In the city of San Diego, a four year old named Miaja would wake up every morning and get herself ready for preschool. Before she left the house she would wake her three-year old brother, brush his teeth, comb his hair and pack his lunch. They would leave the house earlier than the other pre-school kids, because they had a 30-minute walk ahead of them. At the age of four, Miaja was raising herself and playing mother to her brother because their mother was unable to care for them.
When Miaja was 8 years old, she moved to Douglasville, GA to live with her grandma. She loved the house she lived in but hated the kids in her new class. She was constantly teased about her looks, which lowered her self-esteem. For the next five years, Miaja bounced back between San Diego, Douglasville and couches that belonged to friends; unable to find security or stability. Eventually her mother and brother moved to GA and got a trailer, so they could all live together again.
The summer before her sophomore year in high school, Miaja found out she was pregnant. “My body went warm”, she said upon receiving the news. “I had asked my mother all summer to take me to the doctor so I could get on birth control but she never took me.”
“I wanted an abortion. Me and my boyfriend saved every ounce of money we had for three months to pay for one.” At the end of her first trimester, they had saved enough money for the procedure but upon hearing the heartbeat at the appointment, everything changed. “I heard the heartbeat. It was a whole person. So, I took the money we saved and bought diapers instead.”
Amiyah, Miaja’s daughter, was born a month early and Miaja’s boyfriend was in jail at the time. Overwhelmed by her new duties as a mother and embarrassed by her current relationship, she was fighting to make it through the days. Her mother left their trailer one day and never came back. Miaja, now 17, and her new baby were totally on their own.
A month after her mother left their home, DFCS was called to the trailer by a neighbor and they placed Miaja and Amiyah in foster care. Miaja’s foster family gave her the love and support she had always needed and never gotten. They helped her finish high school, helped her buy a car and pushed her to further her education. All the while, Miaja cared for her daughter while going to school and working part-time. “I don’t know what I would have done without my foster family” she says.
Miaja is currently enrolled in the Families First Independent Living Program (ILP), so that she can continue to receive support and educational guidance, now that she’s officially aged out of care. In the summer of 2014, Miaja was hand-picked to participate in the YearUp Atlanta program, which will help increase her knowledge of technology and give her options for a career in the future. “I know a lot for a 19 year old. But I also know that I will do whatever it takes to offer Amiyah the protection, stability and support I never had. Now that I have help, I want to keep going.”
In 1890, Families First was started as the Leonard Street Orphans’ Home for Colored Girls. In 1937, we became the first private licensed adoption agency in the state of Georgia. So, for over 124 years, we’ve been helping children find families and vice versa. The Georgia Adoption Reunion Registry helps those affected by adoption find their birth families. Here is one touching story of the reunion between a mother (Kathy) and her daughter (Claire); 38 years in the making.
“This picture was taken on the first day that Claire and I met which was 2/2/08. It was 17 days after we first talked to each other on the phone and 24 days from the day I knew she was OK and alive! I had waited 38 years to see her again and I was convinced for all that time that it was never going to happen. But thanks to the Georgia Adoption Reunion Registry we were able to find each other. And, now, it is almost 2 years later and my daughter and I are still communicating every day.
Claire and I have developed a strong bond and a relationship built on trust and love. I cannot begin to express the absolute joy that I feel to be able to have my child back in my life – to once again have that which I had thought was lost and gone forever. It has been a journey that has taken a lot of time and effort, healing and emotion, but, oh, the wonderful rewards that are achieved! I now know when she broke her arm, when she lived where, and that she thought about me all those years and always wanted to find me. I have a wonderful loving relationship with her children and I have met her friends. I even have the Christmas tree ornament that she made in kindergarten and it goes on my Christmas tree along with the ornaments that my other daughters made as kids. Claire and I have talked about everything that happened concerning her birth, and we have both healed our wounds and are now at peace with the past. Reunion has been a beautiful, beautiful thing; and, hopefully, we will have many years together in our future.”
— Kathy, birth mother to Claire
From the time he was a child, Anthony’s mother had a severe substance abuse problem and was unable to care for him and his younger brother. At age 7, Anthony went to live with his grandmother, but after a short time, she too was unable to care for him adequately. Taken away from the only person he called family, Anthony spent the next several years in and out of foster homes and shelters. When he should have been worrying about catching the ice cream truck in time, Anthony spent his time constantly worrying about where he was going to sleep at night, and what was going to happen tomorrow. His childhood was filled with instability and turmoil, with no parental guidance. His life was constantly in chaos.
