What Adoption For Older Foster Youth Really Means

Family toasting at Thanksgiving meal
Family toasting at Thanksgiving meal

When I was 16 years old and in foster care in Tennessee, people told me I was unadoptable. But I desperately wanted a family. I enlisted the help of a judge, even the commissioner of the Department of Children's Services, and was adopted just a week before my 18th birthday.

I'm honored to be a part of AdoptUsKids' National Adoption Month campaign "We Never Outgrow the Need for Family." It's so true, and we all know it.

Take a look around your Thanksgiving table this week and imagine your life without a family. No one to argue politics with or watch football and those sappy Christmas movies with. No one to join you in the cold Black Friday shopping lines. No one who understands the importance of your family's hashbrown casserole as much as you do.

We have a lot to be grateful for and this holiday season let's not forget about the more than 415,000 youth in foster care especially older youth. These youth are the most likely to get overlooked for adoption, but they shouldn't be. They need and deserve a family just as much as young children do. Making an older youth a part of your family can bring just as much a joy as adopting a baby or a younger child -- without all the diapers and potty training. Check out AdoptUSkids' new PSA or visit AdoptUSkids.org to learn more about adopting older youth and see what they mean by "you don't have to be perfect to be a perfect parent."

My adoption was life changing and probably the best thing that ever happened to me. Having a forever family has given me unconditional love, support, confidence, and security. I know that I'm loved and that I belong. I still remember the first gift my parents gave to me. It was a Mickey Mouse key chain with a key to their home. They told me that no matter what happened they would always love me and I'd always have a place to come home to. This is our 17th Thanksgiving together...

My first Thanksgiving with my family was a little overwhelming with lots of extended family including grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. However, it's when I realized that I would never have to spend another holiday alone and that was truly an amazing feeling.

Of course there were college Thanksgivings when pulling into the driveway meant exams and college life could go on the backburner, and I could get some sleep and eat my mom's cooking. I was always eager to spend time with my little sister, Beth. She was six when I joined the family. My dad always says he knew we were really sisters, and I was no longer a guest in the house when Beth and I had our first fight. Today, she's one of my best friends, and I'm her biggest cheerleader.

There were also bittersweet Thanksgivings. One we spent in my mom's hospital room. It was there that she helped me plan my wedding but passed away three weeks before the ceremony. My dad walked me down the aisle, and my sister was my maid of honor. Because of our bond, we were able to support each other through that challenging time and that's what family is for - the good and bad times.

I'm 34 years old now, but I need my family just as much as I did when I was 18, if not more. I'm as much a part of the family as I was when I was 19 or 25.

It's nice having my dad and sister to share holidays and special occasions. But they're even more important when it comes to the little things -- like having someone to share my bad day with, celebrate my promotion at work, or help me think through a difficult decision. It's in these moments that I just can't imagine being alone in the world.

I'm so glad that I didn't listen to those people who said I was unadoptable, I'd never find a family, and that I was putting myself out there for rejection. It's a risk for older foster youth to consider adoption. It's an opportunity to be rejected once again. But it's a risk they should take because life doesn't end at 18. It's really just beginning.

If you know someone who might consider adopting an older teen, please share my story -- and have him or her think of my family. They didn't get to see my first steps or watch me be a pilgrim in my second grade Thanksgiving play. But they taught me so many things about life, and were there to watch me walk across the stage when I graduated from college and law school and accompanied me to the White House last year as I was honored for my work helping foster youth.

I look forward to many more Thanksgivings with my family, and I'm eternally thankful they chose me to be a part of their family.

Mary Lee earned a bachelor's degree in social work with a minor in leadership from Austin Peay State University and went on to graduate from the University of Memphis School of Law. She is the national coordinator for YVLifeSet, a program of Youth Villages that helps young people who age out of foster care achieve their amazing potential. This month, she is one of Glamour Magazine's 50 Hometown Heroes. For more information, visit YVLifeSet.org.