PHOTOS BY SANDY ARENA
Following is an account of early experiences I had with my daughter who my husband and I were named guardians of – along with her twin brother – in 2016. She was 14 years old at the time of this story, in the 8th grade. Now at age 17, she is a senior in high school in our town living as a full time member of our home and family, and thriving as a productive and cherished member of our school district and community. It is experiences like this told below that have inspired my work with my Worth More Nation organization that empowers girls living in trauma, and/or impacted by foster care to know they are Worth More. This month I am writing about our Worth More Nation Special Occasion Closet for girls living in poverty and trauma, or who have been impacted by foster care – either currently in foster care, raised in foster care, or members of families who foster. The time period described in this story is forever imprinted upon my heart and continually reminds me of the need for a closet and programs like those offered by our Worth More Nation organization. Our daughter has come a long way since the days she survived living out of garbage bags, as has her twin brother. I am happy to report she is the proud owner of a closet full of clothes and dresses which are currently and typically – teenager style – strewn across her bedroom floor. We will be buying her a gown in the months ahead for her senior ball and that makes me very happy!
She was graduating from middle school and she needed a dress. Not any old dress, but a DRESS. The kind that makes you walk taller and smile wider: a heart fluttering, milestone worthy dress.
You know the kind. Most women do.
The event, the school, our relationship – all of these things were important, and so was this potential dress. It mattered to her. And, it mattered to me. I was her advocate and her cheerleader; the one who wanted to see her sparkle, shine and achieve no matter what was out of control in her young life. As much as it depended on me, I wanted to see her graduate from that school wearing the best darn dress we could find, and, I wanted her to have a dress of her own. I didn’t want her to have to borrow one as she had done so many times in the past from my biological daughters.
The year was 2014 and little known to many people, the twins were homeless. Although we had pleaded for them to live with us, their biological mother said no, choosing instead to drag them back and forth to shelters, relative’s homes and dirty hotels. There was no room in their transient lifestyle and garbage bag suitcases for heart-stopping attire and especially for this particular dress set to be worn when graduating from Rochester’s School 19. This impending event was esteemed to be paramount. You want to look your best when saying good-bye to an institution that served as an anchor in the midst of your storm-tossed life. You want to sparkle when you shake the principal’s hand and receive your certificate, proud to have not drowned and committed to keep on swimming. You want to do all this, and not be wearing your too short jeans or hand me down shirts.
Their nurturing K-8 school tucked in the heart of their neighborhood had been a God send for the twins offering a place of daily stability where food, warmth, hugs, smiles, learning and hope abounded. It was attached to the recreational center where they went after school and in the summer to play basketball or run around on the playground with their friends. Teachers, staff and administrators favored them because they were conscientious students, and because they were well-liked by all. They, at times, seemed painfully timid, polite, and compliant, unwilling to ask for their needs to be met – as if quiet obedience could offset the reoccurring trauma. Murder, incarceration, drugs, alcohol, physical abuse, rage, theft, homelessness and poverty: when your daily dose is this, what does it matter if you skinned your knee, or if you wanted a fancy dress?
The School 19 staff favored us too – the people who committed themselves to caring for the twins and who made themselves available and present. They called us frequently even though we were not legally their guardians at this time. I’d see the principal’s name pop up on my phone ID and immediately my heart would go boom, boom, boom; my stomach flip flop, flip flop, flip flop. One time, for example, they called us because they had to expel the children, as was matter-of-factly explained by the worn-out principal, firmness in her voice. Their biological mother had raged on the staff and teachers, and she or the children were not permitted on school grounds for the safety of the school family. Thankfully, after much begging on our part on behalf of the children, they changed their minds and allowed the children to stay on the property, but not their mother. It was not their fault! Another time, they called when their younger brother had become incorrigible at school and the school didn’t know what to do with him. Their biological mother had been passed out on drugs for a few days, unbeknownst to any responsible or caring adults, including us. It was normal for them to see her like this, so they didn’t sound an alarm.
