I chose life for my daughter 10 years ago. If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t be here today.
At 20 years old, I had gone down a very dark path and thought that coping with years of abuse and assault meant immersing myself in drugs, alcohol and risky behavior. I had no goals or motivation to disrupt this lifestyle, which was numbing my pain.
My positive pregnancy test was the one thing that jolted me back to reality, as I stared in terror at the two pink lines in that little window.
I scrambled through my fog of emotion and fear to think about what this meant. I knew that I was carrying life — that it wasn’t just me anymore — but I had no money, and my family refused to support me. I didn't know how I would make it, but I was determined to figure it out for my baby’s sake.
There was something about that positive pregnancy test that motivated me, igniting a deeper drive than I’d ever known myself capable of possessing. Envisioning my future daughter struggling with the cycle of abuse and trauma that had plagued me for so many years, I broke down sobbing. "My daughter will NEVER be exposed or subjected to what I have been through," I promised myself through my tears.
I knew right away that I needed to live a sober life, and that I couldn’t indulge in laziness anymore. I was determined to be strong and do whatever it took to change my life for her. But where would I even start?
That’s when I met Randy and Evelyn, the founders of a local maternity home called the Paul Stefan Foundation, who welcomed me with open arms. The next few years of learning how to take care of myself and my growing baby were the hardest of my entire life, but they transformed me and my future in an incredible way.
Yet my progress wasn’t linear. I’d been hurt my whole life and was quick to lash out against those trying to help me. Randy and Evelyn met my disrespect and bitterness with so much grace, giving me time to heal and grow into a compassionate woman through their steadfast patience and love.
They did more than just change my demeanor. Evelyn recognized that I was just a young girl who needed mothering just as much as my own baby needed me. She taught me the importance of adhering to a schedule, how to be a good steward of my money, that my appearance matters, and that my daughter should always be my first priority. She and Randy brought in people to teach the other women and me how to cook, organize, and budget. They offered the other moms and me weekly parent and baby education through a community resource, where I learned crucial information about my pregnancy and developing baby. These classes continued for years after the birth of my daughter to make sure that she was reaching her developmental milestones.
I lived at the Paul Stefan Foundation for five years and have remained involved with the home for 10 years overall. Their impact and resources not only helped me to get an education, but also inspired me to find my life calling.
Randy’s tough love helped me learn independent living skills such as how to change a flat tire on my car, to live a healthy lifestyle, to act like a professional, and motivated me to put my emotions aside so that I could accomplish my goals. He spent hours of his own time making sure that I was fully equipped for a successful career once I left the shelter of the home. "Comfortability doesn’t matter," he would say, "you have a job to do, and people to stand up for." His advice inspired me, and I promised myself that I would never allow a life circumstance to pull me down again.
Evelyn helped connect me with the Virginia Career Works Center, where I learned how to build a resume and find agencies, jobs and businesses. This program helped me get into college, navigate the educational system, buy textbooks, and even make minimum wage as part of a grant program. I earned this money through volunteering at Rappahannock Rapidan Community Services Board, SAFE: Services to Abused Families Inc., and in Head Start classrooms. As a result, I was offered a role as a substitute teacher with the Early Head Start program, in the same classroom as my then 15-month-old daughter.
Evelyn's selfless and loving example ignited a deep passion inside of me for children. As I watched Evelyn pour unrelenting love into my daughter and the other women’s children, I realized that I was called to be a social worker, to advocate that this type of love be used to break familial cycles of trauma and abuse. So many people have nobody to love them, I thought, and so many feel trapped in dark situations like I once was. What if I could help people heal, or be the person that I once so desperately needed for someone else?
Today, I am a foster care social worker in the Virginia Department of Social Services, where I have been promoted five times since 2017. I credit my success to the perseverance, professionalism and compassion Randy and Evelyn taught me. They never let me give up on myself; they pushed me to do more than what I ever could have dreamed of accomplishing. More importantly, I know that my daughter is looking to my example, and I want her to see that she is capable of great things if she works hard and has grace.
So many women resort to abortion because they think it’s their only option, or that their baby will hinder their goals. I wish I could comfort those women and tell them how keeping my baby motivated me to achieve every single goal that I set my mind on.
I’d tell them that I named my daughter Lei’Lani, which means royal child of heaven.
Why? I tell anyone who will listen — God sent her to me to save my life.