by Jill Ragar Esfeld
Special to The Leaven
Saint James Academy senior Julia Griffin was born to be a star.
Last year, in a school with a makeshift theater and only a fledgling drama program, she managed to earn one of the highest honors available for high school actors — the Blue Star Award (see sidebar).
When Julie and her mother, Holy Trinity, Lenexa, parishioner Susan Griffin, discovered Julia was a Blue Star nominee, they were overjoyed.
And there was no question who they would call first with the news — it was Julia’s “other” mother, the one she affectionately refers to as “Beth, the mom who can’t yell at me.”
Julia, like her brother Jay, is the product of an open adoption.
And her journey to stardom really began in a small town in Kansas where she almost wasn’t born at all.
A gift to share
Eighteen years ago, Elizabeth DalySmith was 16, pregnant and scared to death. All she wanted to do was make her “problem” disappear. That’s why, when she realized she was pregnant, her first thought was of an abortion.
But she lived in Pittsburg and didn’t have a clue as to how or where to get an abortion. So she had to think some more.
“Once I actually made myself realize, ‘This is a baby; you’re going to have a baby,’ then I knew abortion wasn’t an option for me,” said Daly-Smith.
The young teen talked to her mother, who helped her see adoption as the best option for her situation. Together, they met with a social worker from Catholic Charities of Kansas City.
“When I told her I wanted to meet my baby’s parents and know where they lived, she about fell out of her chair because 18 years ago they didn’t do adoptions like that,” said Daly-Smith.
However, Catholic Charities did have two profiles of families who were interested in an open adoption.
“And Jim and Susan Griffin were the ones we picked,” she said.
What Daly-Smith didn’t know is how open an open adoption could be.
“I wanted letters and pictures of the baby,” she said. “I didn’t want to meet her. I thought that would be too confusing for her and too confusing for me.”
Fortunately, the Griffins were ready to convince her otherwise. They already had a toddler who was thriving in the atmosphere of an open adoption.
“Since we already had the relationship with Jay’s birth parents, we really wanted it for Julia,” said Susan Griffin.
So after Julia was born, the Griffins were diligent about including her birth family in each important event of her life.
“After I had her, they invited me to her baptism and my mom and I went,” said Daly-Smith.
“And then they invited us to something else and then I was babysitting for them,” she added. “And now, 17 years later, they’re just a part of my family, just like any extended family.”
Daly-Smith said being part of an open adoption has strengthened her faith. “
I can’t explain why it worked so well other than God played a part,” she said.
Julia couldn’t agree more. She has a close, loving relationship with her parents and considers her birth mother a best friend.
“It makes me feel more blessed because my parents are so amazing, and I’m so fortunate to know my birth family,” she said. “Having information is good, but actually being able to have contact with them and know that I wasn’t just thrown aside is really nice.”
Twelve years ago, Julia’s family grew even larger when her birth mother, who is now married, had a daughter of her own. Julia is close to her half sister, Breanna, who shares many of her interests, like volleyball and the theater.
The two moms often share parenting advice.
“I call Susan and say, ‘OK, Breanna is doing this. What did Julia do? How do I handle this?’” said Daly-Smith. “And Susan calls me to say, ‘OK, Julia is doing this. Why is she doing this? Did you do this when you were young?’”
Both families agreed that, in addition to counseling, the key to a successful open adoption is an attitude that puts the child first.
“I don’t look at Julia or Breanna as possessions,” explained Daly-Smith. “I look at them as gifts from God.
“They’re not mine to have; they are their own individual people that I’m just here to help.”
Jim Griffin agreed.
“We’re just all supporting Julia,” he said. “There are no boundaries, really, to manage. You know your children are unique individuals, and all you care about is helping them and supporting them.”
Julia’s birth family loves to attend her performances and support her success in the theater.
In fact, her director at St. James, Whitney Coulson, attributes Julia’s success in part to the support of her big, devoted family.
“I’ve been inspired by Julia and her situation because it is so loving and so nurturing,” she said. “For both her mother and her birth mother to be so supportive of her, and for me to witness that — I think it’s powerful and wonderful.”
The lure of the lights
After 10 years as a professional actress and singer, Coulson is in a good position to judge talent.
