You're a kid. You want to sleep at a friend's house, but first his parents have to get checked out by the state. You play football at the YMCA, and they want to take a picture of the group, but not of you, because you're in foster care. In fights, you feel powerful. That's the only time. By your 15th birthday, you've packed up so many times, it's hard to keep track of the number. You think maybe it's 20.
Jounelle Joseph — call him J.J. — has a word for the way his old life made him feel:
But today, he has a reason to celebrate. It's Mother's Day.
This spring, he got adopted.
This spring, he won a most-improved-student award.
The grownups in his life don't think the timing's a coincidence.
At Coleman Middle School in South Tampa, he's one of the few black kids in the eighth grade, one of the oldest, one of the biggest. He's got round cheeks and chin hairs and wears a T-shirt that says One Man Wolfpack.
Two months ago, he wouldn't have told this story. But now it feels okay to talk.
"I was brushing my teeth.
"These men came in and took us. I cried for my mom.
"I was 3."
• • •
His foster care file would swell with pages of notes. These were among the first:
The client was observed in a preschool/daycare setting . . . He began to play football with some other boys. The client refused to share the ball. When a boy asked him to throw the ball, the client purposefully attempted to kick the ball into the boy's face . . . One of the teachers commented that the client can be unmanageable.
J.J. was 5. Ten years later, these are his own recollections of life in foster care:
He loved the first home, where for a long time, he lived with his two brothers and sister. But there was a divorce, and the lady had to move, and she had to give them up. And he got split from the other three.
At 9, he moved in with a churchgoing family he says was rich — "went from wearing Skechers to Jordans" — but he didn't get along with one of the other boys. "One day, he was picking on my cousin. I fought him and I flipped him off.
"I got in trouble."
He stayed there for three years. The parents cared for him, but he felt like they showed more love to their own kids.
And there were so many rules:
"Couldn't say 'Shut up' . . .
"Couldn't have a girlfriend . . .
"Couldn't watch PG-13 movies. If it had a cross in it, I could watch it."
When J.J. broke the rules, he felt free. He got caught watching porn, got in trouble for other stuff, too.
"I got baptized two times. The dad was crying when he told me I had to leave."
• • •
J.J. doesn't know where his own dad is. He doesn't care. "He's had 15 years to see me. I didn't hear a peep."
But he holds on to one vivid memory of his mother. It plays out in his mind like this:
He's 5 or 6, at church with one of his foster families, and he sees her across the room.
He calls out, "Mommy!"
He runs to her and gives her a hug. She keeps feeding him honey buns.
He walks with her, holding her hand, and she puts blue sunglasses on his face.
She gives him a kiss, and then she goes away.
• • •
At 12, he moved again — "old lady, horrible trailer park."
His room had no air-conditioning, so at night, he kicked off his sheets. She never gave him privacy, put an alarm on his door and made him go to church on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. And she let him skateboard only on a little patch of road.
His friends didn't want to hang out anymore.
"I snapped with it. I told my counselor if I wasn't taken out of the house, I would kill myself."
J.J. moved in with a man who promised him a phone, but that didn't last, and when it was over, J.J. had to move back to the trailer park. Another kid went with him. J.J. didn't know him too well, but warned, "You're going to want to kill yourself."
J.J. stayed for only a week, then moved into another home. That one had licensing issues. So did the next.
"I don't know if it was me or what was going on. Everything was going completely wrong . . .
"I just started giving up."
He went to something called a respite home, where foster kids go when they're not planning to stay for more than a few nights. It was J.J.'s fourth time at that respite.
But then, he found out someone was coming to pick him up.
"The respite lady, she said it was a gay couple. I said, 'Hold up. Is it dudes, or is it two women?' "
That was the first he heard of Yvonka and Elee.
• • •
Yvonka De Ridder grew up in South Africa in the last years of apartheid, and she watched black kids get beat up and get in trouble for stuff they didn't do. Her family moved to Maryland in 1997. When J.J. was just a baby in Tampa living with his mom, Yvonka was 13 with a soft spot for struggling kids.
Five years later, she left Maryland for the University of Tampa. She studied psychology and got a job at a group home. She clicked best with teenagers.
Eleanor Ecoffey grew up in Ventura County, Calif. Her family was huge — Marine dad, Filipino mom, two sisters, a brother, too many cousins to count. She loved the chaos.
Elee and Yvonka met at a dinner party, through friends, three years ago. Instant connection between polar opposites.
Yvonka, 27, wears high heels. She flat-irons her long hair. She's passionate, spontaneous and intense.
Elee, 31, wears Vans and shades and brushes her hair across her eyes. Laid-back and grounded, she became Yvonka's rock.
When a friend of theirs signed up for fostering classes, Yvonka hurried to join. Elee shared the desire. They'd just moved in together, but neither thought twice about taking in a kid.
They got their first call in late 2009, about a boy at a respite home waiting for them.
• • •
When J.J. meets a new grownup, he gets shy, gives one-word answers, speaks in a voice so low you have to strain to hear him.
That's the way it went the first day with Yvonka and Elee. But he thought it was cool that they took him to the movies. And he liked that their apartment had air-conditioning and a big bed for him. He thought it would be a good place to stay, but he didn't say so. The first thing he said when he walked in: "This is small."
Yvonka came to know that when J.J. feels insecure, he gets cocky. It's his protective shell.
