In Her Shoes

closeup of a female adoptee's shoes as she walks away

Mackenzie shares a background with your average super hero. No radioactive spiders or exploding planets, but there is tragedy. There is intense anguish. She was, in a sense, an orphan. She was failed by people who should have helped her, time and time again. She rose above it. She came out with a cause and a purpose. There are no spandex or phone booth costume changes involved, but Mackenzie is a hero to me. A real one with a raw story and a clear call to action.

She shared with me a memory of her mom. It takes place in a supermarket. “She was bilingual, but didn’t look it,” she told me. A couple of young women were rattling off in Spanish, obviously talking about them but thinking their remarks were safe behind a language barrier. Her mother was furious.  She marched up to them and berated the two in their own language. “It was awesome. They were shocked,” she remembers. She told her daughter, “Don’t let anyone limit you by the way you look. Don’t let them disrespect you.” I started to say what a great message that was when she smirked and added, “The next lesson was ‘How to Shoplift’.” Life skills for the path she was on. Her mother ultimately couldn’t afford to keep her and sent Mackenzie to live with a relative. It didn’t work out. By eight years old, Mackenzie was a ward of the state.

At a conference involving a group of foster parents, the subject of mental health and behavioral issues came up.  Mackenzie chimed in, “I was one of those. I was a hard kid.” Confused, hurt, and angry. She was continually passed off as someone else’s problem. There were a few bright spots in foster homes where the families truly cared for her, but the system failed them. She was shuffled from foster homes, to group homes, to institutions. It took its toll.

“I was angry at everything and everyone,” she said. The statement didn’t mesh well with Mackenzie as she sat there over lunch during the conference. She was confident, radiant, and both well-spoken and out spoken. She was open about her past and her own role in it. She’s raw. She’s brilliant. “What was the turning point?” I asked her. She thought for a minute and said, “There was a time when I wouldn’t even speak at all to anyone, not for months. I decided I couldn’t control what was happening to me, but I could control me. I could control what I did about it.”  Gradually, her anger turned to motivation.

December, two years ago, was one of those moments where she took control. She was in a dysfunctional group home where even her basic needs were not being met. She would often go to high school barefoot. She didn’t own a pair of shoes. “When they move you, sometimes you have time and you pack your things. Other times there is no warning, and someone packs for you. That’s how you lose things in foster care.” She had a nice pair of shoes once, she told me. She kept them until the soles split and separated. “I didn’t care that they were tight. They were good shoes.”

Then came a day when she’d been pushed too far for too long, again. She didn’t want to go back to the group home after school and lingered there, wandering. In her head she was forming a plan and a backup plan. When she saw someone from the group home coming to get her, she went the opposite direction. It was near Christmas. She wanted to be somewhere where she felt loved. Wearing borrowed sandals three sizes too small, Mackenzie ran.

“You were brave,” I said.  She shrugged. “It’s not like I hadn’t run away before.” She knew what she was doing. It hurt me to see a kid so familiar with being failed, being broken, that she can rattle off a litany of ‘what to do when you’ve had enough and you run’. “You keep a low profile. You act calm. You keep your head up. If you can, you change your hair color or length, change your clothes or your shoes. You don’t want to look like the description of the runaway.” Initially there was another girl with her, but they separated. “She was hysterical and was drawing too much attention,” Mackenzie said.

Plan A involved her most recent foster family. She’d been placed there initially a few days before her sixteenth birthday. They threw together a party. “I didn’t know anyone there, but they all came for me,” she said. They brought presents. To Mackenzie, it was amazing to have a party with people and presents and cake. It was a novelty for her.  Her foster mom said they’d get her a phone to use in emergencies, and she didn’t believe her. She said they would go shopping and get her decent clothes, and Mackenzie didn’t believe that either. It happened, though. They kept every promise. They made Mackenzie feel like someone worth being cared for.

She called whenever she came across a phone, but her foster mom didn’t answer. Mackenzie kept walking. She found a church with people in it and went inside. There she spun a story about a failed slumber party and a need to get home. She borrowed a phone, but again there was no answer. A couple there offered to give her a ride home. She gave them the address, but told them she didn’t need them to take her the whole way. It was across town. She planned to hitch rides where she could and walk the rest. She kept telling them they’d taken her far enough and she could make her way, but they drove her all the way to the front door. “I told them I had a key and waved them off,” she said.