Anthony’s final placement was with Families First when he was 12 years old. For the first time in his life, Anthony found stability in a family-like atmosphere at the Families First S. Fulton cooperative for boys. There, Anthony received daily guidance and support from his social worker. He participated in individual and group therapy to deal with issues of abandonment, neglect and post-traumatic stressors. Through family therapy, Anthony was able to re-establish a relationship with his paternal grandmother. Families First provided Anthony with extracurricular activities such as a membership to the local YMCA. The agency also introduced him to a mentoring program that allowed him to bond with his mentor, and establish a nurturing relationship. And by working diligently with the Georgia court system, Families First was able to re-connect Anthony with his younger brother.
With the support and guidance of Families First and his mentor, Anthony graduated from high school and went on to achieve an Associates Degree in Electronic Computer Technology at Devry Institute. Today, Anthony is a hard working young man. When he’s not busy starting up his own music label, Anthony works at Families First as a Relief Parent. He also works with Metro Atlanta Youth Opportunities Initiative (M.A.Y.O.I.), an organization that helps current and former foster care clients transition out of the foster care system. This role provides Anthony the opportunity to travel all over the country giving speeches and advocating for foster youth. Anthony is also very proud to work alongside the First Lady of Georgia, Mrs. Perdue, in instituting policies for foster parents and foster agencies. On top of his hectic work schedule, Anthony manages to attend college where he is currently working toward a Bachelors degree in Electronic Engineering.
“Families First took me in when there was no one else. They’ve been like family ever since.” -Anthony
Chonita and Judaris
Several years ago, Chonita and Judarise experienced a family tragedy — the violent death of her eldest son. Due to the trauma and grief Chonita endured from this loss, her life spiraled out of control. Judarise was also angry and confused about the death of his brother, which caused him to act out aggressively in school and at home. Unprepared to cope with such devastating loss, Chonita and Judarise became homeless – living at shelters and with friends and family for almost three years. With the help of a local shelter and DFACS, Chonita and her young son were finally placed in Families First’s Shelter-A-Family program.
The Families First Shelter-A-Family program is a permanent supportive housing program for chronically homeless individuals with disabilities including mental health, substance abuse and co-occurring disorders, and HIV/AIDS. The program provides supportive case management services to families in HUD-funded apartment units located in northwest Atlanta. The goal is to individuals to reduce and eliminate substance dependency and use; to achieve mental and emotional stability; and to move toward greater self-reliance. The program also seeks to promote child safety and development, as well as to prevent future homelessness among children, traumatized by homelessness, abuse and neglect.
Through Families First’s case management support, families like
Chonita and Judarise receive not only basic necessities like food, transportation, furniture and clothing, but also assistance in advancing their education, obtaining work experience and
employment, parenting and caring for their children, re-establishing family connections and developing social skills and networks.
Since participating in Shelter-A-Family, Chonita and Judarise have been making tremendous progress in the healing process. By having a safe home and structure in their lives, the mother and son have been able to concentrate on communicating with each other more effectively to get through the pain of the past. Chonita is planning her future by attending job fairs and completing a job training program at Atlanta Workforce Development. Most recently, she enrolled at a local technical school. And since Judarise now has a stable home and a mother focused on his needs, his behavior is much better. Today, he is much more manageable at home and has learned to play well with other children in the neighborhood. In addition, Judarise’s attendance and performance at school has improved remarkably.
Chonita says, “The best thing that Shelter-A-Family has provided my family is the ability to be at peace in our own space, and that’s the best thing anyone can do for someone else. We’re fortunate to get the support for whatever problems and issues come up. Families First has been there to make sure my son and I are alright. I can focus my attention on Judarise now because I know if there’s ever something I need help with, Families First will always be there for us.”
Michelle could have been the girl next door. She never experienced poverty or hard times growing up, but at age 18, she was struggling to make ends meet. With a three month old son, Michelle was attending college while working full-time. But after being laid off, Michelle found herself and her child on the verge of homelessness. Estranged from her family, Michelle had no one to turn to for help until a friend told her about Families First. Ashamed and afraid at the prospect of ending up on the streets with a baby, Michelle contacted and met with a Families First social worker.
The agency responded by providing Michelle and her son with a safe, nurturing home and support services at Weaver Gardens, a transitional housing facility for young, homeless, first-time moms. While Michelle went to school and worked part-time at Grady Hospital, Families First provided necessary support including life skills and parenting skills classes.
The agency also assisted Michelle in obtaining health care benefits and other available services. She even learned how to cook during her stay at Weaver Gardens!
