How a Dad—and His Dogs—Show Kids the True Meaning of Family

This man’s heartbreaking childhood inspired him to help children in need.

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Posted in , Dec 23, 2021

Peter, his adopted son, Anthony, dogs Simba and Rafiki, and his foster children

My 13-year-old son, Anthony, jumped out of bed one morning in March 2020 and asked me the question he’d asked every day for the last eight weeks. “Are we going to pick up the dog today?”

Two months earlier, a couple from Texas had reached out to me on social media. Their goldendoodle was pregnant, and they wanted to give us one of the puppies as soon as they were weaned. I wasn’t sure. As a single dad, I had my hands full. I had been struggling with getting Anthony, whom I’d recently adopted, to trust that I was his forever family. Besides, I hadn’t grown up with pets. I hadn’t grown up with much of anything.

I grew up in Uganda. My family was so poor that there wasn’t enough food for us, let alone an animal companion. The extreme poverty wasn’t the worst part. My father beat my mother, my siblings and me every day. When I was 10, I ran away. I boarded a bus to Kampala, the capital city of Uganda, more than 300 miles from home.

For the next four years, I lived on the streets of Kampala. I spent my days at the produce market, offering to help customers bring purchases to their cars. As I carried their bags and boxes, I’d snatch a piece of fruit or two. One day, a family gave me some food in exchange for my help. They continued doing so a few times a week. They were the only people to ask my name since I’d left home.

After nearly a year, they asked me to live with them and offered to pay for me to go to school, I asked, “Why would you do that for me?”

The man said, “You matter, Peter. You are brave, and we don’t want you to be alone anymore.”

His offer—and his words—seemed too good to be true. Still, I said yes because I would no longer go hungry.

My foster parents enrolled me in a mission school that was affiliated with a Christian humanitarian organization. They taught me about a heavenly Father who loved me unconditionally. They not only told me I had value and potential, but they also showed me. Slowly, I grew to trust them. For the first time in my life, I felt seen and loved—like I belonged in this world.

After attending college in California on a scholarship, I accepted a job working as a translator and devoted my life to helping vulnerable children. For the next 11 years, I traveled to 101 different countries to help children in need around the world. My faith grew, and I prayed that someday I would become a father.

In 2016, I settled down in Oklahoma and bought a three-bedroom house. I got approved to be a foster parent and soon had kids filling the extra bedrooms. Now, here I was, four years later, with an adopted son who watched my every move, wondering if he could fully trust me. I hadn’t planned on adopting Anthony. He was the eleventh and oldest child I’d fostered, and I’d taken him in at the last minute.

“I’m taking a break from fostering,” I told the caseworker who called about the placement in 2018. Four days earlier, I’d had to say goodbye to the two brothers I’d been fostering for seven months. My heart was hurting, but the caseworker talked me into taking Anthony, just for the weekend. I purposely didn’t ask any questions about his situation because I didn’t want to get attached.

Anthony arrived in the middle of the night. “Can I call you Dad?” he asked.

“No, you can call me Mr. Peter. You’re only staying for the weekend, remember?” I needed to keep my distance and protect my heart.

Monday morning the caseworker came to pick up Anthony. I finally asked why he was in foster care.

“His biological mother abandoned him when he was two,” she said. “He was adopted, but it didn’t work out. His adoptive parents dropped him off at the hospital when he was 11 and never came back. They relinquished their parenting rights.”

“What will happen to him now?”

She shook her head. “He has no family, and foster homes here are full. I’ll have to take him to a group home.”

I looked at Anthony. Something in his eyes made me think of the scared, lonely boy I had once been, living on the streets of Kampala. “I’ll take him,” I said.

As the weeks went by, the more I saw of my younger self in Anthony. He read voraciously, helped around the house and asked me for very little. He was working too hard to please me—a clear sign that he didn’t trust my commitment to care for him.

One afternoon, I came into the kitchen and Anthony immediately started cleaning up.

I stopped him. Would he always wonder if I was going to give him up? “You don’t need to work so hard,” I said. “This is your forever home. You belong here. You can be yourself.”

He shrugged. “I just don’t want to mess this up.”

My heart broke for him. I was more determined than ever to adopt him and make him feel loved.

On November 12, 2019, Anthony’s adoption was finalized. Being a dad was the dream I’d prayed for, and it was finally coming true. There in the courtroom, I hugged my son, silently pleading with God, Help Anthony trust me. Help him feel seen.

In early 2020, we moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, where I started a new job. Not long after, the couple in Texas offered us this puppy that Anthony couldn’t stop thinking about. He had been asking about the dog ever since.

That morning in March, he asked again. There was such hope in his eyes that I set aside my doubts. The puppy was weaned now. “Yes,” I told Anthony, “we’re going to get the dog today.”

We drove 16 hours to Texas to pick up our bundle of fur and energy. We chose the name Simba—after the character in The Lion King—because Anthony wanted me to have a reminder of Africa. He was still trying to earn my approval.

Simba was adorable, but he tested my patience (as puppies do, I’ve learned). One day, he had an accident on the carpet. I sighed and reached for the cleaning supplies. Then I noticed Anthony was watching me intently. “It’s okay, Simba,” I said. “Mistakes are a part of life. You belong here and we still love you.”

Anthony’s shoulders relaxed. “Yeah, nothing you do can mess this up, Simba. We’re family now,” he said.

More and more, I saw how our goldendoodle was the answer to prayer, an answer I would’ve never imagined. Having this goofy pup around encouraged Anthony to relax, laugh, be silly. He was finally being himself. Even when Anthony was upset, Simba stuck by him, loving him no matter what.

Anthony came to see that not only in Simba but in me as well. People can truly care about you—a message he wanted to pass on to other foster kids.

In 2020, Anthony and I started an organization called Now I Am Known. The name comes from the affirming message my foster father gave me. Words that changed my life. You matter. You belong. You are seen and known. You are not alone. I made a yellow bandana with those words printed on it and tied it around Simba’s neck—a constant reminder for Anthony and the foster kids that stay with us. We designed a plush Simba wearing the bandana. For each plushie we sell through our website, we donate one to an organization that helps vulnerable children.

Last May, I realized that one dog wasn’t enough for our family. We welcomed Rafiki the labradoodle, who, like Simba, was a gift from someone who’d heard our story. I’m currently fostering three children. The dogs keep the kids occupied, encourage family walks and make the best cuddlers. Most of all, they show the kids what God wants all of us to know: You are loved.

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