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How to repair a broken girl: The story of foster kid Heather Wilder

Foster kid Heather Wilder had been through counselors, therapists and case workers. But what might really save her? Writing

“This is a story about me and my hurts. Everyone has hurts, even some of the people reading this booklet right now. … If we talk about our hurts, it can sometimes make us feel better.” — Heather’s Hurts

Last fall, 17-year-old Heather Wilder gave a presentation at the TEDx Youth Social Entrepreneurship conference at Sidwell Friends School in Washington D.C., the ritzy private school Barack Obama’s daughters attend. She was one of only eight young adults around the world to speak at the event, and the only one from Las Vegas. All of them talked about their projects designed to help other people.

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Wilder didn’t just talk about her years of helping foster kids in Las Vegas — kids who spend most of their most of their childhood being passed around from house to house, she said, “like a cardboard box.”

She also talked about being a foster kid. She talked about suffering years of abuse at the hands of a drugged-out mother. She talked about the social workers and caseworkers who wrote her off as “emotionally disturbed and most not likely not going to succeed in anything.” Through it all, she spoke with a grace and maturity that belied her difficult past.

To kids at Cimarron High School, here in Las Vegas, Heather Wilder is that strange girl, that “geeky nerd special ed kid who knows nothing,” she says. But to other foster kids, she’s an inspiration and a role model — an author whose numerous booklets and chapbooks about life in the foster system give them hope.

“If I had a dream or something came up I was having trouble with, I would write it down and feel better,” Heather explains. “It was kind of therapy for me.”

The books have opened up a whole new world of possibility, shaping a vision of her life that bigger and more generous. She’s since run toy drives and scrapbook workshops. She works with First Star, a national nonprofit agency that fights child abuse. To see her walking the grounds of Luumis Elementary, where her adopted mother, Tammy Wilder, teaches, is to see a young woman loved by all, from staff to elementary kids.

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“Kids don’t believe all the stuff I’m doing,” Heather says.

Through her foster care advocacy, she’s rubbed elbows with Dakota Fanning and Peyton Manning. She’s danced with Jerry Rice (his hand is as big as her back). She’s shared her story on Dick Gordon’s National Public Radio program, “The Story.”

“She’s a powerful spokesperson, considering her horrendous experience,” says First Star Executive Director Elisa Garr, who has shared Heather’s booklets with others who work in the child welfare field. “I think that they’re very helpful because they’re right from her, from her experience, but they’re simplistic enough so that a child can understand them.”

The girl beneath the words

“Memories for me begin about the age of four. I don’t remember things like toys, friends, books or birthday parties. I do remember things like funny smells, piles of clothes, lots of strange acting loud adults, lots of sleeping adults who looked dead, being hurt a lot, watching movies of scary and nasty things, and being locked up in a room that had an alarm.” — Growing up with an Addicted Parent

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Not bad for a teenager who, according to the statistics on foster children, should be pregnant or on drugs or in jail.

There are about 3,200 kids in foster care in Clark County in any given year. Most cycle in and out of the system. But there are roughly 70 kids a year who “age out” — who turn 18 and are still in the foster system. At that point, they are, of course, legally adults, but many of them are woefully unprepared for life. These kids often don’t have driver’s licenses or high school diplomas. They lack job training and a support network of family or friends.

“Unfortunately, many turn to illegal activities to support themselves. Well over half are homeless in the first year they leave care,” says Ellen Lloyd, executive director of Child Focus, a nonprofit childcare agency. “About half the inmate population in Southern Nevada is a former foster care.”

“On average, they don’t fare very well,” says Mark Courtney, professor of social service administration at the University of Chicago. “They’re much less likely than other young people their age to graduate from high school, go to college, be employed. They’re much more likely to have runs-in with criminal justice, to be arrested, to be incarcerated. Young women are much more likely to become pregnant.”

