Saturday, August 6, 2016

Foster Care and the Olympics

I LOVE the Olympic Games - both the winter and summer games. Every two years, I'm captivated by the national pride, physical strength, mental endurance and emotional resilience of the athletes from all over the world. Last night I sat captivated while watching the Olympics opening ceremony. Brasilians* are beautiful, spirited and warm people, and I fell in love with Brasil over a decade ago when my son Kalin and I served orphans and vulnerable children on a mission's trip there.

Another love of mine - following the lives of former foster children. My heart is always moved to hear the stories of people - young and old - whose lives began with so much stacked against them. Inevitably, while hearing the "how did they get here?" stories shared during the Olympics trials, I've discovered some amazing Olympians whose lives have been touched by foster care and/or adoption in some way. 

And you know I had to share... 

Simone Biles ~ Gymnastics

This 4-foot-9 inch powerhouse is all the rage this year. During the Olympic trials this year - of which my daughter Jada and I watched every second - the 19-year-old dominated, finishing first in the all-around gymnastics competition. Simone soars through the air like no other. Her power is undeniable. As she owned the vault during the Olympic trials, sports commentators consistently marveled, "No female gymnast has done this before." 

This girl is amazing.

And yet her life started off much less secure than her standing on the world stage of gymnastics. Simone's biological father abandoned her while she was very young, and her biological mother struggled with drug and alcohol abuse. Simone and her sister Adria, unfortunately landed in the Ohio foster care system. In 2002, Simone's grandparents, Ron and Nellie Biles, stepped up to take in their granddaughters, moving them to Spring, Texas. 

A year later, a 6-year-old Simone would experience another life-changing event. On a daycare field trip to a gym, the gym staff observed her imitating other gymnasts. The gym sent a letter home to Simone's new parents, requesting she join tumbling or gymnastics.

And the rest, as they say, is history...

Carlin Isles ~ Rugby

I must admit, I don't usually follow the U.S. Rugby Olympics Team, so I had never heard of Carlin - until today. I was instantly inspired by this 26-year-old sprinter-turned-rugby player. After achieving great success in football and track, his first year in rugby was only 4 years ago. He has already been dubbed "the fastest man in rugby".

Yet Carlin's life began with heartache. He spent the first years of his life in Ohio foster care, and remembers days that he was so hungry he would eat dog food to survive. He and his twin sister Cambra watched while a police officer drove away with their birth mother in the back of his car. Carlin told CNN his life "was basically survival of the fittest. I had to fight. I went from home to poor schooling - I had to eat dog food. We didn't celebrate birthdays, Christmases or anything like that."

At age 8, Carlin and his sister were adopted by a loving couple, Starlett and Charles Isles. Carlin says, "My parents have always been there for me." No doubt they'll be supporting their talented son as he dominates on the rugby field in Rio.

Frentorish "Tori" Bowie - Track

I can't tell you how much I rooted for this young woman during the Olympic trials. I hadn't heard about Tori until the trials, but she's not the kind of athlete you forget. And as much as I love Allyson Felix, who made her mark in London during the 2012 Summer Olympics, I couldn't help but scream for Tori when she edged Allyson out of the 200m trials by .01 second. Her 3rd-place win secured 25-year-old Tori's spot for the 200m in Rio.

Like Simone and Carlin, Tori also spent part of her early life in Mississippi foster care - albeit brief. As a 2-year-old toddler, Tori spent a short time in foster care, when her mother was unable to care for her and her sister Tamarra. Her grandmother Bobbie Smith took her young granddaughters in, taking over for their troubled mom and a dad that was mostly absent from their lives. A natural athlete, Tori played basketball and moved on to track in high school, being named All-State Basketball and Track. Incidentally her father reentered her life when she began her track career, which was great timing since he had excelled as a long jumper in high school.

Her loving Grandmama might be as responsible for Tori's road to Rio as her speed and athleticism. "I encouraged them to go to school, don't think about boys at a young age, and to do good," Tori's grandmother told NBC. "And they took my advice." 

Great advice. 

And my advice to you? 

Don't miss Tori or Simone or Carlin during the Summer Olympics in Rio.

* Native Brasilians spell their country with and "s" instead of a "z".

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