RD on TV: Gracie’s Choice

An inspirational story about a teen hero found a way to keep three brothers from being separated.

Imagine growing up with a neglectful, drug-addicted mother and three brothers who are about to be scattered to foster homes. This teenage hero found a way to keep them together: Adopt them.

When Reader’s Digest ran their story in 2000, hundreds of you sent donations to help this fledgling family stay on its feet. Since then television viewers were able to watch the brothers’ lives unfold in the Lifetime movie Gracie’s Choice, based in part on their story.

Here is the original article that inspired so many generous readers:

It was nearly midnight by the time 19-year-old Amy returned to her cramped apartment, and she was exhausted. After a full day’s work at a florist shop, she had put in another six hours waitressing before heading home.

Pushing the key into the lock, she quietly opened the door so as not to wake her younger siblings. She stepped into the front room and froze. The apartment was a shambles: plates of half-eaten food were scattered in front of the TV; toys littered the floor; clothes, shoes and homework were strewn everywhere.

Amy’s eyes welled with tears.

This is just way too much for me, she thought. Her worst fears began to race through her mind, and soon she was sobbing. Would the court tell her she couldn’t care for her family anymore? Would the kids go through the torture once more of being split up and sent away? She was so young, almost a child herself, and yet Amy knew everything depended on her. Everything. At that moment, she wondered if she would ever find the strength to see it through.

Amy had been born dead. Physicians fought and saved this smaller twin of a drug-addicted mother, and she’d had to fight for everything in life ever since.

From earliest childhood, Amy took care of her younger siblings. First it was her sister Amanda, four years younger. Then, when Amy was ten, along came Adam, followed by Joseph and finally Anthony. With a mother so often wasted — if not gone altogether — it frequently fell to Amy to feed and diaper the babies, lull them to sleep when they cried, and care for them when they were sick.

Once, when the children all came down with chickenpox, Amy wound up at the drugstore asking the clerk what to do. Handed some calamine, the ten-year-old stared at the instructions on the bottle, unable to make sense of them. Back home she bundled her siblings into the shower and afterward spread the lotion on them with bunched-up toilet paper. They healed.

Jan, their mother, only added to the family chaos by careering in and out of her children’s lives. Sometimes they lived in apartments, sometimes in shelters or drug-infested motels.

At school — when the kids attended — they kept mostly to themselves, not wanting classmates to know how they were living. But it inevitably showed. Amy and her twin Jessica, for instance, went without meals there because Jan sometimes failed to sign them up for the lunch programs. They would sit hungry and desolate in the schoolyard as the other kids gobbled their sandwiches.

Meals at home were a different challenge: when Jan was around, the twins were expected to cook. Once, a boyfriend of Jan’s became enraged because Amy did not have dinner promptly on the table. He grabbed the child by the hair and threw her against the refrigerator.

The girl suffered other violence and finally told her social worker. The woman was stunned. “My God, why didn’t you tell me before?” she asked. “I thought we’d be taken away,” Amy replied.

Two weeks later social workers came knocking, and the young girl’s nightmare unfolded. Amy and Jessica were to be taken to a juvenile detention center.

Meanwhile, Amy watched, distraught, as her other siblings were trundled out to waiting cars, bound for separate foster homes. Looking into their anguished faces, she could only manage to say, “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.”

The kids, lonely and depressed, spent six months apart from each other until they were sent to live with their maternal grandmother. Although Jan was forbidden to stay with her children, Amy’s grandmother took pity on her daughter and allowed her to re-enter the children’s lives, plunging them back into chaos. At 14, Jessica left home for good. Meanwhile, all the children were falling further and further behind in school.

As a ninth-grader, Amy could read only at a fourth-grade level. With envy she studied the kids who dressed well and excelled in class, and wished she could somehow enter their world. And leave hers behind forever.

