The Definition of Family

We’re Steve & Brenda

This our story 


Summer of 2011  

We were youth group leaders for our church and took the kids to Minneapolis for a service trip at Urban Ventures – an urban outreach program for inner city kids. They assign everyone a “buddy” for the week – to hang out with, supervise, mentor.  Steve got 2 little Latino boys and I got Ana.  It was an amazing, eye-opening , exhausting and fun-filled week and at the end of it we said goodbye, cried and hugged and figured we’d never see these kids again.  Fate, however, had other plans.

About 9 months later, I got the opportunity to again chaperone some girls from a nearby Christian school up to Minneapolis for their spring service project – at Urban Ventures!  I was glad to go back because I believe this is an awesome program and I had enjoyed it so much the first time.  I had been there no more than 10 minutes, when I turned around and there stood Ana.  I was shocked…she was 12 years old now, filthy dirty, about 4 inches taller and no longer looked like the happy little girl I knew from before.  She remembered me and we hugged and chatted for a while.  She went into the offices and I grabbed my phone and called Steve.  I was crying and trying to explain how she looked and asked Steve if he cared if I took her out and got her some warm clothes, some food and some shoes.  He told me to “do what you need to do”.  So I did.  First though, I had her check with her mom…to make sure going with me was okay.  Mom had no problem with it…she was on the phone trying to find a new place to live, as they were being evicted from their apartment.  When I drove up to get Ana, mom never even looked up to see who was taking her daughter.  Ana just came and jumped in with me and we drove away.  I couldn’t believe it.  A little background on Ana – she’s bi-racial; has two sisters, also bi-racial; all have different fathers, none of whom are in their lives; mom is white, an alcoholic and a drug addict.   

We ended up spending most of the week together, as she was my buddy again.  One of the program leaders told me I should just take Ana home with me…that there were things going on that apartment that no little girl should ever have to see.  We exchanged phone numbers (she had a cell phone) and promised to keep in touch with each other.  I told her if there was ever anything we could help her with, that all she had to do was call.  I also asked her if she might ever like to come to Iowa for a visit…but she wasn’t real excited about that idea.  So I headed home feeling like a failure, again thinking this relationship was done.

Summer rolled around and suddenly one evening I got a phone call from Ana.  She told me they now lived in a different house in north Minneapolis, and that things were better, but she was bored and wondered if she could come see us.  Of course we said “Sure”!  Once we figured out when, I headed out for the twin cities to pick her up.  First though, we felt that we had better establish communication and a relationship with her family.  Mom was fine with everything, but Grandma wasn’t so sure.  Turns out Grandma is the boss in every aspect because she is the one who is raising the grandkids most of the time. At that time, between her four daughters, there were six grandkids and at any given time, at least three were living with Grandma and Grandpa. They provide the only stability these kids ever see.

Once they determined we weren’t going to kidnap Ana, we headed for Iowa.  Ana was pretty shy at first because this was the first time she had ever gone anywhere without her family as well as her first trip out of state.  It was so hot that day and when we stopped for a break in Clear Lake, Iowa, we decided to cool off in the lake.  Suddenly, that little carefree girl was back and she swam and played and splashed and wore herself out.  She literally passed out when we got back in the car and slept for the next 3 hours. 

When we got to our house in the rural Iowa countryside, she got shy and quiet again.  She said it was too quiet and that it creeped her out, but when she went to bed that night, she ended up sleeping for 12 hours!  Apparently, a good nights sleep wasn’t something she had very often.  The next day, we showed her around the farm – the pigs, the dog, and the “MULE”.  The Mule was a farm utility vehicle, could seat 3 people, and had a dump bed for hauling stuff.  It was her first driving experience and love at first sight! She drove around with us, without us, and with the dog for hours just exploring.  She was on sensory overload though and it didn’t take long before she was homesick. After only two days, she wanted to go home.  So back we went – a five hour drive – to Minneapolis.  When we got there, she was embarrassed for us to see where she lived. We said hi to mom and her sisters, chatted a bit, promised to keep in touch, then headed home – unsure what the future of this relationship would be.

Ana began to call more frequently after that.  She wanted to tell us what she was doing, about her friends and school…and began to ask when she could come visit again!  She ended up coming down (we always had to go get her) about four times a year.  We went up to see her a couple of times and to watch her play basketball.  Our relationship with her family progressed, even though it seemed they had a hard time understanding our purpose in Ana’s life.  We sent her birthday and Christmas gifts – we did the same for her sisters.  One time, she called me and we watched the Miss America Pageant together…even though we were 300 miles apart! We talked about their dresses, their hair, and their stupid answers to those questions!  It was amazing!  Shortly after that, they were again evicted from their apartment. Every time they moved, it was to a worse location in north Minneapolis.

