They arrived by bus and by van, packed in tight like farm animals, tasting each other’s hot breath, smelling each other’s unwashed hair. When the doors slid open, the children burst from the vehicles and scattered across the ball field like fireworks.
I arrived at the Foothills Summer Camp in similarly inglorious manner, dismounting my bicycle, hair tussled, my bright yellow Staff shirt already drenched in sweat from pedaling over the bridge on Pendleton Road. I propped my bike against the old barn that served as the camp’s gymnasium and made my way over to the gravel driveway where foster parents dropped the children off each morning, a half dozen at time, and left them at the camp with meager half-sandwiches.
“It’s such a shame,” the camp director said to me as another van pulled away. Her warm brown eyes narrowed as she watched the children run off to play.
“Why do they take so many,” I asked.
Foster care was an institution wholly unfamiliar to me. I had escaped my parents’ idyllic suburban home and fled to the South in pursuit of a college degree but my motivation had stalled, and I found myself working in the heart of South Carolina, desperate to understand the young lives developing in poverty.
The director, a petite middle-aged woman with kind features and a toned figure, explained that orphan children were attained from the government in exchange for remuneration. Each additional child was worth just a little bit more, not much, but enough to be taken advantage of by the avaricious and unscrupulous. Funds allocated to satisfy children’s needs were spent in a litany of immoral ways, untouched or unseen by government regulations. This was, she explained, the tragic truth of abandonment: that an unloving home was better than no home at all.
“You should spend some time with them, get to know them,” the director suggested. “They’re damaged, but they’re good kids. They just need someone to help them heal.”
I didn’t know what to say. At age 19, I had never met someone “damaged” before. My work at the summer camp had revolved around the younger children, three and four years of age. I enjoyed finger painting and naptime, but had never interacted with the more mature groups. With the director’s permission, I prepared for a new adventure, abandoning my usual group of cheerful preschool campers and taking over an assembly of misfit preteen orphans.
The kids were physically rough, verbally crude, and wildly unpredictable, a collection of modern-day Huckleberry Finns. They swore like sailors, wrestled like dogs, but laughed like siblings, and it wasn’t long before I felt at ease among them.
“Watch this,” Steven called to me, striking an awkward pose at the three-point line. He palmed the basketball above his head, held it steady with his left hand, and launched his whole body forward with an unapologetic lack of grace, sending the ball hurtling through the air towards the hoop. It bounced off the rim and fell to the ground with a thud.
“Damn. So close,” he said, chasing after the ball. His arms swung loosely by his sides as he ran and his legs seemed to lunge forward with unnecessary force. He was tall and lanky, somewhat muscular for a kid, but lacking the coordination of an athlete.
“I’m practicing to be like LeBron James,” he told me, dribbling back to the line. “He never misses a three-point shot.” I nodded and smiled, watching as he missed another, and another, and another.
“Hey, you think if I practice enough I’ll play in the NBA someday?” Steven asked me as we left the basketball court.
I told him that with a few more years of practice he’d be a shoe-in. “No doubt about it,” I said. “You’ve got talent. In a few years you’ll be playing for the Miami Heat for sure.”
He gave a wide, goofy smile.
“Look at this,” he said, pulling a cheap nylon wallet from his backpack. There wasn’t much inside, some sort of ticket stub, a few arcade tokens, and a grainy photograph. He took out the picture and held it up for me to see.
“It’s my mom.”
“Oh. She’s pretty,” I lied, attempting to camouflage my discomfort. The woman in the photo looked as though she hadn’t slept in weeks.
“Yeah, I know,” he said, giving the picture a fond look and then placing it gently back in his wallet.
“She’s kind of sick right now,” he explained. “Because of drugs. But she really wants to be with me, I know she does.”
I nodded some more and forced a smile, trying not to look Steven in the eye. The truth was that his mother had given him up before he turned three, and had continued to avoid him for over a decade. What love Steven had for his mother could not be for her as a person, but for the idea of her, the missing memories of her, the life she had never given him.
A flame of guilt ignited somewhere deep in my chest as I thought of my own mother. There was no need for a picture of her in my wallet. In fact, I owed her a phone call.
“When I make it to the NBA,” he continued, “they’re gonna pay me millions. Then I’ll buy a nice house and my mom will come and live with me. She won’t be sick anymore because I’ll pay doctors lots of money to make her better. It’s gonna be great.”
“Just keep practicing that three-point shot,” I said.
A few weeks later my group of foster kids sat around a wooden picnic table eating petty lunches from brown paper bags and telling wild stories. I stood in the shade nearby, leaning against a tree and pretending not to listen.
“I swear on my life I’m gonna figure out that combination code,” declared Angie, a spitfire redhead with a tongue like whip.
“If that bitch Ms. Delaney thinks she can keep that freezer locked up, she’s got another thing comin’! I just know she’s got ice cream in there, and I intend to get it.”
“Gonna be sleepin’ in the basement again if you do,” chided Owen, who was only ten, but loved to antagonize her. He stuffed a fist in his mouth, fighting to repress a giggle as Angie got worked up.
“I ain’t spendin’ another damn night in that leaky old basement,” she snapped. “I’ll run away before I sleep with those hairy spiders again.”
“Didn’t work so well last time,” chimed in Dana from across the table. “They picked you up on Route 36 before midnight.”
“I woulda made it further if it weren’t for that damn cop,” Angie said, shaking her head again. “Besides, you ain’t done no better.”
The group went on this way for a while, trading escape stories and poking fun at each other’s mishaps. I leaned in a little closer, listening intently despite the fact that our allotted lunch time had ended.
Each of their stories were wild and unique, worthy of sharing and exaggerating, but somewhere beneath their boasting words was a sadness mixed with immeasurable doses of longing. These were not tales of adventure, but of pain, yearning, and desperation. It shocked me to learn that nearly every child in my group of fifteen had at one point been a fugitive, only to be hunted down and returned to their austere foster homes.
My own escape story went untold. It was impossible to tell these children that I had tried to leave behind all of the things they were still searching for. I felt my cheeks flush and burning at the thought.
“Steven, how come you ain’t never tried to run away?” asked Angie.
As usual, the thirteen year old boy had been silent through the whole conversation. Despite his size, Steven was easily intimidated. His speech was often fragmented and his illiteracy was a source of frequent embarrassment. Mostly he kept quiet, just listening and taking it all in until he was prodded.
“Don’t you hate living with Ms. Delany?”
“So why don’t you run away?”
The gears turned behind his pale gray eyes as he processed years of abuse and neglect, searching for anything that would fit the jagged edges into place. Finally he hit upon a certainty. His words would help me realize that adventure does not require distance, but growth.
“This is how things are,” Steven said. “So, where would I go?”