Heather herself still bears the scars of her upbringing, scars visible and invisible. The signs are there, beneath the poise and polish. Heather’s short-term memory is not great; her awareness of dates is a bit fuzzy. But the broad and sad outline is clear enough.

For years, her mother and a string of boyfriends abused her. They kept her locked in a room all day. They fed her once a day, a bowl of ramen noodles. She had no toys. No TV. They pulled her out of school. She had one toilet, which overflowed. She was sexually abused. When she was 7 or 8, her grandmother came to visit, saw the bad conditions and called the authorities. The FBI stormed into the house one night and hauled the parents away.

At age 8, Heather was sent to Child Haven, Clark County’s facility for abused and neglected kids.

Not long after, Tammy Wilder got the call. Wilder was a big-hearted and tenacious teacher who’d already served as a foster mom, twice, to two boys. The county wanted Heather to live with a single mother, so there wouldn’t be any issues with men. Tammy said yes.

“The purpose [of foster care] is to give parents the time to get their lives back together and reset their lives,” Tammy says. “If they make that commitment, they need to have their kids.” But in Heather’s case, Tammy knew Heather wasn’t going back. Facing drug charges, Heather’s biological mom agreed to give up custody of her daughter to avoid jail.

When Tammy met her, Heather had her own struggles. She had been restrained at Child Haven. She was acting wildly. She was diagnosed with oppositional defiant disorder — a kind of intense, hostile stubbornness, where she would aggressively defy orders from adults. (“It means you can tell her no and she’s going to do it,” says Tammy.)

“Teachers are all about interventions,” says Tammy. “As long as you’re committed to the intervention, you know the outcomes are going to outweigh the drama along the way.” By the time Heather was in fifth grade — after a failed, 18-month attempt to live with her biological father in Florida — Tammy had adopted her.

No more pity parties

“Missing your own birthday party is just one of those awful experiences that a child might have when they have a parent who is addicted to something.” — Growing Up With an Addicted Parent

When Heather returned from her biological father in Florida, Tammy began a concentrated effort to rescue her newly adopted daughter’s fragile psyche.

Her plan was simply to replace bad memories with good ones: Disneyland, dance and karate classes, normal kid stuff. But there was still a lot of residue from her childhood.

She could barely read or write, so Tammy and a special ed teacher at Luumis began the long task of catching her up. And there were meetings with counselors and caseworkers, court advocates, therapists, in meetings that took place many times a week, to repair the broken girl.

But Heather and Tammy soon hit on another idea.

“Sometimes therapy just keeps you in the cycle,” Tammy says. “It’s your pity party every week. She didn’t need to have a pity party every week. It’s done, it’s over. Move on. If you can’t get them to move on, that’s a failing in a sense too.”

Instead, Tammy encouraged her foster daughter to start writing in a journal; it was “my way of not taking her to the counselor or therapy,” Tammy says And it was Heather’s way of getting a grip on her own past, of conducting her own therapy.

So she began typing her thoughts up. They took form in such titles as, “Why Do I Have to Move Again?,” “All Dressed Up and No Place to Call Home” (about the longing and fear kids have when they’re waiting to be adopted) and “Why Do I Have to Take Medication?” 

“I wanted to give the foster kids something they didn’t have,” Heather says. As she wrote, she and Tammy would print the stories out and read them together, make corrections and changes. Eventually they printed the stories out on colored paper and folded the pages in half to make booklets of eight, 12 and 16 pages.

She wrote eight short books between fifth grade and ninth grade. And like any obsessed writer, she returned to them again and again to revise, to tinker, to make the language more mature, to correct grammar.

“Sometimes I would think back and think maybe I need to add something, or something needs to be done with this story,” she says. “Mostly it’s just been … each year I learn something new in English or writing and I would look back.”

The Wilders gave copies of the books to social workers and caseworkers in town, who passed them to kids across the city. One request came in from as far away as Virginia, from a little girl who later wrote and told Heather she was her hero.