And she is blown away by Julia.
“Oh, she’s really good,” she said. “It’s been an awesome process to watch, because she really started focusing on [acting] just three years ago and has already gone beyond what some people do in 10 or 15 years.”
Winning the Blue Star Award was made more impressive by the fact that Julia was only a junior and the school’s drama program was hardly off the ground.
“She was competing against seniors at big public schools with huge theater departments,” said Coulson. “[St. James] is a brand-new Catholic school. It’s growing every year, but we had very little to give her, and she took what she could get and she just drove with that.”
Julia caught the acting bug her first time on stage in grade school, and Coulson helped her realize she could make it part of her life.
“In third grade, I did the talent show at Holy Trinity [School in Lenexa],” Julia recalled. “That rush of adrenaline was amazing. I got off the stage and I thought, ‘I really want to do that again.’
“But freshman year at St. James, when I started working with Whitney Coulson, that’s when I realized it was within my grasp to actually do this every day.”
Coulson also taught Julia how to integrate her acting with her faith life.
“She and I have had many discussions and she understands that it’s not possible for her to reflect the human spirit if she’s not a spiritual person,” explained Coulson. “She’s beginning to grasp the theater world and her faith life and how they intersect.”
That realization is very important, said Coulson, because “if you’re doing it for your ego, you’re not going to get very far. But if you’re doing it for God and because you feel the need to reflect the human soul, then you’re going to go a lot further and you’re going to touch more lives.”
Indeed, Julia compares her experience on stage to a religious experience.
“I find so much beauty in a good performance that, to me, it’s like praying,” she said. “When people pray, they’re asking God to support them, and when I’m on stage, I feel like I’m giving back to God for what I’ve been given.”
The only choice
When Daly-Smith sees Julia on stage, it makes her grateful that she chose life for her daughter. But she also feels concern for other young girls whose circumstances might cause them to make a different decision.
“Who’s to say that if [abortion] had been readily available to me, I wouldn’t have chosen that?” she said. “I’m sad for those girls who have it so available that they don’t have to tell anybody, they don’t have to talk about it.
“And before they know it, they’ve made a life-changing decision that they may regret.”
When Coulson reflects on that choice, she’s astounded by the number of people Julia has touched thus far in her short life.
“I have to think, if Julia wasn’t brought into this world and wasn’t raised by the Griffins and loved and nurtured, then we would be missing this incredible actress that already, at the age of 17, is holding up a mirror to life and forcing people to reflect in an audience,” she said.
“I’ve seen people laugh so hard that they’re crying,” Coulson added, “and I’ve seen people cry so hard that they have to stand up and leave because of her performances — that kind of response shows me how powerful she is as an actress.
“If she wasn’t brought into this world, we’d be missing that. We’re lucky we got her. We’re lucky she was born.”
Julia’s mother couldn’t agree more.
“We have been so blessed to be able to be a part of Julia’s life,” she said. “And we thank her birth mother every day for choosing life for Julia and allowing us to share in her life.”
Open adoption is supported by Catholic Charities. Open adoption involves an agreement between a child’s birth parents and adoptive parents to maintain open communication throughout the child’s life, so that the child can grow up knowing both families.
This ongoing communication may be in the form of letters, pictures, phone contact and visits between a child and his/her birth and adoptive families.
The adoptive parents are in every way the parents to their adopted child. Birth parents work with counselors to establish and understand the parameters of the arrangement and can continue to receive support and assistance in managing the ongoing relationships between all of the child’s significant family members.
For more information on Catholic Charities adoption, visit the Web site at: www.catholic charitiesks.org
Starlight Theater Blue Star Awards
Now in its eighth season, the Blue Star Awards program at Starlight, patterned after Broadway’s Tony Awards®, is designed to recognize outstanding achievement in musical theatre production and performance among high school students.
Last year’s competition included students from 44 Kansas City area high schools, who performed in 48 musical productions during the 2008-09 school year. Top honors were awarded in 23 categories.
Julia Griffin, representing St. James Academy in Lenexa, won Outstanding Actress in a Supporting Role for her performance as Miss Hannigan in “Annie.”
For more information about the awards, visit the Web site at: www.kc starlight.com; click on Education.