I never want to be looked at as a victim. My birth mom was a victim. I am the blessing she gave my adoptive parents.
WOODBURN, Indiana ꟷ When I met my biological mother in 2011, it proved the best and worst day of my entire life. I got to meet the person who sacrificed so much to bring me into this world. I also discovered the truth about my story.
At 17 years old, a man brutally attacked and raped my mother, leaving her discarded on the side of the road. She found the strength to press charges and the man who raped her got arrested and charged. Just as life started going back to normal, she found out she was pregnant.
Hidden for the remainder of her term, she gave birth to me in April 1973. Two hours later, she abandoned me. Today, I stand on the frontlines as a kid who was not lovingly and safely surrendered. I make sure parents today have a safe alternative to abandonment. My non-profit organization Safe Haven Baby Boxes boasts 135 active locations in nine states. We have helped thousands of women and men while making the hardest decision of their lives – to put their baby in a box.
My whole life, I believed I had a fairy tale family waiting for me when I turned 18. I knew about my adoption. My parents kept no secrets. When they adopted me, they were told that my birth mother and father were young and in love. They just couldn’t care for me.
I imagined one day they would welcome me with open arms. From a young age, I wanted to meet my mother, wrap my arms around her, and tell her I loved her. I knew she must have loved me too because she gave me this amazing life.
Back in those days, birth records remained largely closed, but it never stopped me. I kept searching, and one day, I stumbled across my birth mother’s name. I found a phone number for someone with the same name and dialed the telephone. The woman who answered was my mother’s niece. She called my mom and within a couple hours, I found myself talking to her.
“I think I might be your daughter,” I said. “I’ve been waiting for your call,” she responded. I knew in that moment she thought of me my entire life. People often say, “What kind of a mother can place her baby in a box and walk away?” I challenge them: “Do you think these mother’s do not love their kids? They absolutely do.”
These parents find themselves in a crisis most of us will never understand. Getting to know my birth mother gave me the empathy I needed to do what I do today.
On a cold February day, I made the two-hour drive from Indiana to Michigan to meet my mother. I waited for this my entire life. My husband and I pulled up to the address. I saw that she lived on a farm.
I knocked on the door. When she answered, I saw her 4’11’ frame. At five feet tall, I stood above her. Right away, I noticed I looked nothing like her. With blonde hair, blue eyes, and fair skin, I thought, “She is so beautiful.” We went inside the house and her dog lay on the floor beside us.
My husband and I sat on the love seat while she settled into a recliner. We spent three hours together. After a while, I asked the question: “Who was my biological father?” Shock overcame me when I learned the truth. I listened as my mother – now 54 years old – tell me her story.
In the moment, I thought, “How horrible for her.” As the time came to an end, my husband and I walked back out to the truck. He sat in the driver’s seat staring at me. “What,” I asked. “Are you okay,” he inquired. “Of course, I’m okay,” I responded. “You didn’t believe that did you?”
If a poster existed of an unwanted child, my picture would appear on it, and I did not want that to be me. I wanted the fairy tale. Instead, I found out I got whisked into the world through violence and abandoned as an infant. I could not imagine that one day I would stand on a stage and say, “My biological father was a rapist.”
Moments exist in our lives which define us. They push us to our purpose. That moment happened for me in Cape Town, South Africa. Asked to go on a speaking tour with Pamela Stenzel (my now Board President), we spoke 14 times in 16 days.
During the trip, a chance excursion personified my experience. As we drove through Cape Town we noticed a sign advertising parasailing ahead. “Can you imagine if we jumped off a cliff in Cape Town,” I said. “Sign me up!” We drove to the top of the mountain and I handed over my credit card.
A six-foot-tall man towered behind me. He strapped me to him and began teaching me to jump and land. As we leapt off the cliff, I could see this beautiful view all around me. I saw the prison where they held Nelson Mandela and Tabletop Mountain. In the middle of the jump I asked, “How am I going to get back up to my friends?” I probably should have asked that before I jumped.
Eventually we landed on a beautiful strip of earth, where he promptly plopped me in a van with 11 men. I had to sit on one of their laps. They could have done anything with me, taken me anywhere, and I wondered, “Why did I do that?” I jumped off a cliff with no idea where I would land.
What a metaphor. I did not know I would return to America and start an organization with no idea where it would lead.
Throughout our stay in Cape Town, we talked with hundreds of kids. At one of the many churches in the region, we discovered the only one with a baby safe. I noticed a door on the side of the church. It looked like a window that flipped down and it said “baby safe” on top. I asked our guide what it was.
She said, “Women come here at night when they cannot care for their children. They place the baby in the box, and it calls the pastor’s cell phone.” I found it hard to believe they just left the baby in the box. She relayed a story from seven years earlier. Church members found a duffle bag on the premises. When the opened it, a baby lay inside. One of the church families adopted him and named him Moses. The Pastor said they would never allow this to happen again. They began providing a solution.
As a firefighter and medic, I knew about Safe Haven Laws in the United States. [These laws, which vary by state, provide “safe places for parents to relinquish newborn infants” to “prevent these babies from being abandoned at places where they may come to harm.”] Flying home from South Africa, I drew my first Safe Haven Baby Box on a Delta napkin.
I did not know that no one had ever done this in America before or that I faced an uphill battle. Back home, I had to fight to prove putting a baby in a box offered a better alternative than a trashcan or a dumpster. I gained two purposes that day: to heal myself, and to fight for other women.
A few years ago, a mother surrendered her baby in one of our boxes. Like usual, we held a press conference afterwards hoping the parent might reach out. When they do, it allows us to walk alongside them, give comfort, counseling, and medical care for free. Twenty-one days after someone placed this baby in our box, she contacted us.
This mother did not want her baby back; she needed resources. Over time, I became friends with her. One night, while traveling in her part of the state, we met for dinner. For no other reason than my own curiosity, I asked, “Why didn’t you walk into the fire station that night and just hand your child to one of the workers. It was 9:30 p.m. They were still up. Why did you use the box?”
She said something pivotal. “I did not want someone talking me out of the decision that took me so long to make.” This woman labored over her decision. She did not need to feel judged or shamed. In time, I found out she kept her daughter for 24 hours in her home before placing her in the Safe Haven Baby Box. She took tons of videos. In one of them, she tells her baby how much she loves her. She says, one day, I hope you understand why; I hope you never hate me.
These women hurt. They feel devastated. My heart goes out to the parents. They walk away on the worst day of their lives completely alone, just like my birth mother. I want to walk alongside them; to be their peace and a soft place to fall. I wish my birth mother had someone like me; someone vested in her. My story remains woven with my mother’s, but never look at me as the victim. My birth mom was the victim. I am the blessing she gave to my adoptive parents.
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