She was shaking. She took a deep breath, and she knocked. The door was answered by a man shorter than her, but with a commanding presence. He had his hands clasped behind his back and his chin up, a posture left from his days in the military in his native Singapore. Her foster dad. He looked at her. She wasn’t sure what to say. “You have a package,” she said, motioning to one on the porch. “I can see that,” he replied. He picked it up, then in a tone that could have been interpreted as an invitation or a command, he said, “Come in.”

Her foster mom wasn’t home. She was nervous waiting for her. She started washing dishes to stay occupied. “She was excited to see me,” Mackenzie said with a grin. “She kept saying, ‘I can’t believe you’re here’ and just shaking her head and smiling.” It turns out that they had been planning to have Mackenzie come for Christmas. They’d been making arrangements with the state. Her case worker was supposed to tell her, but had wanted to wait and surprise her with the news. Her foster mom told her she shouldn’t have run away, but was smiling. She said again, “I can’t believe you’re here. I am so glad you’re here.”

They made arrangements for Mackenzie to stay, first for the night, then as an official foster placement, and then, forever. At seventeen Mackenzie was adopted. “When I ran, all I was hoping for was a good meal, soft toilet paper, and a comfy bed,” she told me. She found acceptance. She found support. Her mother was outraged by the low level of care she’d received at the group home and she pushed to have it investigated. It was shut down. She fought to get Mackenzie everything she needed. Now they’re fighting together for the children still in care. They challenge the status quo. They speak out. They teach others how to be an influence for changes in state law. They want guaranteed rights for foster children.

When asked what she wanted as a gift to celebrate her adoption, Mackenzie couldn’t think of anything. “I had everything,” she told me while we sat at the conference. Her mom had organized the event to teach proactive foster parents how to push for change. Mackenzie was comfortable in the room of mostly adults, and not afraid to be the voice for the children in care. She had a notebook there where along with her notes she had a list of spices for her latest baking project. She loves to bake for other people and gives away most of what she makes. She told me about her destructive, misunderstood, mammoth sized puppy. She’s a Great Dane mix named ‘Itty Bitty’. Her mom smiles and shakes her head saying, “That dog.”  Mackenzie rises to her defense, “She really is just sweet.” Mackenzie is so obviously loved. She is supported in her interests, allowed to keep and love a rambunctious dog she relates to, and has a cause.

To celebrate her adoption, Mackenzie decided she wanted to give back. She and her mother brainstormed together.  They came up with a plan to get 17,000 of something to represent each of the children in foster care in Arizona. “I was thinking of lining up candy,” Mackenzie said. Her mom  suggested shoes. So many kids in care have never owned a decent pair of shoes. Mackenzie ran with the idea.

The Footsteps Drive was born. Their goal is to collect a pair of new or like new shoes for each child in care in Arizona. The numbers have grown between now and when they started. There are a thousand more kids in care than there were a year ago. They are very close to their goal of 18,000 pairs of shoes. They plan to make a video to raise awareness and then donate the shoes to children in state care. They have shoes in their garage, shoes in their front entryway, shoes at a friend’s office, and some in a storage facility. They are getting close. I want to see them get there. I canvassed friends and pulled together fifty pair. I want more. They need more.

I want more for these kids. That 18,000 is an enormous number, and the kids it represents are important to me.  Each of them have a story. Among them are kids who have been failed. Kids who have been neglected, abused, and thrown into a broken system that in all likelihood will fail them again. I want them safe. I want them loved. I want them to have someone who can recognize their needs and who will fight to have them met. I want them to have a place where they can safely fall apart and then be lovingly built back up.

I’ve taken in just a few so far as a foster mom, and I look at my house with its full bedrooms and I hear a cacophony of little voices waking up and greeting each other with invitations to play. My home is full of toys, books, backpacks, and clothes. Laughter, joy, cuddles, and yes, the whining and temper tantrums too. These things are all echoes of an abundant childhood. I want that for every child, and chant to myself, “You can’t take them all. You just can’t take them all.” The magnitude of the collective needs of these children is overwhelming. But can I take just one more?  Can I do just one thing more? If a Mackenzie showed up on my doorstep, frazzled and cold but determined, wearing flip-flops in December, wouldn’t I want to love her? Wouldn’t I at the very least get her a decent pair of shoes?

You bet I would. I want so much more for her and the children she speaks for than shoes. But I will start there. I want to see them all with at least that tangible manifestation of people who care. Let’s put shoes on their feet.

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