Hear My Voice: Leon’s Story

Hear My Voice is a series of first-person testimonies from people with lived experience in the foster care system, created from in-depth interviews. This is Leon’s story, as told to Emma Ledford.

Leon entered foster care at age 3 and was adopted, but the adoptive family broke down in his teen years and he was returned to the child welfare system. He aged out of the system at 18, while learning how to strive, forgive others and protect himself. Today, at age 23, he cares for others daily as a mental health professional, working two full-time jobs in crisis counseling—and owns his own energy drink business. Leon touches on how both his blood family and found family supported him through his time in foster care and taught him what matters in life.

My First Memories of Being in Foster Care

My first memory of being in foster care was with a lady called Miss Midnight. I remember getting out the bed, and her having a new pair of Jordans for me, and some Timberlands, and telling me to put them on—then going to church.

My next memory was getting dropped off by a white lady at my soon-to-be foster parents for about 13 years. I was crying. The only reason I stopped crying was because they had some Fruity Pebbles on the top of the refrigerator, and that calmed me down. But after I got done eating that bowl of cereal, I went to look for the lady and she wasn’t there.

I was like, «I don’t know these people, what do I do? This lady abandoned me. I don’t know these people, who are they?” That’s all I remember. I do have ins and outs of the house, and I remember having bad dreams of falling. I remember watching Barney. But I knew from the beginning that that wasn’t my parents, you know? I don’t know how to explain it, but I knew. I think I was 3 years old.

Me and my twin brother were in that same foster home for 13 years—they adopted us and three other kids. But it started getting bad towards the end. As I started getting older, it just got worse, and worse, and worse, and worse, and worse. When I first got there, they had this big house, and all the kids were happy. And then as time went on, we moved from there. We moved to a smaller house. My dad was never there. He was always out of town. He didn’t work, he was just gone.

All the kids were there by themselves. No food in the refrigerator. Whenever I would see my dad, I’m getting a butt whoopin’. I remember middle school was rock bottom. I’d have no clothes to wear, no shoes. I had to go to the lost and found at the school to get clothes. I would borrow shoes that didn’t fit from my friends. My feet would be bleeding, trying to fit in the shoes. I would be getting laughed at. Sometimes I’d get home, no food in the fridge, and I wouldn’t see nobody for about two months. So basically, I had to raise myself and fend for myself.

And here’s the thing: my mom and dad had their favorites. You know, you could just tell. When we were smaller, it was me and my brother, but as we got older, it was clearly our big brother. He wouldn’t have to ask for anything, but we would have to beg just to get a meal. We had another sister, and my dad hated her. She would get beat. Like, it was crazy. And then there was another one, they were nice to her. So just like… some of the kids were treated better than the other kids. I don’t know why it was like that. But we got used to it and adapted to it.

It was hard, but it showed me resiliency, and how to take care of myself, and not to rely on others. I’m actually glad that everything wasn’t given to me, if that makes sense. I feel like I wouldn’t be where I am today, or work as hard as I do today, if it wasn’t for that.

He Just Walked Off & Didn’t Look Back

Me and my brother were there for about 13 years, but they ended up letting us go back into foster care. You know how, when you’re small, you can’t really protect yourself, but as you get older, you can? My dad ended up coming at me with a knife. Yeah, he came in with a knife, threw a TV at my brother, started chasing us with the knife. I picked up a stick, and I hit him. And it was this big old ordeal. Cops came out. They took all the evidence and stuff. But me being a child, not having any rights or anything, I had to go to juvie. I remember putting the uniform on, doing a little cough test.

Me and my brother were in juvie for about four months. The kids in there and stuff was crazy, but the thing that really affected me was when we were in court. The judge was saying that we could be released to my dad. The judge was like, «So are you gonna take them home?” And then my dad just walked off. He just walked off and didn’t look back. Didn’t say nothing and walked away. I was like, «Dang.» I don’t know; it changed something in me to see that. Someone I looked up to for so long, just to walk away like that—it really does something to you. I couldn’t understand why someone would do something like that—abandon their family like that.