Given all of this history (and the above mentioned circumstances which are only a smattering of them) and because we had committed ourselves first back in 2008 to walking through life alongside them, I not only wanted a dress for her graduation, but one for me, too.
When you care for children in trauma who are not your own, every day clothing let alone over the top dresses – are a struggle. Whether the twins would come for the day, the weekend or a month, they always came carrying their belongings in ripped up bags filled with a potluck clothing assortments such as toddler socks that wouldn’t fit their preteen-sized feet, or over-sized, tee shirts. Many times they came with just the clothing on their backs. They were both very thin and would sometimes wear double layers of pants and shirts. Their clothes, coats and backpacks (if we picked them up from school) always smelled like smoke and needed immediate washing as soon as they would arrive.
During these years, I became accustomed to buying them clothes that we would sometimes keep at our home or send home with them. We also shared our biological children’s clothing with them. As they would come and go in our lives depending on what bargaining chip their biological mother would dangle in front of us or her mood of the month, so would their clothing come and go. One time, for example, we bought them plastic, makeshift drawer organizer bins to create a space for their items in our home (they were going to be living with us for a few months), only to get a call the very next morning at 6 a.m. from their biological mother demanding we bring the kids back. They had been so excited about their little bins and the items we had purchased them, and we didn’t have the heart to leave the bins and clothes behind. Also, we also didn’t know if and when we would see them again.
When the need for the over the top, graduation dress came up, I remember we were not rolling in disposable money. We took her to the mall hoping to find a deal and believing it would all work out. I am a woman of faith and roll like that. We went to a department store and there it was. She went to it right away. It was white, mermaid style, shimmery and gorgeous. It fit her like a glove. She looked approvingly at her reflection in the mirror, a homeless girl having her Cinderella moment, and we knew she wanted this dress. Sam and I looked at the price tag and we looked at each other our brains swirling about what we could do. So, we went to the register and did what many Americans do and opened a charge card. Would he be approved and would it be enough for the dress? We held our breath until yes, he was approved, and also enough to buy her new jewelry and shoes. Not the most responsible choice on our behalf, but it was our only choice in that moment. She was in love with the dress and I was not about to make her leave it behind, as much as it depended on us!
A few weeks later we went to the home where she was staying to bring her and her siblings to the graduation. Her biological mother was there too. She sheepishly walked out of the home gliding down the stairs, shoulders back, smile on her face, eyes gleaming. Her hair had been done and so had her nails. She was a shining star. Confident. Lovely. A girl with a future.
A girl who had lived so many unhappy days no fault her own, and here she was wearing this dress – happy for at least one day. Mission accomplished. I was hooked.
Will dresses solve truckloads of problems? No. But I believe that when you look the part, you become the dream, and a vision for your life can unfold, even for just one day, and if you have hope and courage you can hang onto that vision and remember what it can be if you make the right choice. So yes, I believe in the power of a beautiful dress in a young girl’s life, and I’ll keep working hard to make it happen for as many girls as we are able.
Our closet is filled with special occasion gowns, cocktail dresses, skirts, blazers, shoes and jewelry and we are collecting more items every day. We have been blessed to have been given hundreds of pageant gowns from the pageant community around the country and are in dire need of more special dresses and gowns especially in little girl sizes if you can help! Please dig deep and help!
This past year since opening our closet and starting our Miss Worth More Nation Pageant for Girls in Foster Care, we have provided 100 services including special event participation, and dresses. Young ladies who qualify are invited to come and pick out a dress in our closet at no charge for their next special occasion. Girls become lifelong members of the closet as inventory allows and may exchange in the future or keep their dresses forevermore.
Call: (585) 350-9012 to book an appointment! The Closet is located at 3 Railroad Avenue, Fairport, NY 14450. Please call or text to donate new or very gently used items. Visit www.worthmorenation.org.