“I guess it was never really ‘home’ because we were always moving around in shelters.”
reflects Arelis. With drug addicted parents and a father with mental health challenges, instability was the norm for the first years of Arelis’ life. Then one afternoon a policeman knocked at the door after neighbors called to report that Arelis, her older sister, and younger brother had been left unattended for days.
Arelis and her siblings entered New York City foster care, where they would remain for many years to come. Arelis was only 5 years old. Over the next 8 years, she lived in 16 different foster homes and facilities. ‘They started me in foster homes, but the first one was really bad… and they moved me. The second lady wanted me to call her ‘mom’ right away and eventually kicked me out when I didn’t.’
After multiple foster family placement a social worker told her, ‘You won’t work in a family. We’re going to put you in a group home.’ Arelis was separated from her siblings, scared, and deeply sad. She was moved to a Residential Treatment Center where she was diagnosed and medicated. At 13, it was just too much to bear, and Arelis tried to kill herself. In hopes of stabilizing her, social workers helped Arelis find her sister who was living at Mary Keane’s home.
Mary had just started as a foster parent after visiting a group home for teenagers and seeing the low standard of care they received. In Mary’s words, ‘I thought… I can do something. I need to do something.’ She became licensed as a foster parent and opened her home to one 14-year old girl, and then another, and another. One of the girls was Aileen, Arelis’ sister.
Arelis came to Mary’s to visit her sister. ‘We ate meatballs and watched Steward Little… it was the first time in a long time that I felt safe.’ says Arelis. Over time Arelis moved in, but moving in didn’t mean a happy ending. Mary remembers, ‘There were times when the girls would fight or run away and the social worker would say that somebody had to go. It didn’t make sense. That was my light bulb moment… they didn’t need to go, these girls needed to stay. They needed a family.’
But, the idea of having a permanent family didn’t keep Arelis from breaking rules or running away. Arelis recalls, ‘[Mary] would always find me and bring me home. She comforted me and told me that she loved me. I had never heard that before.’ It was a turning point for Arelis. ‘I was going to do great things, and great things came and went; but Mary was always there telling me she loved me and that we’re a family. Now I can have my own family and I know how to love because Mary taught me. Mary changed my life.’