My mom wouldn’t stand up to him for us, or she was always at work. But I talk with her to this day. She texts me every day now, saying she loves me and stuff. She said, «I’m sorry, I didn’t stand up for you or anything.» I was just like, «Well, where were you when all this stuff was happening?” But I forgave her. It was very hard for many, many years there. I’m not gonna lie, I hated her. But I don’t want to leave anything unsaid, because my dad, before he had passed—this is the weirdest story ever—before he had passed, he reached out to me. He told me and my brother that he was sorry. So the last time I seen him, I had got him a McDonald’s meal. And we apologized to each other, and he said he was proud of me. Then, the next week, he had a heart attack.

Even though he had did everything he did to me and my brother…I still love the man. After that, I realized I don’t want to leave anything unsaid, or unspoken. I don’t want to not tell people how I feel. So I went to my mom and told her how I felt, and how I felt abandoned by her and her not sticking up for us, and how that really affected me and my adulthood today. I left all that there on the table.

We Did It All Ourselves

After my dad didn’t take us back, I went to an RTC [residential treatment center] without my brother. I was about to turn 16. That RTC was something else. That was traumatic. I get out of juvenile and the only thing I got is the clothes on my back. Then I go roll down to this RTC and I’m like, «Dang, what did I do to end up here?» These kids are crazy. Slitting their wrists trying to commit suicide, slitting their wrists so they could go see a girl at the hospital, stealing staff cars, trying to fight every week. I was just like, «What did I get myself into?»

I did keep my head low, but I was kind of like a leader. The kids wouldn’t mess with me, they would look up to me. People would fight each other, but none of them would try to fight me. I think they were scared of me. I’m 6’5″. I guess that’s the reason I didn’t get into a fight.

I just remember feeling like I was so alone. We had cottages, and I would go on the back porch when it would be raining, and I would just be alone. I felt, like, overwhelming pressure…I would go to the doctor and he’d be like, «Your blood pressure is so high.» And I was just like, «Well… you don’t know how I’m feeling.»

There was a charter school at the RTC, and I did have some good teachers. One of my favorite teachers, I’m not gonna lie, she was real hard on me. I had never had someone who would be so hard on me about math. I’ve really struggled with math, but now I’m really interested in statistics. When I was going to [regular] high school, nobody ever pressured me. So when I got to her class, we started from square one. That lady was tough, but she was still my favorite teacher because I learned a lot from her. At the end of the day, I like it when people are hard on me, because it makes me want to go harder. Do better.

After the RTC, I went to a boy’s home with this guy named Mr. D—basically, he recruited a whole basketball team! His school won the championship three years in a row, but they didn’t have any black basketball players. So he would get kids from foster care who were real tall and put them on the basketball team. When you foster, you can be like, «I want a child like this.» He would be like, «I want a child this tall,» so he’d get a group of tall boys, and put them all in the same school and make a basketball team! When I went to Mr. D’s, I really started to take a liking to basketball, and I became good at it. But I never wanted to play college ball or anything, because my college was already paid for.

I didn’t like the school there, but I did like being at Mr. D’s foster home. I was there for about a year, but then we had to move homes because his son got a charge. If someone’s in a home with a criminal record, then foster kids can’t stay there. I remember them coming in and telling us we gotta pack our stuff. It was sad.

After that I went to this place called Groveton, Texas, by Lufkin. This time, I liked the school, but I did not like the foster home. It was five of us there, too, and my brother was there. The foster parents were really controlling. We had a bunk bed with drawers at the bottom of it but behind the drawer was a baby monitor. And I was like, «What is this? You’ve been listening in to all our conversations!» Every week I was trying to leave there.

Then I aged out, graduated high school, and a week later, I went straight to college. Basically, me and my brother did it all ourselves. We’re supposed to keep our case managers for, I think, a year? Or a year or so until we get to a certain age or whatever? But my case manager was like, «Oh, I didn’t know this. Oh, I’m not y’all’s case manager anymore.» Like, «Deuces, bye!» So we did it all ourselves.

