Roger works in the garden on the grounds of the treatment center where he lives. Photo by Ellen Guettler
On a hot summer day, 16-year-old Roger pokes around the garden he planted. He checks on the corn and the squash, and ties up the pole beans a little more securely.
He says he's been gardening for years.
"I learned about it growing up," he says "I spent my time at one foster home most of the day during the summer weeding gardens. I have now come to love it, but then I didn't like it."
This garden is on the grounds of Holcomb House, a residential treatment center in St. Paul. It's a tidy brick building with dormitory style rooms where troubled kids can get therapy.
Roger lives here with eight other kids. He's been in all kinds of foster homes, shelters, and treatment centers since he was 11 years old. But he's looking for a place he can live forever. He's looking for a family.
He says he wants "to have a permanent place to stay. Because I think I've moved around too much and I don't like moving around to different places year after year."
But he also wants parents. He says he doesn't care what kind of people they are - a single mom, a straight couple, a gay couple.
"I'm really open," he says "As long as I have a parent or parents to go to when I need help, it's just something I would really like. Somebody or someone to call mom or dad and go to them when I need help."
Most teenagers in foster care never get adopted. Families are looking for younger kids.
Nationally, about 40 percent of the kids in foster care are over 12. But only 11 percent of the kids who are adopted from foster care are over 12.
So teenagers who can't go back to their biological families wind up on their own when they get too old for foster care. In most states, that happens when they're 18.
Kids who age out of foster care don't tend to fare well. So there's a growing national movement to try to find permanent homes for foster kids.
Roger's working with a project meant to demonstrate that it is possible to find adoptive homes for teenagers. It's called The Homecoming Project.
Six months ago, Roger appeared in a Minneapolis newspaper article about the project.
It talked about how Roger had nowhere to go on Christmas Eve, so he hung around his group home and "pretty much just sat around all day and did nothing." He and some other kids watched a video.
The next day, Christmas Day, Roger had nowhere to go, so his Homecoming adoption recruiter, Jen Braun, picked him up and they spent the day with her partner's family.
The article about Roger and the Homecoming Project got a big response. Lots of families inquired about adopting teens, and today there are a couple of teenagers in permanent homes because of it. But it didn't get a home for Roger.
A family was interested in adopting him, but after he got to know them, he said they weren't right for him.
Braun says that was a brave decision.
"Can you imagine being a kid in the system who desperately wants a family and having the courage to say, 'No thanks,' and take that leap of faith and trust that there's another family out there for him?" she asks. "That's amazing to me."
So Roger was still at Holcomb House. He'd been sent there because he'd had angry outbursts. That seemed hard to believe. Roger is soft spoken and polite. He's funny and smart. He likes puzzles and board games and dumb jokes. Here's the latest favorite:
Roger packs up some of his stuff as he gets ready to move in with his new mom, Jen Braun. Photo by Ellen Guettler
"What did one snowman say to the other? I smell carrots."
This cracks him up.
Roger's portion of a shared bedroom at Holcomb House is tidy. And partly empty. He's getting ready to movef again. Jen Braun, his former adoption recruiter, asked him if she could adopt him. And he said yes.
"I'd already known Jen for awhile and we were really comfortable," Roger says. "We could have a conversation about anything, and it kind of seemed like why not?"
They have a lot in common. Jen likes to garden and cook. She likes dumb jokes. Her latest:
"Why did Pilgrims' pants fall down? Because they wore their belts on their hats."
Once Jen got interested in adopting Roger, she immediately stopped being his adoption recruiter. Someone else took over, and Roger started visiting Jen and her partner, Joanie, on weekends.
"We're super excited for Roger to move in and we've been counting the days and now it's three," Jen says. "Three!" she says again, and they both applaud. "Three days. We were really excited over the weekend when we could count on one hand the number of days."
Roger's already painted his room at Jen and Joanie's house. He picked out the colors: Cheerful Morn and Manhattan Red.
In his room at the group home, he keeps a calendar on the wall. The date he is to leave is marked with a circle of bright colors and the words, "Move home forever!"
From here on out, he'll have someone to spend the holidays with.
The Christmas before, when he spent the holidays with Jen, her partner Joanie's family gave him a scarf and a Jenga game.
"It was really fun," Roger says. "And afterwards I asked could I come back next year for Christmas, and I guess I am going to."
For awhile after Roger goes home to live with Jen and Joanie, he doesn't want to talk to reporters anymore. He doesn't want to be the poster child for teen adoption. He just wants to be somebody's kid.
But he agrees to talk with us once more after the family's first Christmas together.
Roger and his new mom, Jen Braun, play Apples to Apples with some of Roger's new cousins at Christmastime. Photo by Ellen Guettler
It's December 26. A Christmas tree fills a corner of Roger and Jen and Joanie's living room in Minneapolis. There are still presents scattered around, opened and unopened.
Roger received games, candy, a planetarium, and a nose hair clipper.
He gave Joanie a mug with a picture of a hen on it and the word "mother."
Jen got season 11 of MASH and a calendar with puppies on it.
The house is full of Roger's artwork, framed.
One of his poems is on the dining room wall:
I think about being graceful, beauty, mystery, solitude, being exotic. I think about serenity, mystic nature, flying and I think about new places.
I think about what I want. I want a flamingo. I want serenity and peace. I want quiet and adventure.
I think about what I need. I need mystery. I need a natural state of mind. I need creativity, fun, and solitude.
I think about what I fear. I fear extinction. I fear being attacked. I fear the wild. I fear security. I fear being.
I think about what I wish for. I wish for freedom. I wish for beauty, and silence, and sleep. I wish to try new things. I wish for mysticism.
I think about what I hope for. I hope for the best. I hope for good health and honesty. I hope for creativity, a good life, and a little mystery.
I think about what I expect. I expect the wild. I expect animal instincts. I expect fear and silence. I also expect peace and care.
I think about what I love. I love nature and shadows. I love color and mystery. I love my natural self and feeling keen and serene.
We ask him about the poem. What did he mean, he feared security?
He said he wrote the poem back when he was in Holcomb House, back when he didn't know where he'd be living next.
"Now I know that if I fall, I have a secure safe spot to get back up and get going from," he says.
"I don't fear security any more. It's become my best friend."
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