"J.J.," Yvonka would repeat, "here's the deal: I'm not loaded, and even if I was, you wouldn't be treated that way."
Yvonka started getting calls from school about fighting and bad grades. "I was, like, a horrible boy," J.J. says. "Always up to something."
There was one time when J.J. lied to her and hooked up with a girl. Yvonka found out, and J.J. felt awful. He stayed in his room and didn't eat, thinking, I'd better get ready to pack up and leave.
But she surprised him. She talked to him about being safe, avoiding sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy. No other foster parent had ever talked to him this way. And she made up a game: Anyone who told a lie had to put $5 in a jar. Curse words cost a quarter.
J.J. loved to brag every time he caught Yvonka. He won.
And Yvonka learned something about J.J.: He wasn't a liar.
Every time she got a call from the office about a fight, she talked to him, and he admitted to it. She understood he was an easy target at his new school, and she fought the teachers when she felt punishments were unfair.
At football, she and Elee stood on the sidelines watching practice. Yvonka didn't want coaches keeping him as center just because he was big. She wanted him to try playing other positions, too. J.J. felt embarrassed when she stood up for him. But more than that, he felt like someone was on his side.
It took a while for everything to sink in.
He met Yvonka's family in Maryland, and he really liked them. But they felt more like her family than his. He said so, and it hurt Yvonka's feelings.
And when a social worker asked how he felt about adoption, he told her, "Get out your pen and write this down: I don't want to be adopted."
He said it was too late for him. In his mind, he wondered, What if I get adopted and this family gives up on me, too?
He was really starting to like Yvonka and Elee. They played board games like Cranium and Monopoly, and they always made fun of each other. The three of them created inside jokes, and J.J. started to smile more.
Yvonka liked art, just as he did.
Elee called her V, so he called her V, too.
He liked Elee's style, "like California people dress." She wore a white beanie. He wanted a black beanie. He tried to dress a little differently so it wouldn't look like he was copying her, but he really wanted her combat boots. She took him shoe shopping.
Yvonka and Elee would take him to the mall so he could hang out with his friends. But sometimes he chose to hang with his foster moms.
Then last October, something huge happened: A court got rid of a law that had been in place for 33 years, and the state attorney general didn't fight it. Now in Florida, gay people could adopt.
Yvonka and Elee wanted to adopt J.J. together, but Florida still forbids joint adoption by unmarried couples, even heterosexual ones. So they decided Yvonka would adopt J.J. — if that was what he wanted.
"Don't let anybody tell you how to live your life," she told him.
"Everything is your choice.
"Think about it."
• • •
J.J. never got to hear his mother tell him she loved him.
If she ever said it, he was too little to remember. He thinks about that often, how much it would have meant.
He was the youngest, too young to really know what she did to lose them. He always thought he was the only kid who loved her. For that reason, he still doesn't want to know.
But one day in 2009, he and his siblings learned that she had died in prison, and J.J. saw them all cry. And he felt a little better, because he saw that they loved her, too.
J.J. wanted Yvonka and Elee to know how he felt. He opened up his journal and began to write. He felt too nervous about saying these things, so he told them he wrote something, hinting that they could look.
This is what they read:
Elee and V have been the best thing in my life.
V tells me not to think negative, so I think like this. Losing one mother, God gave me two more loving mothers.
I may not show them that I love them, cause I feel weird . . .
But I try to throw hints that I do care, cause I really do.
• • •
On March 11 in a Hillsborough courtroom, Yvonka and J.J. raised their right hands and swore to tell the truth.
A lawyer asked Yvonka a question: "You're here today to adopt Jounelle. Is that correct?"
"Yes," she answered.
"And during the time he has come to live with you, have you come to love your new son?"
Yvonka began to cry.
"Yes," she said.
J.J. didn't look at her. He felt shy in front of a judge and a bunch of social workers, arms folded in front of him, eyes trained down on a table.
"And Jounelle," the lawyer said, "you're the man of the day. Do you recall signing consent for this adoption with me?"
"Yes, ma'am," he responded.
"Do you still feel the same?"
Yvonka gave J.J. a big hug when it was done, and he towered over her. Elee joined them, and they posed for family photos. J.J.'s sister, Marshae, had come for support. She was in the picture, too.
J.J. met Circuit Judge Emily A. Peacock, who shook his hand and asked him a question:
"Are you happy?"
The whole day, he'd been quiet, thinking of everything he'd been through, lingering on one thought: It's over.
• • •
In the days that followed, things started to happen.
J.J. shocked Yvonka when he took out the trash without her asking.
He heard his name called over the school loudspeaker one day, recognizing him as one of the most improved students. He won a "green card," which on select days of the week lets him skip to the front of the lunch line and eat outside the cafeteria, in the sunshine.
He wants to go to Plant High School next year and play football, maybe this time as a defensive end. He's starting to imagine life beyond that — like, when he grows up, he wants to be an animation director.
For the first time, J.J. feels free.
No more strangers from the state asking him questions.
No more worries about where he'll end up.
No more rules that make him feel different from the other kids.
One recent Friday, J.J. called Yvonka to ask if he could sleep at a friend's house. She surprised him. She said yes.
"Wow, that's weird," he told his friend. "I thought she was going to say no.
"Let's go. Yeah, I'm adopted now."
Alexandra Zayas can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3354.