Paying It Forward…With Interest

By Ronald Draper

Ron largeThis post originally ran on May 25th, 2016 as part of our 2016 Fostering the Future campaign. Learn more about #FosterMyEducation and other A+ Mentors here.

I cannot remember a time that my adoptive mother wasn’t in my life—and that’s a godsend. From what I know, my biological mother was a drug abuser, so going into foster care was an instantaneous thing. I guess my biological mother didn’t have any rights, so my grandmother stepped in. There was a lot of back and forth about whether my biological or adoptive family was going to have me.

Eventually my foster family prevailed. I remember signing my adoption papers when I was 4. There’s a picture my foster-turned-adoptive mother has of me signing them. I remember what I had on and everything. I had a white shirt with a little gray suit. From then on, I knew stability.

My younger siblings also came from state care. My brother and sister are blood-related and share the same mother, but they still had two very different experiences. My sister had the real back and forth—with my adoptive mother, her biological parents and her paternal grandmother. They all fought for her, and she was in and out of our home.

Meanwhile, nobody fought for my brother. It comes to a point where you think, “Is it better to have loved and lost or not loved at all?” My brother loved and lost because he knows his biological mother but doesn’t have her. My sister lost because of all the back and forth. For me, if I walked past my mother on the street, I wouldn’t know her. Would I ever want to trade so I could have known who she is, even though I might have had the back and forth? If that is what it cost me to know her, is it worth it?

Not having a connection left a lot of questions. I remember in 6th grade, they had a project about our nationalities. I didn’t even know where my biological family was from. But I knew my adoptive mother, she’s black and Italian. I did a whole poster board on Italy and I remember people were so confused…

I was confused too, and sometimes still am. Even though my adoptive mother, Beverly Draper, is MOM, there’s an empty part of me. I would like to have the adult conversations that help bring closure to my entire childhood. If I could talk to my biological mother now, it would be different to me now that I’m an adult. What she did still has an effect on who I am, but it’s no longer a burden. Maybe she wanted to sever all ties; I just don’t know.

Still, I hope my biological mom knows my new name, and that she might be hearing that name somewhere. Hopefully my work is loud enough, my success as an artist is loud enough that she hears it. If she’s still alive, that she’s like, “Wow. This is my child and I let him go and look at what he became.” I want to make sure she knows that it’s the worst mistake she’s ever made.

It is my art that allows me to take that confusion and anger and turn it into something productive. I am the Director of Contemporary Art and Culture at Harlem Hospital, where I was born, and am very involved with Take Care of Harlem, which creates community prosperity through the arts, culture and entrepreneurship.

I also teach “Art as Activism” at a high school in Brownsville, Brooklyn. Some of my students have confided in me about their home lives—talk about the real real back and forth. A lot of my boys are in shelters, foster care or couch-surfing. Their experiences have been the opposite of mine: moving from home to home, some every 6 months, and a kid can’t build anything on shaky ground.  It’s gratifying that I can encourage them to do what I do—use their art as self-therapy.

And I owe all of that to my adoptive mom. She is the one who pushed me creatively. She knew far, far, far before I did that art would be my salvation. But even if I hadn’t become an artist, she would still be my biggest supporter. When I was young, if I wanted to try something new, she made it happen, from baseball to Boy Scouts. And she encouraged excellence in whatever I chose. If I wanted to be a garbage man, she’d say, “Go ahead, baby, be the best garbage man you can.”

Really, I am a by-product of everything that is right with foster care. I want to give hope to those who still need hope, and shine a little light where there still needs to be light. Foster care may be a mixed bag, but so many good things can come of it. I want people to see, wow, there is a change that I can have on somebody. If my story helps create one more loving home than there was before, then I have done my job.

Published on May 25, 2016 as part of Children’s Rights’ “Fostering the Future” campaign. The opinions expressed herein are those of the blog author and do not necessarily represent the views of Children’s Rights or its employees. Children’s Rights has not verified the author’s account.