“I’m Gonna Fail, but I’m Not a Failure

I started at Tyler Junior Community College. You know, in high school, ya boy never took the SAT, because I didn’t think I was gonna go to college. And then I ended up taking the TSI test—I ain’t gonna lie, ya boy failed! They made me take some classes to catch up on my math. And when I was taking this math class, I would remember that teacher at the RTC—my favorite teacher that pushed me hard.

I was just like… «Dang, I’m gonna fail, but I’m not a failure.” And then from that point on, I’ve never failed anything. I just transformed. I don’t know how to explain it. I ended up making an A in that class. I guess I had just been through so much in my life at that point, I was just like, «Well, I’ve made it this far. I can’t give up now. I can’t let a class defeat me.”

After I graduated from TJC, I applied to UT Tyler and got accepted. I wanted to do social work, but they didn’t have a social work program. I got my psychology degree in two years; my bachelor’s.

After that, I applied for my MBA at UT Tyler. I graduated this month [August 2022]! At the same time, I was getting another degree in cybersecurity—two degrees at one time. And now I’m starting my new program to get my master’s in social work, my LMSW license, at UTA – University of Texas at Arlington.

I wanted to go down the finance path, but it’s hard for black males to get in those positions. I haven’t really had any luck with the business side. But, you know, everything happens for a reason, and it seems like the mental health field is where I get most of my opportunities.

We Doing Things!

I’ve been in the mental health field for about two-and-a-half years, and I work for the number one mental health agency in Texas, Anthem. I feel like that route is choosing me, so that’s the route I’m gonna go.

For my job with the mobile crisis outreach team—the Harris Center for Mental Health and IDD—I go out into the field and do crisis assessments on people who are psychotic or suicidal. Most of the time, we’ll end up taking them to the hospital, because they’re not able to care for themselves or keep themselves safe. We can also make a safety plan: I can just talk to them. We can link them to our psychiatrist and get them on some medication. And we got jail diversion. The majority of our calls are homeless people. Jail diversion is like, if someone’s trespassing, instead of taking them to jail, we take them to jail diversion, get them in a program to find a job, give them housing for a few days, help them get an ID.

I’m not a really emotional person, but I do give the clients an empathetic side of me that people usually don’t see. One time I was dispatched to a group home of CPS kids. Well, you know, they were just all angry. I could understand; been there done that. I actually got to sit down with the boys. I just told them about me being in the system and how they only had a few more years ‘til they aged out, and this isn’t the end of their journey. The boys actually ended up calming down, and we didn’t have to call the police or anything. I feel like that was one of my best calls. Just seeing people get to where they want to be, seeing people get better—that’s my favorite part of the job.

I do crisis for Anthem, too. You ever heard of 988, the crisis line? I work with the younger population, so they’ll text 988, and I’ll text them back, do a safety plan with them. If I don’t feel like they’re really able to keep themselves safe, then I have to dispatch 911.

And then I have my own business called Zeus Energy. Basically, we’re a nighttime energy drink, and you can mix our drink with alcohol. Me and my former supervisor actually came up with the idea when we were joking in the garage, saying like, «These energy drinks are nasty, man, it tastes like medication. Let’s do something.» At first, it was just a joke. We sat on it for about a year and I was like, «Man, let’s go. Let’s just go get this LLC and start this business.» We took off from there.

Zeus only has 200 milligrams of caffeine. It has natural sugars. If you’ve ever had an energy drink you’ll know they taste like battery acid, and they have like 400 milligrams of caffeine—but Zeus, we’re smooth. It tastes like juice, it is natural, and it doesn’t crash you out. People are actually stopping drinking Red Bull and starting drinking our drink because it’s so much smoother and tastes so much better. You gonna feel the energy but it’s gonna be a perfect balance. Right now we’re at gas stations and nightclubs in Houston. We’re in the works with signing a deal with H-E-B—we really want that to work out. We’re also hoping to be at places like Target and CEFCO. We doing things!