There were a few times though, when she would call because she was scared.  There was always a crowd at her house – drinking, doing drugs and other things.  Once she called when there was gunfire outside her house.  She was really panicked and suddenly had to hang up.  It took two days before she called us back and told us someone was killed across the street that night. By this time, she was 14 and had begun to run the streets of the city with her friends.  She jumped out the second story window of her house once, just to get away from what was going on downstairs.  She had no respect for her mother and would run out of the house and jump on a bus before her mom could catch her.  We didn’t know until much later that she had started smoking pot when she was 13.  She still came down to visit us about every three months or so.  Each time, she would tell us a little about her life in the city.  We were 300 miles away, so apparently she thought we were safe to talk to.  We became more and more worried about her and started to mention about maybe coming down to Iowa to go to school.  She really wasn’t interested.  We could see that one of her addictions was to the adrenalin rush of the craziness in her life and here in Iowa it was just too calm.

After yet another eviction, and the presence of a man she didn’t want to be around at her next house, she decided to give school in Iowa a try.  She had done okay her freshman year in high school, but then they moved and she had to go to a different school.  We knew this would be an experiment…she left a school of over 2,000 students to come to a Christian school of less than 100 students.  Talk about a culture shock.  After only two days in Iowa, she started her sophomore year.  She has some learning disabilities and attention issues and school has always been a challenge.  Plus, she brought with her a skill set we were unaware of.  Ana loved the mall and she could walk down the corridor and just tell who was like her.  Within a couple weeks, she knew people that she could get weed from and started asking to go to the mall more often.  At this time, Steve and I were as dumb as they come.  We had no idea what was going on.  Plus, things at home were starting to deteriorate as well.  Ana was moody and slept a lot.  She didn’t want to go to school and was often late.  She would come home and go straight to her room and close the door.  We thought it was just teenager stuff and hoped that she could settle into school and find some friends if she would just try. 

We had rules at our house.   I have three kids from my first marriage and have had experience with teenagers.  They dealt with rules, curfews and expectations.  Steve and I believed that what Ana needed was expectations and limits and accountability – things she’d never had before.  She, however, disagreed.  She had been her own person since she was 13 and fought hard against any and all boundaries we set. One of our disciplinary measures was to take away her cell phone and she hated this.  After a particularly tough time, she was again without her phone.  I knew she was always on Facebook and things, and I did the unthinkable.  I hacked her phone while she was at school one day.  What I found left me speechless.  I felt more than stupid.  I had no idea how unhappy she was with us in Iowa - that she was deeply into drugs and alcohol, and that she was failing most of her classes. When she came home in her usual foul mood that day, I asked her if she was happy here.  She exploded…saying she hated it here and she wanted to go home.  I told her I now knew what was going on and that she could go up and start packing. This shocked and surprised her.  I guess she thought we would never know.  She spent 2 hours on the phone with her mother and grandmother, crying and making excuses.  We left 2 hours later and took her back to Minneapolis on October 30th.  She’d made it only a little over 2 months.  When we got to her house, her mom met us at the door and said we needed to leave quickly because there had been gunfire all night long in the neighborhood.  We were crying as we left the city.

It was a couple of months before we heard from her again.  She told us she was going to school, trying to keep up and was maybe even going to play basketball.  We believed everything she said.  She said she needed money for basketball shoes, for  this and for that. We would send her money-grams thinking we were helping her.  What we didn’t know then was that she was buying drugs – weed and harder drugs – and she wasn’t going to school much.  She didn’t come to Iowa for quite a while.  We did see her at Christmas for a couple of days.  She was 15.

We would call her once in a while and she called us occasionally over the next year.  We just sort of assumed that our ties to Ana were beginning to unwind.  She called us in July and told us that her boyfriend had been shot and killed downtown on the 4th of July.  She was not there because she had drunk a drink laced with a drug and had been passed out all day.  She was really struggling and was getting deeper into the gang scene in the city.  Then in December, Ana called and asked if she could come down for Christmas.  She said she just needed to get out of the city for a while.  Things were too intense and she needed a break. 

This was to be the beginning of the next saga.

So…I headed to Minneapolis on December 30.  I got just to the outskirts of the cities and her grandma called me to say that Ana had left and she didn’t know where she was.  Great…now what?  I’d just driven 5 hours and now NO Ana.  I checked into my motel and started calling.  FINALLY…she answered.  Yes, she still wanted to come to Iowa, but would I come get her and take her to a court appearance she needed to be at?  She’d had an assault charge against her. WHAT?  This was too much.  She was way up in north Minneapolis in a rotten part of the city.  I told her to take the bus…no money.  Ask someone…they’re all asleep.  Wake them up.  I told her I’d meet her at the courthouse.  She hung up on me.  Meanwhile, I’m talking to Steve, telling him what’s going on.  By this time, we knew she was into drugs in a bad way.  He suggested that maybe we could offer to send her to rehab.  It was easy to tell her life was headed into a downward  spiral, but how do you help someone who doesn’t want to be helped?

