I flipped open a book of affirmations at a friend's house the other day and the page I landed on read, "you made the right choices. you made the right mistakes."
The unabridged story of why I became an orphan care worker goes something like this:
I hit rock bottom pretty shortly after my dad's death during the winter break of my eighth grade year and I somehow managed to dig through solid rock for nearly half a decade thereafter, sinking myself deeper into depression and rock-bottomness, until I finally left high school altogether during my senior year in October 2013. I royally screwed up in high school. My academics. My relationships. My choices. It was - and will likely always be - the darkest season of my life.
It wasn't just the loss of my dad. It was the loss of innocence. Death in the lives of people close to me. The loss of purity. The loss of time. The absence of grace in the affluent, white picket fenced community that I was tethered to. etc. etc. etc.
There are no words for the weightiness of that chapter of my story. The weight of it all combined with the overwhelming reality of becoming an adult who felt robbed of her adolescence met at a crippling crossroads of anger and pain and immense grief. I struggled - I really struggled. It was a dark fall and a darker winter that suddenly parted to a hopeful spring.
By March 2014 I had spent five months out of high school with no real plan for my future. Looking back on that season is incredibly difficult. There was so much that I won’t ever share publicly that I was battling and ultimately all I wanted - all anyone struggling with any form of depression ever wants - was freedom from the pain that was holding me back.
I packed my life into a laundry basket on an overcast March morning the day after my eighteenth birthday during the middle of what should have been my senior year and drove north towards San Fransisco. It was an unconventional decision to pull the plug on an impossibly difficult season of life and begin fresh. A decision that saved my life. I'll never forget driving mindlessly for eight hours until I hit the San Francisco bridge. Something about it - something I'd only ever seen in movies and on television - woke me up. I knew that I wanted to stay. I knew that I needed to stay.
I ended up being graciously hosted by a family that I'd previously nannied for back in San Diego on their farmland property outside of San Fransisco. As terrifyingly uncharted as it may have been - it was a decision that I knew in my bones to be exactly correct for my life. This marked the beginning of a series of unconventional decisions that began my beautiful, messy, redemptive story.
If only I could express in words my deep, deep gratitude for my time in Northern California. I met lifelong, forever friends and began the career that saved my life, Ellie Coburn Photography. I’d never owned a camera and I was living in Northern California on my grand total life’s savings of about three thousand dollars but something in me told me to take the biggest risk of my life.
I bought a Canon 5D Mark III DSLR camera with my life's savings from a Craiglist ad and by the grace of freaking God that decision turned into something beautiful. I grew a successful, award winning lifestyle photography business in three months and the rest is history. It was lucky - because there was no back up plan - but it was also Jesus - because there was no backup plan. I found a renewed sense of faith there on that farmland property outside of San Francisco and I have no doubt in my mind that God worked miracles to float my pipe dream of becoming a self taught photographer over night.
This is the first time since that season that I've processed that season.
I found purpose, fell in love with my career, graduated with my GED, began taking college courses, and began the slow and intentional rebuilding of my life post trauma.
Through a series of events that I'll save for a lengthier publication someday I ended up with my feet on the ground in Zimbabwe, Africa. While I had no way of seeing it in foresight in hindsight it is clear that every piece of my story was a precursor to my season in Zimbabwe.
I was initially invited to Zimbabwe to work as a photojournalist on a project in collaboration with an orphanage but just weeks before my trip I was invited by my Zimbabwean contact to become a house mother at a remote orphanage. I said yes - because I was eighteen and plagued with the ridiculous Americanized ideology that Africa needed me - and off I went. Let me be the first to tell you what Africa didn't/doesn't/won't ever need another white girl trying to save it. But holy shit did I need Africa.
There is such a fundamental difference between seeing Africa on the news and in National Geographic and feeling its dirt on your feet. There is a fundamental difference between going to Africa to try and save it and going to Africa to try and experience it. I know because I did both. I visited Africa four times in two years and spent a collective six months on the ground in three different countries. I had such a unique opportunity to precursor my adult life with something that so radically reshaped my worldview and for that I am forever grateful.
Zimbabwean's grit, fortitude, perseverance, and heart changed everything about my perception of the world around me. I've since visited three countries in Africa and one thing that I know to be true is that Africans are resilient in ways that Americans never will be.
During my first experience in Zimbabwe - working as the temporary house mother - I bonded closely with two beautiful boys who were five and six years old. I returned to the orphanage to celebrate Christmas 2016 with the boys and establish a plan to move to Zimbabwe to be with them. Upon my arrival I discovered that they had been sold into slavery weeks earlier.
This was the hardest life lesson on raw deals that I have ever learned. I retreated home to America to process my grief and decide on next steps and decided, after experiencing far more than my share of traumas on international soil, that it was time to settle down in San Diego for a period of time. The night I decided to stay in San Diego rather than return to do international aide work I woke up from a dream about a little boy.
I knew instantly - from both the dream and the feeling in my gut - that I was going to adopt through foster care. I’d never even considered foster care before that night nor did I have the first idea about the interworkings of domestic adoption through foster care but I was ready for the ride and began the thirteen month process to become an approved foster home in San Diego county the next day.
They told me that adoption through foster care was nearly impossible - that most parents wait between 4-7 years for an adoptable placement, etc, etc. I didn’t quite know what I was doing but I knew that there was a very specific higher plan in motion if I continued down the path I felt led. I was placed with my son - a little boy identical to the little boy in my dream - 24 hours after getting my license approved. In the spring we finalize our adoption and he will officially be home forever. He is my redemption baby. Always and forever.
Fostering has been one of the greatest joys and greatest challenges of my life. It brought me the greatest gift I’ve ever received - my son - and has also gifted me the opportunity to foster three other placements including my nine-year-old son who has been home for nearly nine months and is set to return home to his biological mother at the end of the month and my gorgeous twelve-week-old miracle girl who is home with us for now and very possibly for forever.
I will keep my nine-year-old’s bunk bed open for more temporary placements after he heads home while we wait for baby girl’s case to close and for baby boy’s adoption to finalize but when all is said and done I foresee a return to Africa in our future at least for a season. I’m also working towards getting my bachelor’s degree so that I can attend law school and keeping the door open to any other place on the map that our family might feel called to.
Motherhood is hard. It’s raw and real and everything in between but when I look back on the road that got us here I don’t take a moment of it for granted. There’s something sacred about being able to write an uncut version of the last ten years. It feels like a right of passage - as if to say that I’ve made it to the other side of some metaphorical mountain - and while many more mountains lie ahead I rest in this season of immense joy knowing full well that it’s been such a long time coming.