People Are the Number One Thing

When I think of “home,” I don’t really know what home is. I guess, wherever my apartment is. Most people, they like houses. But me, I don’t, really, because they just bring back so many memories. I find that people are the number one thing. It’s about people.

I talk to my brother like every two weeks. We were real close growing up—we were all each other had. He’s a big introvert—he doesn’t really talk that much. To this day, I still don’t know how he feels about anything [that we went through], really. It takes like two years just for him to start talking to friends. And I could say—I’m most definitely going to say—the environment we were raised in made him like that. We weren’t allowed to speak freely or say what was on our mind, because if we did, we’d get in trouble for it.

When I talked to him last, he was trying to sell his property. He’s always trying to get a different car or bike, or he’s always selling something. He’s in Tyler. I don’t know where he is in Tyler, but I know he’s in Tyler. He doesn’t disclose his location to anyone, not even me. He’s private, so… yeah, he could be a billionaire and you would never know!

I don’t want to leave one person out that really did help me in my time of need: her name is Carol. Carol was my CASA worker, and she has always been there for me. I met Carol while I was in juvie. I was like, «Who’s this little short lady here actin’ like she wants to be friends?» She basically kept coming to our court dates and stuff, and I was just like, «Yeah, she just here because it’s her job or whatever.» Then I got out of juvie and went to the RTC, you know, and she pulled up in this little Mazda drop top. I’m like, «What’s this lady doing here… She’s gonna be gone in a week.» But lo and behold, me and her became good friends. She was just always there. Whenever she said she was gonna do something she’d do it, or would try to do it. You know how you can just tell when somebody’s there for the paycheck, and when someone’s there just to be there?

She was the CASA volunteer for my brother, too. She’s one of the few people he’ll talk to. We go over to Carol’s for holidays, just to have family get-togethers, every other month or so. Her husband is real cool and I’m friends with her daughter. She calls us her sons. Her daughter is, like, our sister. We’ll play games, have a conversation, catch up, have a good time, go out to eat. Her daughter always comes, too. She lives out of town, so whenever we’re doing get-togethers she’ll drive down.

There’s also Shelly and Wesley. They came around whenever I was in college. I was actually homeless for a bit, before I met them. I guess my former case manager sent an email to Green Acres, this huge church, and then they all just were like, «Well, let’s help this kid out.” And you know me, I was just like, «Who’s these people?» I told them, I was like, «Well, I’m 18, about to be 19, and I don’t know how to drive! So will you teach me how to drive?» And then they taught me how to drive. And yeah, we just built a relationship from there. I go over there like every other week, you know, chill with them. Wesley’s kind of like a father to me, because he never tells me not to do anything. He’ll be like, «Go for it!» Like even when I started my energy drink business, he was like, «Go for it!» And whenever he would tell me to do something, you know, I’d encourage him to do something, and then he started his own business as well. He’s like a father, but he’s kind of like a business partner as well.

Meeting & Forgiving My Mom

I met my mom for the first time in 2021. One of my friends got me a DNA ancestry test for a birthday gift. I got on a DNA ancestry app, and saw I had a sister. And then I reached out to her, and she was in foster care as well. She gave me my grandpa’s number. I reached out to him and he talked to me like he’d been knowing me forever. It was kinda weird! I talked to him for a few months. I think my mom was scared to meet me at the time, so then he was like, «Why don’t you come on down here, come meet your grandma.» So I drove down there to see them. Then my mom surprised me. She was sweating, she was really nervous. But she came in there, she seen me and she just started crying. She kept telling me sorry. I just gave her a hug, and we talked for a little bit.

I remember leaving that day in my drop top BMW, and looking at my mom… Something really lifted off my shoulders, I guess—to know where I came from and who I came from. I was always just so angry, like, These people gave me up. Who am I? Where do I come from? Dang, was I not good enough for you like to keep? Like, what’s wrong with me?

