Finding Home

Millions of kids live with someone other than their parents. Three teens tell us their stories and what family means to them.

Jacob with his grandparents at home in Texas

For the eleventh February in a row, you cuddle on the sofa with your mom, your little brother, and your dad to watch Groundhog Day, the comedy about a man forced to relive a single day over and over. The movie is a family tradition. Your mom tickles your arm as you laugh at Bill Murray stuffing a whole donut into his mouth. Your dad jumps up to make a batch of popcorn, which you will all eat out of the giant wooden bowl your parents got as a wedding gift. Ah, family.

But not everyone’s experience of home is like this. Today, in 2019, nearly 3 million adolescents in America are living in homes without their parents. Some live with relatives or friends. Others spend time in the government’s foster care system.

What is it like to live without your parents? These three teens share their stories and explain what family has come to mean to them. 

During brutal upstate New York winters, Lexi could see her breath inside her parents’ trailer. Without a heater in the home, the family did the best they could to keep warm, bundling up in jackets and piling comforters on top of themselves. Electric heaters were used sparingly because they tripped the fuse box. The pipes froze over, making it impossible to use water, even to flush the toilet. 

Lexi showered about once a week and seldom brushed her teeth. “Growing up, I thought it was normal. I thought lots of kids dealt with this,” she said. 

But in middle school, she started spending more time at friends’ houses and confronted her parents about the difference. They told her, “We have money issues, and we’re sorry.” 

“I was so scared. I thought he’d break up with me.” 

Lexi, 17

By the time she was 13, Lexi would stay with a friend for weeks at a time. At one friend’s house, she had her own dresser drawers, her own corner of the closet. With electricity and a warm bed to sleep in every night, Lexi found she was better rested and could concentrate on her schoolwork. She talked to her mom every day and periodically returned home to the trailer, but she found it difficult to be there for long.

In 2017, in her junior year of high school, Lexi started dating Jaysen, who was a senior. The two became close and fell in love, and she told him all about her childhood and what it was like growing up in her home. 

Lexi and Jess love to cook together. 

“I was so scared. I thought he’d break up with me,” she says. “but he just stuck by me through all of it.”

In time, she began staying the night at his house and spending more time with him and his mom, Jess. When he went to college this fall, Jess asked Lexi, “Do you want to move in?” 

Yes, she did, and her parents agreed to let her leave. (They still keep in touch.) Jess and Lexi like to cook breakfast for dinner, watch movies together, and make plans for Lexi’s future in epidemiology. “She’s very ambitious and very smart,”

Jess says. “I love my parents and they are my family,” Lexi says, “but I also think a family is just a group of people that love and respect each other. They don’t have to be blood related to be family. Jess is my family, too.” 

Jacob has a tradition with his family on nights he plays football in San Antonio, Texas. They pick up food at a late-night eatery and sit around his grandparents’ dining table talking about the game and their lives. Sometimes his mom will spend the night, but she never stays past breakfast the morning after.

“It kind of feels normal, but at the same time, it’s not,” Jacob admits. 

Jacob has lived an entire lifetime in this unusual family situation. When he was born, he weighed only four pounds, so small that he fit in his grandfather’s hand. His mother tested positive for a variety of drugs, and so Jacob went home to live with his grandparents. He and his sisters have all lived with them since they were babies.

Jacob feels like he’s always known about his mother’s drug addiction and rehabilitation efforts, even though he and his family don’t talk about it often. “Most of my friends know that I live with my grandparents,” he says. But they didn’t always know why.
About seven people, though, are privy to the truth. After years of questions from his closest friends, he felt like he had to share the details.“When I finally told them, I felt relieved,” he says. “They just said they’re there for me.” 

“It kind of feels normal, but at the same time, it’s not.” 

Jacob, 14

Jacob now towers at 6-feet-2- inches tall and weighs 280 pounds. He’s a left tackle on the football team, and it was actually football that that gave him a feeling of home away from home. Back in middle school, his coach, John Gallardo, realized Jacob’s grandparents were always the ones picking him up from practice. Jacob told the coach about his mom’s troubles, and the coach said, “Come find me if you have any problems or want to talk.”

“It made me feel warm inside knowing I had someone else I could go to,” Jacob says. 

Jacob feels like he lives in a normal family: He mows the lawn, his grandfather barbecues sausages on the grill on weekends, and they take family trips and build memories together. 

Jacob and his grandfather

Like the time they all drove to Marfa in West Texas to see the mysterious Marfa lights, orbs that float across the skyline. They were first sighted in the 1880s, and to this day, no one knows for sure what they are.

Jacob’s two sisters, his cousins, aunt, uncle, and grandparents were all there. They slept in an old trailer at a campground, looking up at the night sky.

“It was like nothing I have ever seen before, like something from a crazy TV show,” Jacob remembers. “I’m just glad we all saw them together. It was amazing.” 

Tiara, 16, was 45 minutes late for the appointment. Sitting across the diner booth from her was a couple her case worker had brought her to meet. They were in their 50s. The man had a graying beard and glasses. The woman had dark-red hair and lots of freckles. Both were smiling big smiles. “It was creepy,” Tiara remembers. But she was willing to give them a shot, because they were interested in adopting her. “I didn’t think anybody wanted almost an adult,” she explains.

Like 475,000 children across America at any given time, Tiara was part of the foster care system, which is a government service that places children in temporary homes when their birth parents can’t care for them. Tiara had entered the system at age 11, when she and her little brother were taken away from their mother. Tiara thought they would be going to the same foster home, but her brother was placed elsewhere. She was alone and scared. 

On the day of her adoption, Tiara leaps for joy. 

Tiara’s life from that point on could best be described as unsteady. After three years of living in foster care—where she shared a room with another child—Tiara moved into an apartment with her older sister. But her 19-year-old sister had to play the role of her parent, and they fought. So Tiara was sent to a group home. “Every day I would cry,” she says.

Because she moved around to new group homes, Tiara ended up attending five different high schools in two years, trying her best to keep up with the curriculum at each new school. “I knew that I would be moving soon, so I didn't really try to make any friends,” she says. 

Then came the couple in the diner, Jim Deyer and Lee Bauer. They showed her a book they’d made, filled with photographs of their family members—grown children, grandchildren. They asked Tiara to walk with them along the lake in downtown Orlando. They knew she liked to sing, and so Jim sang for her. “Is that all you got?” Tiara joked. They all laughed. 

“My tears turned into smiles.” 

Tiara, 16

Over the next few weeks, Tiara and the couple grew closer. She got to know and love their four dogs and two cats. And on April 30, she moved into their house, where she decorated her room “in a lot of hot pink,” Lee says. Last July, the adoption was finalized.

“When I found out, my tears turned into smiles,” Tiara says. “I knew that I was going to get a family. I was going to get a future.” Now she is focused on becoming a cosmetologist and going to college.

After living a life where the people who were supposed to help her couldn’t, Tiara has a
new outlook: “Family will put everything on the line—no matter what it takes—to love you.” 

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