Upon graduating, Michelle joined the Army so that she could continue her education and avoid living a life of poverty. While enlisted, she married and gave birth to her second son. At the end of her tour, she enlisted in the Reserves and eventually moved back to Atlanta with her family and purchased their first home. Inspired by her experience at Weaver Gardens, and wanting to help people in need, Michelle went back to school part-time and earned a Bachelors in Community and Human Services and a Masters in Social Work. Today she is a Program Director at a nonprofit agency, treating chronically homeless people with mental illness and substance abuse problems. Michelle is currently working on her Ph.D. in Human Services.
“Without the support from Families First, I don’t know where I’d be today. My experience at Weaver Gardens is the reason why I became a social worker. I’m a true believer that supportive housing works for women who are in situations similar to mine, and by providing programs such as Weaver Gardens, Families First enabled me to fulfill my life’s mission – giving back by helping those in need.” – Michelle
At the age of 15, Rachel’s father passed away. Unable to cope with his passing, her mother’s depression and substance abuse problem (brought on by her husband’s death), Rachel left home. Shortly after, Rachel became pregnant. Because of her age and circumstance, Rachel was placed in a temporary state facility for youth, and her three month old son Joshua was placed in foster care.
After several months of separation from her child, DFCS initiated a plan to place the young mother in a home where she would live and learn to become independent and self-sufficient.
In accordance with a plan for Rachel to continue her education and become independent, Rachel was placed at Families First’s Second Chance Home, a group home for teenage mothers and their babies. For three years, Rachel received the structure and daily routine necessary to carry out her responsibilities as a student and mother. In addition to learning every day activities like cooking, cleaning, and how to use public transportation, Families First provided Rachel with tutoring to improve academic performance, and parenting classes to improve her parenting skills and techniques. Rachel also participated in group and individual counseling. These sessions helped her to talk about issues and confront problems so that she could create a plan to resolve them.
At Second Chance Home, Rachel attended high school and worked part-time while Families First provided child care for Joshua. The agency also ensured that she and her infant son received proper medical care. While living at Second Chance Home, Rachel was able to do things she never had before like attend an Atlanta Braves game and take her Senior trip to Disneyworld. During her three years at Second Chance Home, Rachel has accomplished more than she ever imagined. Not only did Rachel graduate from high school, but she was a straight A student her Senior year. An internship at a veterinary hospital inspired Rachel to become a veterinary technician. She’ll be attending Gwinnett Technical College for her degree. Rachel’s goal in five years is to graduate from college, secure a good job and ensure her son has the best care and education possible.
“If it wasn’t for Second Chance Home, I never would have made it out of high school, and I’m sure I would have had more children. Second Chance has taught me structure, which has made me a better mother. I’ve also learned how to set goals, and how to achieve those goals. I now understand that you have to do certain things in order to get what you want in life.” – Rachel
Chris grew up in a middle-class family and went to private schools. As a young adult she was in control and focused, but a substance abuse problem began to jeopardize her future. Chris struggled with her problem for several years before completing an in-treatment program. After successfully completing the program, the treatment facility referred Chris to Families First for posttreatment programs and services that would assist in her continued sobriety and success.
Challenged with finding safe housing and a stable environment, Chris determined that Delowe Village, a supportive housing program that provides families shelter, counseling and access to treatment and training programs, was the best option for she and her daughter. During the time Chris has been at Delowe, much progress has been made. The accessibility to Families First staff for guidance and support has been invaluable in helping her to gain confidence and the self-assurance she needs to prepare for the next phase of her life. Through individual and group counseling sessions, Chris now knows it is okay to ask for help from others. She is now able to deal with the shame and guilt of her previous mistakes, which in turn, has given her a sense of freedom from the past. In addition, the agency has assisted Chris with rent and utilities. Since Chris works full-time, Families First also provides child care assistance for her young daughter.
Since entering the transitional housing program at Delowe Village, Chris has been clean and drug-free. This has provided Chris with stability, consistency and the desire to succeed in life, even in stressful times. Having more self-confidence has also enabled Chris to plan for her daughter’s future. She wants to go back to school eventually, but until then, she is working full-time at an upscale restaurant. Chris has been so successful in achieving her goals while in the Delowe Village program that Families First hired her as a part-time employee. Chris also volunteers as a peer coach for Families First’s Shelter-A-Family program that offers supportive housing and services to chronically homeless families.
Chris says, ““Families First has given me the opportunity to grow up and take responsibility for my life. I have learned to appreciate everything in life because I have to work and struggle for what I do have.”
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