocker under the oak tree and sank down.

Rocking made me feel better. In the cool breeze I seemed to hear God say: Think of all those children who don’t have what you had in a mother. I want you to give them that.

Really? I wondered. How? All the kids we had in Possum Trot were doing okay, far as I could see. The message came back at me: Adopt kids from foster care.

I knew next to nothing about adoption or foster care, but I hurried into the house, opened the phone book, punched in an 800 number and just like that I was signed up for foster parent classes in Nacogdoches, Lufkin just 60 odd miles down the road from Possum Trot (that’s right next door in Texas terms).

Pastor thought I’d gone crazy. So did my sister Diann, but I convinced them both to come with me to the classes. We heard some horror stories. The caseworkers were upfront with us.

We weren’t taking on Gerber babies. Many of these kids who’d been in the system were there because they’d been abused emotionally, physically, even sexually. They’d been shuffled from foster home to foster home. “Some of them lie or steal, they bite or cheat,” we were told. “They can’t trust and don’t understand love.”

Okay, Lord, I prayed. You can call this whole thing off anytime you want. Just give me the word.

But no word came.

Diann and I drove back and forth to Nacogdoches, Lufkin twice a week for two months and both of us got certified to be foster parents, with the hope of adopting. Diann was matched up first with four-year-old Nino, the cutest thing you ever saw.

The first Sunday she brought him to church, one hundred Bennett Chapel members crowded around, admiring him and his long dark lashes. “Who would give up this little man?” they asked.

Nino hugged Diann’s neck. “He’s all mine,” she said teasingly. “Y’all go get your own.”

Wouldn’t you know it? That was just about what everyone in Possum Trot did. The cool sweet Texas breeze that blew over me in the rocker covered our congregation with its message. Twenty-three church families signed up to take classes so they could foster parent and adopt too.

There were so many of us I convinced Child Protective Services to come to Possum Trot to get everyone trained. We would fill our hearts and our homes with children.

Pastor and I brought home five-year-old Mercedes and her two-year-old brother, Tyler. They’d been in five foster homes in the past year. Five in one year!

The first time I saw Mercedes, a scrawny kindergartner, she was standing barefoot in the playground of her latest school. She’d taken off her shoes and filled them with gravel and was playing all by herself. I couldn’t believe she didn’t have any friends.

“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?

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?

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.

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.

All the rest of that day my mind just wouldn’t let it go. What good was I really doing? That afternoon, when Terri walked in the door, reeking of cigarette smoke, I was at my limit.

“Terri, have you been smoking?” I demanded, much louder than I had intended. Still, I was ready for a battle. For lies and evasion. For attitude.

Terri looked right at me. I was shocked to see tears in her eyes. “Yes, Mom, I have,” she said, her voice quivering. Sometimes the truth will do that to your voice. The thing that got me, though, was that one beautiful word: Mom.

God had not just given me a daughter, he’d given Terri a mother, just like he’d given me a mother to love me no matter what. Love that was unconditional, love that could be trusted.

I pulled her close and hugged her as hard as I could. “I promise I won’t smoke ever again, as long as I live in your house,” she said. And you know something? She never did, not once. And she really got her act together at school too.

So how is it all working out? Terri is 23 now and works in Shreveport. Mercedes, she’s 20 and went to college for two years. She wants to be a social worker so she can help other children in the system. Joshua will start college in the fall and Tyler is a high-school junior.

Of the 76 kids little old Possum Trot has adopted, almost all have graduated from high school. They’re working full-time jobs at the flooring plant or at Tyson, like us, or studying in school or raising kids of their own.

Some people say it’s a miracle. If it is, it’s a two-way miracle. We gave them all the love we had and ended up with more love to share.

That’s something Mama would have understood. Every child is special, every child deserves to be loved. Even if it is in a little town back in the woods, with no paved roads, no stoplight, just a cool sweet Texas breeze that blows in when you least expect it.

 

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