And yet, there they were, all those people Leah couldn’t imagine, standing with open arms and wide smiles, treating them with kindness and attention. Making them feel special. Giving them a present.
In Leah’s case, the present was a Rag Doll. “I thought she was perfect and all I could do was hold onto her,” she laughs as she tells the story. We are sitting in the Medical Office of the DI, the homeless shelter where we both work. After years working as a frontline staff, primarily in Intox, a large sleeping area for people under the influence of drugs or alcohol, Leah now contributes to the team as the Medical Assistant.
“I loved that doll,” she adds, her eyes misting with tears. “She was a connection to my mom. To my past. To the hope that one day we’d spend Christmas with her together again.
It was that doll who would carry Leah through 11 foster homes and too many backseats of a Social Worker’s car, looking back through the window as she waved good-bye. “That day of the Fireman’s Christmas party I was too excited to connect the presence of Social Services with being taken away from my mother. I thought I’d live with her forever.”
But it was not to be. A few days after Christmas, Social Services came back, gathered up Leah and her sister, piled all their clothes into a suitcase and placed the children into the back seat of a car. “All I could take were my clothes, and my Rag Doll,” she says. And then, they drove away from the only home she’d ever known. “I remember looking out the back window, waving at my mom, not quite sure what was happening. My mom stood on the doorstep waving and crying and I was confused and excited. I was going off on an adventure and I didn’t understand what it meant but my sister [who was 1 year older] did. She was crying too and that confused me even more.”
“That was the last Christmas I ever spent with my mom,” Leah adds.
There’s a catch in her throat. A pause as she composes herself. Even now, over 35 years later, that day still touches her heart. “I know what it feels like to lose everyone you love,” she says. “I think that’s why working here [at the DI] is so important to me. I know what it feels like to believe nobody wants you, nobody loves you. As I grew older and kept getting sent from foster home to orphanage and back to foster homes I knew nobody would ever adopt me. Nobody wants a big kid. Everyone wants the cute little babies.”
That understanding lead Leah and her wife, Denise, to foster their first child four years ago. “Tyra was 14 when she came to us,” she says, a big smile lighting up her face. “It was difficult at times but I knew we had to keep loving her even when she was a handful. But who could blame her? She’d been shuttled from foster home to foster home, just like me. She believed nobody could love her.”
But Leah and Denise worked hard to show the teenage Tyra love and attention. To help her understand, no matter what she’d done, or what had happened in her life, she was lovable.
“It’s like with the clients here at the DI,” she says. “I hold onto my belief they all have a chance to have the life they dream of. They will go home one day. I have to because without believing that, I’m giving up hope and I can never give up hope.”
It was her Rag Doll that taught her about holding onto hope, no matter how dark the days. “It was my only way to hold onto my mom,” she says. “As I got older I knew I couldn’t change my mom. I couldn’t stop her drinking or even make her fit the mold the Social Workers wanted her to fit. Like, not being native, not being a single mom. I couldn’t change any of that but I could hold onto hope, and my Rag Doll gave me hope.”
Thirty-five plus years after first walking into the Saddledome and receiving her Rag Doll and the hope for a better life, Leah has come full circle. A mother to two additional foster children, Leah took her four and ten year old sons to the Fireman’s Christmas party for the first time this year. It was amazing she said.
“It was like walking into that arena all those years ago as a little girl. My eyes were wide with wonder and when the boys got treated so well and I saw them smiling and laughing and having fun, I felt the gratitude all over again,” she says. “I love how life has come full circle. The difference this time though is that our home is a safe place for my children. Our home is the one constant they have, the one place they will always know they are loved, no matter what.”
It has been a long journey for Leah from foster child to Adult Care worker to Medical Assistant at the DI. And throughout the journey, she has held onto the one constant she knows she can never give up, that one thing her Rag Doll gave her so long ago. Hope.
And just as she does for her children, she will never give up hope for the clients at the DI. “I will never give up believing in the people we serve,” she says. “I will never give up believing that they will get sober, they will go back home.” And she stops and takes a breath. “There was a time when I didn’t believe I’d ever have a home or a family of my own, and now I do. For people here, if we give up hope, who will they hold onto? I had my Rag Doll. We’re all they’ve got.”
Thank you Leah for all you do. For caring and sharing and never giving up on hope that one day everyone will find their way home. Because of you and the 200+ staff who never give up on the people we serve, Hope lives at the DI.