LAND O'LAKES — She has been thinking about this speech for weeks, writing it in her head, rehearsing it in the shower. She knows what she wants to say Thursday at Tropicana Field.
She just isn't sure how to say it.
How do you tell a stadium full of strangers what it's like to wake to your mom screaming, to watch her boyfriend beating her, to smell their drugs? To be only 8, but to know that, when the fighting got bad, if you turned up "Beauty and the Beast" really loud, the music would drown out the shouting so your three little brothers could fall asleep. How do you explain what it feels like for police to drag you from your mom, to spend five years bouncing between foster families, to be separated from your brothers, whom you spent your whole life mothering?
"I'm very shy. I'm bad at public speaking. This will be torture," says Justice McGuill, 15. "I get really sad when I think about the past. But they said it would help other kids so . . ."
After school, before her brothers get home, Justice goes into her new bedroom. (She has never had her own bedroom!) She pulls a new composition notebook from her new desk. (She has never had her own desk!) Then she tosses the new hot pink pillows off her new bed, flops on her back and starts writing, words flowing from her new silver pen.
• • •
Ever since Justice can remember, she has taken care of her brothers. While her mom worked late nights at a bar and left them alone. While they moved eight times, from bad houses to trailers to really bad motels. While men came and abused and left her mom. The girl — who was still in elementary school — made sure her brothers had hot dogs or frozen pizza, took baths and brushed their teeth. The baby, Max, slept curled against her.
Justice was 10 when they were first taken from their mom. She remembers hugging her goodbye, crying in the back of the police car, shrieking when the social worker told her she and her brothers would have to stay in different houses.
For a while, her mom tried to get the kids back. Her grandmom took them in, then let them go again. After that, Justice can't count the number of houses she was in —or how long it took until she and her brothers were at least in the same foster home.
"We're actually the only ones who can relate to each other, who know what went on," Justice says. "We don't even have any pictures from when we were little."
Over the years, the Heart Gallery of Pinellas & Pasco included Justice and her brothers among the hundreds of children looking for families. Their smiling portrait hung in malls, churches and video arcades. Several couples wanted to adopt Justice.
She kept refusing —unless they would take her brothers too. "If I'm adopted," she kept saying, "it has to be we're all together."
But who would take on a 13-year-old girl and three rambunctious boys, ages 11, 9 and 6?
• • •
Justice and her brothers were the featured sibling group two years ago at the annual fundraising dinner for the Heart Gallery. Organizers showed a video of them playing together, of Justice talking about how much fun it was to be with her brothers.
Later, she told a reporter what she hoped for. "I want a family that has a mom and a dad. And definitely a dog," she told the Times in May 2012. A mom who would do crafts with her; a dad to play ball with her brothers.
A few families visited Justice and her brothers. Couples took them out for pizza, to Disney World. But they all decided that four was too many.
These kids needed so much.
• • •
Ever since they can remember, Danny and Lesley McGuill have wanted children. While her sister had kids, while all their friends became parents, they had a miscarriage, tried again, but couldn't conceive. They considered in vitro fertilization, or foreign adoption.
But then Lesley heard about all the kids in Florida who need homes, especially older kids. "I thought they needed us even more," she says.
Lesley was 34, Danny 43, when they went to a match meeting at Great Explorations museum in St. Petersburg in the spring of 2012. She's an accountant for ABC Supply. He sells metal for the same company. They were living in St. Pete then, in a three-bedroom house with 1.5 baths.
"They put the prospective parents at different stations. Danny and I were making felt pizzas," Lesley says. "This girl came up, she was so much older than the others. She had long brown hair and glasses and just seemed out of place among all the little kids. She was so mature, she reminded me of myself at that age."
"Right off, she started talking about her brothers, how she was here looking after them, how great they all were. I caught Danny's eye and he nodded. Immediately we knew. This kid was awesome," Lesley says.
"So I asked her, 'How many brothers do you have, honey?' "
When she realized there were four siblings, she thought, "No way."
Lesley and Justice talked that afternoon for more than an hour, helping other foster kids place pepperonis on pretend pizzas. Danny met Justice's oldest brother, Jeremy. But the two youngest kept running through the museum.
For weeks, Lesley and Danny couldn't stop thinking about Justice and her brothers. But they knew they didn't have room for them all.
So they put their house on the market. They searched and searched and eventually found the perfect place in Land O'Lakes, halfway between her office in Apollo Beach and his in Hudson, with four bedrooms, a screened porch with a pool, and a dock out back overlooking a canal, where you can watch turtles and catch bass. The perfect place for kids.
"As soon as we moved in, we started planning: This can be Justice's room, the boys can have upstairs. There's even a little living room up there for a kid cave," Lesley says.
She called the caseworker, who said the kids — their kids — had been placed with another family. "We were heartbroken," she says. "We hadn't looked for any other children, we'd just been planning for Justice and the boys. After that, we started going to other match events, as far away as Orlando, but we just never felt that connection."
Then, last April — almost a year after they first met Justice — Lesley was up late searching the Heart Gallery on her laptop. "There's our kids!" she cried, waking Danny. "They're back on there. They're available again!"
The other match had failed. Justice and her brothers had been sent back to foster care and split up again. Two days later, Lesley and Danny reunited them at Busch Gardens.
"That was fitting. It was a roller coaster there for a while," says Lesley, who adopted the four children with her husband in November. "Justice wasn't sure we really wanted them all at first. She worried we might change our minds too. She has given so much to her brothers all these years. I call her their sister-mom. I'm trying to help her learn to let go and let herself be loved."
• • •
She has been working on her speech for a half-hour, looping print without paragraphs spinning across three pages. Everything she wants all those strangers at Tropicana Field to know.
The writing is the easy part, she says. She wants to be a writer. She just isn't sure she will be able to say the words out loud.
How do you tell grown-ups what it's like to finally have dogs — two dogs, one all her own? To be 15 and have your first phone and Facebook? To be able to sleep over at a friend's house? To have a mom to do crafts with you and take you to dance classes, a dad to play ball with your brothers and teach you how to drive? To have parents who hang your picture over the fireplace, show you how to cook chicken Alfredo and buy you a jewelry box engraved "You will always be our little girl"? To fuss at you not because they're mad, but because they care? To know that you never have to switch schools or group homes again? To be able to plant a garden, and know you'll be there to watch it grow? How do you explain what it feels like to have a mother who tells you she's proud of you? To not have to be your brothers' mother — because now you all have a real one?
Justice and her brothers have been with their new family for nine months. On Thursday, when she headlines the Heart Gallery fundraiser, 18 new relatives will be there to cheer. She still scolds her brothers about chewing with their mouths open, still worries about Jeremy's reading and Randy's inventions, still snuggles with Max.
But at her new house in the sprawling subdivision, she loves having her own room, where stenciled black roses climb turquoise walls. Jeremy has his own room upstairs. Randy and Max have bunk beds and a separate room for all their video games.
But on Saturday nights, Justice opens her door and lets her brothers pile into her trundle bed where she tucks them all in with her stuffed giraffes and they watch a movie.
Only now she doesn't have to turn up the sound to drown out fighting. She leaves the volume low enough to hear when her new parents call them to dinner.
"The Heart Gallery helped give me my happy ending," Justice wrote at the bottom of page 3. She won't reveal the last line. "I promise," she said, "it's going to make everyone cry."
Lane DeGregory can be reached at [email protected] or (727)893-8825.