Walking across the school grounds one day, Amy spotted a table littered with college brochures. She browsed through pictures of spacious campuses and happy, contented kids — all of it looking impossibly glamorous and unachievable. But a guidance counselor soon gave her unexpected hope. Amy could attend college, she was told, and for free. It would take a scholarship, though, and for that she’d need much better grades. Amy immediately signed up for summer school. During her junior and senior years, she diligently attended classes, then went to work after school from 3:30 to 11:30, returned to her grandmother’s place and plowed through homework till the early hours of the morning.

Amy’s resolve was strengthened further during these tough months by a boy she met at school, Jerry (name has been changed to protect privacy). For the first time in her life, Amy felt that someone really listened to her, and truly cared. Their friendship turned to love, and Amy had no doubt that the two would marry and have children together.

But during this time, unbeknown to the social workers, Jan had come to live in her mother’s house, throwing the family into fresh tumult. Amy’s grandmother couldn’t turn her daughter out of her home, even when Jan was high on drugs. One afternoon Amy was summoned to the high school. A social worker was waiting for her.

“We know your mother has been staying with you,” the social worker said, “and that Joey pricked his finger on a drug needle.” Amy braced herself, knowing what was coming next. “We’re going to have to put you guys in foster care.” “No! Don’t split us up!” the girl blurted. “Can’t you just leave it the way it is?” The social worker shook his head. Amy’s voice then rose like the howl of a lioness protecting her cubs: “Why can’t I take them? I take care of them all the time anyway.” The social worker hesitated, then said, “Maybe. Once you’re 18, you could apply to become their relative caretaker. Then you’d be their foster mother until we find a home where all of you can be together.” “I’ll do it,” Amy said. She hadn’t a clue what was involved, but that mattered little. She would just forge ahead, a day at a time, as she had all her life.

And, somehow, she would make things turn out right.

Amy soon realized the full price of her commitment. One afternoon she came walking home from school, clutching a sheet of paper. It was a letter from U.C.L.A. inviting her to come see the lush campus. It was what she’d longed for, a place where no one would know about her awful background, where she could study to become someone special — a nurse, perhaps, or maybe even an attorney.

Yet the letter only ripped Amy apart inside. The entire walk home she kept imagining herself at this prestigious university, kept picturing a life free of the worries and duties she’d always known.

Then, as she turned a corner, she saw her brothers playing outside her grandmother’s house, running, laughing. Adam, Joey, Tony. She’d diapered and fed them, held them when they were scared, read them stories, sung them songs.

Her dreams for herself, she realized, were no match for the love etched in her soul. She crumpled the letter up and threw it away.

One month later, after tediously filing piles of paperwork, Amy sat before a judge in family court. “You’re so young,” the judge said to her. “Are you sure you want this responsibility?” “There’s no other way to keep my family together,” Amy replied simply. The judge’s ultimate decision was a remarkable victory for an 18-year-old girl: Amy was named guardian of her siblings for a six-month trial period.

Meanwhile, instead of going to her high school prom, Amy had searched for a place to live. Finally she found a run-down one-bedroom unit. The salary from her two jobs — as a florist-shop clerk and as a waitress — along with her savings and foster-care payments from the state of California enabled her to pay the first and last months’ rent.

Her siblings didn’t make her task any easier in the months ahead. The boys sometimes ditched school and would curse at Amy when they were angry. And she had more than a few face-offs with Amanda.

“You’re not my mom!” the 14-year-old would shout at Amy when things grew particularly tense.

One day Adam rebelled at doing his reading assignment for school, hurling his book across the room. Only after some coaxing did he tell Amy what was really going on.

“Every kid in the class can read,” Adam said, bursting into tears, “and I can’t.” Remembering her own shame about reading, Amy began taking all the kids to the library. And for many weeks afterward she set aside special time to tutor each of them separately. Adam took pride in the way his reading skills improved.

As always, though, a fresh obstacle appeared — one that came as a huge shock to Amy. Despite taking birth-control pills, she became pregnant with Jerry’s child. The timing was horrible, but there was no way she’d consider either abortion or giving up the baby. Her love would enfold this child just as it had the others. And so another little boy, Donavin, entered Amy’s life at age 19.