But once I got my Mom’s side of the story of why she did give me up, I said, «That’s understandable.» She had eight kids, and she was like, «I just couldn’t.» I was all, «Okay, I understand.» I felt that anger just leave me. After that day, I never felt that anger again. I still stay in contact with her, but she’s real sick, she has cancer. I’ve never met my real dad or anything like that, but I met my grandma, I met my grandpa, and one of my sisters. I got like four other brothers and sisters I’ve never met, but I’ve talked to them on Facebook.

Stop Trying to Teach Kids About Life in One Week

If I could change something about the system, I would change how the kids are brought up, because once I graduated I didn’t know diddly squat from squat. I didn’t even know how to drive. I didn’t have a bank account. I didn’t have nothing.

They need to be teaching these kids life skills. Like yeah, you can go get me a backpack or buy me some shoes, stuff like that, but none of that’s gonna matter when I get out into the real world. They need to show the kids more life lessons and stop babying them to the point where they don’t know how to do anything. Let the kids cook a meal for their selves! Like, come on! You can’t shelter them to the point where they don’t know how to live on their own. Because there’s a lot of kids that get out of foster care, and they’re so used to people doing stuff for them that when they get out there and they don’t know what to do. They’re lost. So give the kids a little more leeway, and teach us things, let the kids learn life lessons.

And stop trying to teach kids about life in one week! What do you call it… PAL [Preparation for Adult Living]? Like, no. I went through PAL and I was like, «You gonna try to teach me all this in a week, I will forget about this in a dang week!» Stupid. They try to make it sound good, because you get $1,000 in the end but… you gonna spend that on something stupid.

You all sit in a room while they go over some dang presentations that don’t make no sense. Your mind is somewhere else. You’re thinking, «When am I getting out this room? How am I gonna get this thousand dollars without paying attention?» The foster parents should be teaching you all this stuff, you know, gradually.

I feel like they should start teaching these things at about 15 so the kid has well-rounded knowledge of how the world works, how to do things. It’d be better because when I actually get out into the real world, I won’t be looking stupid. It would help me get my affairs in order. Have a budget. Apply for jobs. It would make things a whole lot better and smoother for the kids. Because like I said, these kids get out here and they’re lost. They’re so sheltered that when they get out into the real world they go buck wild. They go buck wild and then boom. What? Jail or dead. That’s seems like the pattern. Because they don’t know what the hell is going on! So let’s fix that. Let’s teach them gradually over time—not, you know, in a week. I think it’s harming them more than anything.

Life Gets Better

I’ve never given up on anything. It’s my motto. Never give up, no matter how hard it is. I want to be one of the first black billionaires, within the drink market. You know, there’s so many industries that black people haven’t really partaken in that could use some touching up. I want to be the guy to go in there, change the game and stand out—and let people know that you can do anything, as long as you put your mind to it, and don’t give up.

My favorite person—I never met the guy, only heard about him through history—is Alexander the Great. He resonates with me because he took over almost half of the world by the age of 30. And he never ended his conquest—it only ended because he died. So imagine if he didn’t die at the age of 32! I always listen to his quotes and advice. My favorite quote from him is, «Anything is possible to him who will try.»

If I could talk to past me in foster care, to be honest, I wouldn’t say anything… because you know, I feel like I wouldn’t be where I am today if I wasn’t put in that situation. If anything, I’d tell him everything happens for a reason. I’m not mad at nobody. I’m actually glad. We’re all put in certain situations, but you got to be able to see the good in it, and I can see the good in it. I can tell you right now if I didn’t go into CPS care or anything like that, maybe I’d be in jail or dead.

For advocates, I’d tell them, you know, it’s going to be hard to break through to those kids because they’ve been through a lot; they’re traumatized by their past. But don’t give up on them because they will come around eventually. They’re so used to so many people going away, or turning their backs on them. They’ll love you unconditionally if they know that you’re gonna stay in their life.

To all the kids who are in foster care right now, if I could tell them one thing, I’d tell them, “Life gets better.” That’s what I’d say.