Heather’s altruism had opened a door for her, a door out of the past, out of a world where many thought there was little she could do. The books had fueled it. The books were “just therapy at first. While I was still writing and still thinking about foster care and my life, I started thinking about the different kinds of things the foster kids didn’t have. I felt I was lucky enough to have these things, so I should do something about it.”

But the books were just the start. With a close friend she made through foster care, she began a Christmas toy drive — at the age of 9. They wanted to make sure “the other kids at least get something for Christmas and to feel loved and know somebody cares about them.” The first year, they delivered 200 toys. Then 750. The most successful year they collected more than 1,600. To date, they’ve collected more than 8,000 toys.

“If she’s mindful she’s not a foster child anymore, she’s empowering herself. … (She understands) she’s not the one who’s going to be stuck having to go back to group homes,” says Tammy.

“It feels good. I’m proud of myself for what I’m doing,” Heather adds. “I always think, ‘Wow, I’m so lucky to have a family, my mom and my sister, and to be able to do this.’ If I wasn’t doing this, I don’t know what I would be doing.”

Work in progress

But as polished as she is, as stable and loving as her home is, she’s still healing. While her reading proficiency is at grade level, she’s struggling with reading comprehension. Her math scores are still at a fifth or sixth grade level. Her emotional development is at the same level. Girls her age are dating their classmates; Heather is still playing with dollhouses and entertaining crushes on pop stars. (Ten years from now, she says with sweet sincerity, she wants to have a horse farm and marry Nick Jonas.)

“When she’s on that stage, you’d think she’s 20, 25,” Tammy observes. “When she’s home, she fighting with Lexie (her adopted younger sister) over who gets the three-foot Barbie doll house.”

And underneath her very sunny demeanor still lurks the occasional wild child. Tammy notes that Heather has kicked her, bit her, smacked her in the face and left her with many bruises.

I look to Heather to see her confirm this. She looks neither shocked nor embarrassed. She keeps an even, matter-of-fact expression on her face. It is what it is.

It underscores an important fact about Heather. She’s still a kid. She turned 18 this summer and while she still has a year left in high school, Tammy suspects Heather is not ready to be on her own. Even simple hygiene is still an issue — she often won’t brush her teeth, or will go a week without taking a shower.

“I’m not ready,” Heather agrees. But she’s also very excited about the prospect of going off to an equestrian college in California. Tammy knows how anxious Heather is to move on, but “she’s also going to get eaten alive at this point.”

The continuing journey

“I hope maybe you can find some time to be a lucky bamboo plant for a child. You do not have to be green and tall. But you do have to have strong roots, need a little bit of sunshine in your life and have a thirst to help others. Because this what a foster child needs. Strength, sunshine and guidance.” — All Dressed Up and No Place to Call Home

Heather’s unique journey continues. She has less than a year to pass proficiency tests in science (where she’s not too far off the pace) and math (where she lags considerably). Without those, she can’t graduate from high school. She’s been taking extra tutoring. At the same time, in June she received the Congressional Gold Medal for Youth for Service.

But she’s got a head start on other foster kids: She has a home. That’s the first step — one that all foster kids deserve, Tammy says.

“The community needs to step up too, open their homes. Where are all the citizens saying, ‘I’ll open my home’?” Tammy worries that some foster homes are overburdened. She calls them foster farms, which end up with five or six kids. “Heather’s a huge handful. I couldn’t have moved her in any type of forward direction if I had three or four like her. All I’m doing (then) is housing them. I’m not helping them develop their future. You’re not empowering six kids at a time when they demand 500 percent of your attention.”

Tammy is trying to encourage Heather to stay close to home over the next few years, maybe take some classes at CSN to help her ease her way into adulthood. “Am I pushing her out the door at 18? No. But there’s not a whole lot you can do.”

Heather took three special ed classes last semester and three regular classes. She aced them all.

For her perfect grades, her mom let Heather get her ears pierced.