The strain of things built up remorselessly. Finally it reached a breaking point that late night when Amy returned from work to an apartment in shambles.

She had left the boys in the care of Amanda, who had fallen asleep in Amy’s bed.

Shaken, Amy felt overwhelmed once more by the enormousness of all she had taken on. But she knew she had no choice: She could never let her siblings be ripped away from one another again. To make it as a family, she’d just have to get them to work together.

“All of you, get in here right now!” she yelled, trembling with frustration.

The three boys stumbled into the room. “How could you do this?” she asked, her words coming in a torrent. “You know they’re checking up on us.”

Within a few minutes, the wave of anger ebbed. “Guys,” she said more gently, “all we have is each other. If you want to stay together past six months, we’ve got to show we’re responsible. We’ve got to keep this place neat.

“And you need to watch your tongues. Also, don’t eat all the food as soon as I buy it, or there won’t be any next week. And you have to be bleeding before you can miss school.” Startled, the kids agreed to begin pulling their weight.

Unfortunately, Jerry soon asked that Amy choose between a life with him and their child, or continuing to care for her siblings. She chose — and their relationship ended.

If anything, Amy grew more tenacious with every setback. And her efforts were rewarded when the court allowed her to continue as guardian.

To the boys, this was an enormous comfort. But Amy’s relationship with her younger sister continued to sour. At 15, Amanda finally went to live with an aunt.

Now left with Donavin and the three boys, Amy dangled a prize before them: “If we save enough for a deposit, we’ll get a house of our own,” she said. “And we’ll even get a dog.” Nothing could have been more tantalizing to them.

Amy’s relief at remaining the kids’ guardian was undermined by the pressure she always felt to measure up. The boys were still dependents of the court. Social workers still looked regularly over her shoulder and asked the boys humiliating questions: “Does she feed you? Does she ever try to harm you?” There was no way she could be sure her siblings would never be taken away again.

Or so she assumed, until the day a visiting social worker dropped a bombshell.

“We’d like to get the boys out of foster care and adopted into homes,” she said. Sensing that the family was about to be split apart yet again, Amy replied, “Fine, then. Call it adoption if you want, but they’re not going anywhere.” To her surprise, the social worker took her terse remark seriously.

She explained that if Amy were to adopt the boys, they would become like any other family. They’d be free to live their lives without constant monitoring.

That night at dinner Amy told the boys about the idea. “Cool!” Joey said. And with playful exuberance he threw a piece of corn at Adam. His brother flicked it back, and pretty soon corn was flying.

Amy rolled her eyes. They didn’t have far to go to be like any other family.

Once she began struggling with the rules and paperwork for adoption, Amy felt intimidated and often lost. At last, in a hearing in early 1999, the family appeared before a judge, who terminated the parental rights of Jan and the father of Adam and Joseph and the father of Anthony. This was a major step toward full adoption. The judge’s eyes filled as she addressed Amy. “I’m very proud of you,” she said. “Not many family members would do what you’re doing, especially for this many children.”

The judge then turned to the three boys. “The next time I see you, you’ll be heading for adoption. How do you feel about that?”

“And we won’t ever have to leave the family?” Joey asked. The judge shook her head. “The plan is for you to be a family forever.” The final step came when Amy’s siblings sat on either side of her in court as the young woman signed three separate papers — one for each of the boys. As the proceedings ended, Amy thanked everyone. “No,” the judge responded, “thank you. You saved three kids.”

On a lazy spring day, in a modest suburban neighborhood, Amy stood in front of a neatly kept one-story house. She watched her brothers playing basketball, and heard the playful bark of their dog, Tahoe. The young woman had made good on her promise: they had rented a home, a real home, and the boys had gotten their dog. Above all, Amy relished knowing that her family was now a world away from the mean streets they had once known. As if on cue, she heard the tinkling music of an approaching ice-cream truck. And, like any mother, she went to round up her kids.

Amy continues to raise her family alone, but has begun taking courses in business management at a nearby community college. Eventually, she hopes to become a child psychologist.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest