That is what a perfect stranger said to me while visiting Green Bay, when I was only 21. I never forgot his face or his words. Five years, two college degrees, and one beautiful baby girl later, I move back from Florida to settle into adult life. I buy a farm near Fond du Lac, in a spec-on-the-map town called St. Cloud (WI, not MN). Imagine my surprise; I meet my country-mile neighbor; the man with the Green Bay-advice. I felt a bit like I was in an episode-gone-awry of the Twilight Zone; for a moment, I was looking for the hidden camera. Nevertheless, I have practiced the concept ever since; and it is amazing how many times irony has pulled into my driveway. Point being, be nice to everyone you meet, because not only is there a possibility of a common zip code, there is also a good chance, there is a good reason, for your chance meeting.
My next disclosure may sound a bit far-fetched, but I believe it to be true wholeheartedly; there is a reason for everything, and people cross your path at the exact second you need them, or they need you. I do not believe in coincidence. Still a skeptic? Well, maybe I can make you a believer.
I’m 16, a knock on the door brings a 4 month-old baby, who I w as my brother; but at the time, he was another child lost in the foster system. Thankfully, we never had to meet his biological parents, but that still did not stop “the system” from attempting to reunite the baby with the absent individuals, for five gruelingly long years. It made no difference that the people named on his birth certificate, never showed for the state scheduled meetings; or that my brother had found parents and siblings who would give their own life for the sake of his happiness, right there in my childhood home. We love and wait with bated breath; those five long years until the final court hearing arrives. The adoption was finalized, on grounds of abandonment. The nights of worry-fueled tears were over. He was officially my brother. And I was officially a passionate advocate for families in this situation, and children in general.
Most recently, my phone rings, and on the other end is a single mom who I don’t know very well, someone I had met under the most unusual circumstances. She is sobbing, and pleas for help. From our limited conversations, she is aware of my adoration for children; she is unaware of the personal experiences that led to this love. She takes a shot-in-the-dark and asks for guidance with her 15 year-old honor student who is in the midst of falling victim to some very unjustified treatment. I told her she dialed the right phone number.
In the mean time, I am working for the Chronicle, and run across a friend and Muskego resident, who I know is a passionate advocate for any child; with deep ties to adoption and the foster system. I explain the phone call I had received, and ask for her advice. She assumed I knew she was facing similar challenges with her adopted son, who I learn is biracial. I never even so much as knew her adopted son’s race. I had never met him, only heard all the wonderful stories. I was shocked, because the honor student’s problems are a result of racism and intolerance. My Muskego-friend wants to help, and I feel strong. The week is productive, and the 15 year-old has an army behind her; one made up of all races and walks of life. When it comes to children, I believe we all speak a universal language; the largest majority of us anyhow.
I feel accomplished last Friday. I pick up a long-time friend of my daughters, so the pair can go bowling and to Brookfield square. I see the little friends mom in the driveway; a wonderful woman who had become my friend over the years. As we stand and talk, a tiny blue-eyed 4 year-old teeters out with a just-had-lunch grin. The youngster is a foster child the family has been raising as their own for the last several years. I see worry on my friends face; and I ask how things are. She tells me the “system” is attempting the same reuniting efforts between the little girl and her biological father. I immediately give her my Muskego based friend and advocate’s phone number because I knew she would be honored to help in any way she could. We head off for our night of bowling and shopping. The little girl and the worry surrounding the situation came up several times in the car. I told my daughter’s friend about my brother, and the happy ending. I tell her I know what she is going through. I tell her I wrote a book about it. She is pleasantly surprised.
Later that night, my daughter crawls out of bed and comes to find me, tears in her eyes, cell phone in hand. She shows me a text from her friend; it said the 4 year-old has to spend every Saturday night with her biological father; a man I had been told was less-than-ideal. She continues to say how she is so attached to her foster sister, and how she is lying in bed with the little girl and “crying her heart out.” My heart sinks at the sight of her words. I have walked in her shoes. I can’t help but cry at her heartbreak.
Saturday morning, I ask my mother to help in any way she can; even if only to talk to let the family know they are not alone. I ask the other women mentioned earlier, if they are there for this family if need be. They are eagerly on stand-by, even though they have never been personally introduced. Because there is strength on numbers. And neighbors. And we all speak the color-blind, love-filled, universal language of our children. Not just our own, but everyone’s. So treat everyone nice, they may in fact, end up next door. You may need help, or you may need to help. And nothing in this world feels better than helping a neighbor’s child.