Long story short, after an intense lunch with Ana and her mother, Steve and I offered to pay for Ana to go to a rehab facility for adolescent girls so that she could try to kick her addictions and work on her life path.  Ana finally agreed that she needed to do that.  Mom was grateful and Grandma said good luck with that.  48 hours later we were on a plane to Arizona.  Ana would spend the next 3 months there.  One of our terms for this scenario was that when the three months were over, she would come back to Iowa to live with us and finish high school.  The facility was adamant about her not going back to the situations that were at the root of her addictions.  She reluctantly agreed.  The staff at this facility was excellent and Ana learned many skills to help her deal with her addictions and their triggers.  It was a rough 3 months.  Detox, even for the “lesser” drugs is not easy. 

After a brief trip back to Minneapolis to visit family, Ana again moved into our home.  By this time, she had planted herself in our hearts.  She was our daughter and she called us her parents.  We wanted her to know that we were not giving up on her, nor would we abandon her.  She entered an alternative high school close by and finished out her what should have been her junior year.  She was now a year behind.  The teachers loved her and she even got to go to a Prom.  She went to lots of AA and NA meetings and made some friends through there.  However, by the middle of the summer she was struggling again.  The 4th of July brought too many painful memories and she relapsed…hard.  She had been clean and sober for 7 months.

AGAIN…things went badly downhill.  Repeats of past unacceptable behavior…moodiness…closing herself off.  Finally, she came to us and said she wasn’t happy and needed to go back home to Minneapolis.  We didn’t object and she was surprised when I put her suitcases on her bed.  We had reached the end of our abilities as well.  We had no energy to try to make her stay.  So we drove her back the next day…on October 30th.  At that time, we believed it was over.  We had tried and we had failed.   

Our friends and family kept telling us we had done what we could…more than anyone had ever expected…and that all we could do now was pray that we had somehow made a difference in her life.  We call it a God thing.  For whatever reason, Ana came into our life and we felt like we were called to help her.  We just wished that things had worked out better.

But wait…that’s not the end of the story.   Right after Christmas, Ana called us.  She asked to talk to me.  She said, “I’m sorry, Mom.  I screwed up. I never should have left.  Can I come back? I know your expectations now and I know I can handle it.  Please let me come back.  I can’t live in Minneapolis anymore.”  She called me “mom”.  What was I supposed to say?  She hadn’t been in school, she was so far behind.   So, once again, Ana moved back to Iowa.  She finished out the school year at the same school she had left.  She turned 18…a milestone in her mind.  She was an “adult”, therefore she was her own boss.  This brought on a whole new set of issues.  She decided that she needed to be on her own and that she could now take care of herself AND finish high school…no problem.  We are not her real parents, and we really don’t have the ability to hold her against her will.  We decided not to fight about it.  Right before school started last year, she moved in with a friend and the friends mother.  She was working and going to an urban alternative high school and seemed to be doing okay.  She was on track to graduate in the spring of 2018.  She was headed toward one of her goals.

Then she found a boyfriend.  She cautiously introduced him to us.  He seemed like a wonderful guy…said all the right things, was polite and helpful and together they seemed quite happy. But evil can come in many disguises.  He was an accomplished liar, a controlling bully and abusive.  It took a couple more months before Ana told us about all of that.  She had been so stressed out with him that she had not been keeping up with school…in fact the school had dropped her for not attending.  We knew none of this because she wasn’t living with us anymore.  When her landlady learned of this abuse, she told Ana she could not live there anymore and that she needed to move back with us.  She was out of options at this point.  She had nowhere else to go.  

So in March of this year, Ana once again returned to the cornfields.  Our terms were that she needed to put school first, work second…graduate from high school.  It was a really rough three months on all of us. She turned 19. Ana would leave and we might not see her for a couple of days.  We do live about 20 miles from where she worked and went to school and she didn’t like to drive so far after dark.  We all survived though, and Ana did graduate in May.  She was even asked by the school staff to give the student address at the graduation ceremony!!  She had finally accomplished her major goal.  Most of her family came down for her graduation party to celebrate with her. What we didn’t know was that she had applied for a scholarship to a community college in the area and was awarded that scholarship!  She plans to go to college beginning August 20th in a culinary arts program.  She moved to her own apartment in early July with a roommate.  She is truly on her own now, but appears to be looking ahead to future goals.  She has no plans to return to Minneapolis right now. 

So maybe we didn’t fail completely after all.  I wish I could say that Ana is clean and sober, but I can’t.  She is finding that there is a lot more to being an adult than she originally thought.  Her money skills are pretty poor, and that is a constant stress, but she insists that she can make it.  We just have to let her do it her way.  We have tried to show her our version of a “normal” life, but what is normal?  At least she can now see something different from what was in Minneapolis.  Hopefully, she has learned a little bit from us.  Having her in our lives has taught us a great deal.  We thought we were patient until that patience was tested.  We thought we were savvy until we learned we were naive. We learned that giving up on someone is not an option if you care about them.  We learned that God never gives you more than you can handle…even though it’s tough. 

Hopefully, this story will continue…!