Harmony Project Founder David Brown's Modern Family
My phone rang late on a Friday night in September 2015. On the other end was a student in an afterschool program I direct at South High School. “Mr. David,” Chrisbian said, “Kulay is in trouble, and we need your help.”
Chrisbian and Kulay were both in South High Harmony, which is part of Harmony Project, the organization for which I serve as creative director.
During the call, Chris told me about a very serious situation within Kulay's family that had resulted in Kulay being removed from the home. Eventually, he would be placed in foster care, but at that moment he was in juvenile detention. I told Chris that I would show up in court the following morning.
Kulay had come to America as a refugee from Liberia. In his first four years of life, he witnessed civil war and the death of family members at the hands of rebel warriors. He was smuggled across borders, hid in the African bush, spent weeks in an immigration camp in France and finally arrived in the United States. Since then, he had moved to three different states, attended 13 schools, and lost his grandmother—his closest relative and his only provable ancestral connection to his family in Liberia.
While he had survived countless traumas in his 16 years of life on earth, I could see in his eyes in the courtroom the following day that this detention might be the proverbial last straw: He appeared defeated, as if he had no reason to go on. Not long after that, I learned that his family had left town. Kulay would likely spend his senior year of high school living in a group home, then age out of foster care and into the adult population. He needed an advocate. I became the self-appointed speaker on behalf of Kulay.
A few weeks prior to that middle-of-the-night call, I traveled to South Africa, where I visited Sunflower House Children's Hospice in Bloemfontein. My friend Cathe Kobacker had introduced me to the hospice facility, and for a couple of years a group of inmates I work with at the Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville had been singing to the children each month via Skype.
I fell in love with the Sunflower children, and a dream that I thought had been vanquished by time returned to my frontal lobe: I wanted to be a father. I researched what it would mean to adopt a child from South Africa. I emptied a second bedroom of office clutter and installed two twin mattresses and a small dresser, and I sold my beloved convertible Mini Cooper and purchased a Jeep Wrangler. I was taking the steps to add a child into my life.
But it seemed as if my actions were not yielding a reaction. My research made it obvious that it would not be in the best interest of any of the Sunflower children to be relocated.
I didn't realize at first that 16-year-old Kulay could be the child I'd been preparing for. But three months after returning from South Africa, I found myself again in a courtroom, facing a question from Magistrate Woody Hudson: Would I accept responsibility for Kulay's well-being?
I turned to Kulay and said, “Do you want to live with me?” Kulay answered, “Yes, sir.” I turned to the magistrate and repeated his answer: “Yes, sir.” Kulay moved in one month later.
On Kulay's first night in our home, he asked if Chrisbian could come live with us. I told him no, although Chrisbian was welcome to visit. But two months later, I relented. Chrisbian's family was in disarray, and his mother had been forced to relocate, leaving him uncertain how to complete his senior year of high school. Chrisbian moved in with us over the Christmas holidays.
Until Kulay moved in, I had not shared a home with anyone since 1991. Living alone was what I knew. Suddenly, I had two growing boys in the house who needed three meals a day, homework help, spending money, therapy appointments, doctor visits and transportation to Army Reserve duty (Chrisbian was in his first year of a six-year commitment). There were teachable moments: how to change an air filter, how to run the dishwasher. There were also laughable moments: explaining that as pre-adults, they should learn to aim more precisely when standing at the toilet, and that half a bottle of detergent far exceeds the amount required for one load of laundry.
That one we learned the hard way.
At home, I suspect that we are like most families. We try to eat most meals together, we clean the house and work in the yard together, and when I cook, they clean. We manage three increasingly incompatible schedules with two cars. I remind them to close doors and turn off lights, and they find my keys and phone when I can't. They make me want to be and do better. I challenge them to be and do better.
As unconventional as we may appear when we are together in public–with our differences in height and skin tone as well as body type and personality–we are no less a family.
I've not been alone in this process: from Franklin County Juvenile Courts and Franklin County Children's Services to Columbus State and Capital University, this community has embraced these two young men as their own. A network or village of friends and colleagues rallied around the three of us through the process of therapy, building trust, learning to communicate and forming a family. Our extended family assisted with immigration issues, tutoring, finding the right therapists and doctors. What could have been overwhelming became a powerful testament to the impact of community. And we are where we are today due to those who helped us figure it out along the way: the community members who have become part of our extended family by including us in theirs.
The past three years have included the following: prom, three Seders, high school graduation, learning to swim (for one, at least) and learning to drive (both are responsible drivers, and I'm putting that in writing to hopefully guarantee it for as long as I'm alive).
We've experienced New Orleans, tubing, zip lining (well, I just watched and cheered), making a house into a home, and countless delicious meals shared by beautiful and loving people in our hometown. And in May of 2017, we made it official. With the help of our adoption attorney, Ron Solove, new birth certificates were issued and we became a legal version of what we knew we already were: the Brown family.
Within a month or so of both boys being under the same roof, we took a trip to the Hocking Hills. It was their first time.
At the roundabout as we exited the highway, we yielded to a pickup truck that had the right of way. The driver slowed down and looked at us. Hereallyslowed down. As he did, we noticed a Confederate flag on the back of his truck. You couldn'thelpbut notice a 6-by-4-foot Confederate flag. Unfortunately, we were headed in the same direction as the driver of the truck.
We followed at a safe distance, and just as we thought he had increased his speed and left us behind, we rounded a corner and there he was; he had slowed down significantly. I had to assume at this point that his intention was to intimidate us. Or maybe worse.
In a few seconds, the incident was over. Traffic was backing up behind us, so the driver of the truck picked up his speed. Eventually, he turned onto a side road and we kept going. He didn't follow.
I could not possibly experience that moment the way the boys did. However, I experienced it in a way that was new to me: an overwhelming sense of purpose and protective instinct flooded through me.Keep him away from us—that's all I was thinking.
I was doing what parents do. And that moment, at least for me, was the moment we were no longer Kulay, Chrisbian and David. We experienced this together. We were a family.
I've heard parents say that life seems to go by more quickly when you have kids. I've found that to be true. It's difficult to believe that Kulay and Chrisbian recently completed two years at Columbus State Community College and are now both juniors at Capital University. They are finding their way, and I am filled with a pride I didn't know was possible.
Every family, every person, every situation, every experience is different. There is risk. There is sacrifice. There is conflict. There is also safety, connection and love. I've learned what I guess every parent learns: You figure it out as you go along, and rely on friends and family. The reward of seeing them flourish and the increased sense of purpose in my life has been worth any risks or challenges that presented themselves.
I believe we bring people into our lives. We attract them. When I opened my mind and my space to the idea of sharing it with a child—when I got a bedroom ready and bought a bigger car—I was taking a step toward my future, even without knowing exactly what it was. I was leaping without a net. And I am now a dad to two young men.
My hopes for Chris and Kulay are that they will speak their minds, stand up for what they believe in, fight against oppression and imbalance, feel safe, make better choices than I did in my earlier years and love who they love with all of their hearts. And I hope they will remember that as long as I'm here, they won't have to leap without a net.
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