Couple, teen find a family in each other
by Jane Graves
LAWRENCE — Seventeen-year-old Brandie Roberts has had the same Christmas wish for as long as she can remember: to have a family.
This year, Rebecca Buford and Jeremi Lewis, of Lawrence, made that dream come true.
“When I was little,” said Brandie, “I thought that if I really, really wished [for a family], it would come true.
“Then I started getting into my teen years, and it never happened. I never thought it would.”
In fact, when a couple chooses to adopt a new a child, it is most likely to be an infant or a toddler. But Rebecca, 32, and her husband Jeremi, 31, of Lawrence, decided instead to open their home to a teenager.
It was not a decision Rebecca and Jeremi took lightly.
“We certainly prayed a lot about it,” Rebecca said. “You really kind of look into yourself and say, ‘Can I provide the right resources for her needs?’”
Rebecca, a parishioner of St. John the Evangelist in Lawrence, and Jeremi have known Brandie for two and half years, having served as her Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) volunteers. When Brandie needed a new placement, Rebecca and Jeremi decided to make her a permanent part of their life; their guardianship was finalized in October.
Before becoming CASA volunteers, the couple had several miscarriages.
Those miscarriages, said Rebecca, changed her life — and that of Brandie.
“I do sometimes feel like, gosh, if we had had one of our children before, I’m not sure we would have been in this unique position to be parents for Brandie,” said Rebecca.
Rebecca said that she didn’t want Brandie to just age out of the foster system, never having received the permanent support family can provide. “She’s a very bright girl, very loving girl, has so many wonderful qualities, but was feeling just rejected and part of the foster system. She needed some permanency,” recalled Rebecca. “And here this bright girl had just kind of given up.”
“In some ways, the next few years of her life are absolutely critical for her success,” Rebecca continued. “If you have a 16-year-old, you know that they really would rather not go to school. They’d really rather have some fun.”
Rebecca credits her own parents’ example with influencing her choices as a teenager, as well as modeling the parenting skills she’s called on to use these days.
“I think back to my parents and, it was like, there’s no question — you’re getting up, you’re going to school, you’re doing well in school and you’re going to college,” she said. “There was no choice.
“Brandie hasn’t been told that for most of her life. So it’s essential — even more for her — that she hears that. And that there are two parents there who can really make sure she can do her best.”
The meaning of family
Nobody is happier about the arrangement than Brandie herself.
“Being in a family, to me, means being able to come home every day and have a mom and a dad and to see them have smiles on their face and welcome me home,” said Brandie. “Being able to cook together, play together, go places together, spend time together, stay at home and watch a movie. That has changed significantly since I have moved in here.”
“In the past I haven’t ever really had what you would call a family,” she said. “Because my mom — my biological mom — would lock herself in her room and I would be like the parent of my sisters. Now that I’m living with [Rebecca and Jeremi] I’ve been able to come and act like a normal teenager.”
“It’s wonderful,” she said. “It just fills my heart with joy to be able to come home every day and them to tell me they love me and care for me and they’re glad that I’m living with them and stuff.”
Dealing with loss
For Rebecca, her conviction for the need for family support was solidified after the death of her younger sister Kathleen, who was killed in a car accident during Rebecca’s last year in college, and then again after her miscarriages.
“Loss is never easy,” Rebecca said.
Part of learning to deal with loss, said Rebecca, is “just wading through it without control. And I think our faith probably prepares us best for letting go of some control and being at peace with that.”
Her family’s faith and love for each other, she believes, helped them go on after Kathleen’s death.
“You do see families that have not really learned how to love,” she said. “I can’t imagine going through that kind of loss in my family without being able to give each other a big hug and kiss and say, ‘It’s going to be OK. I love you. We’re here.’”
Mike and Lannie Buford, Rebecca’s parents and parishioners of Most Pure Heart of Mary in Topeka, agreed.
“I don’t know how you do it without faith,” said Lannie. “It’s kind of what keeps you going, because you know somewhere down the road, you’ll see her again.”
“You just get through things,” Mike said, “knowing that there are better things ahead.”
“It’s made our two daughters that are still with us much closer, and I think just appreciate life,” Lannie said. “I think they want to honor their sister by being better people themselves.”
“It’s just kind of come full circle,” concluded Rebecca. “I just know that’s what God is, and that’s what love is, and that’s what it means to be a family.”
And Christmastime, said Jeremi, is the best time to celebrate that love.
“It isn’t just another day — it’s a celebration of family and another year to come and more opportunities to do good and do right for each other.
“It’s a celebration of us being a family and the sacrifices that we make for each other and the happiness that we get out of it.”
For Rebecca, the first Christmas with a child of her own has been nothing short of “exciting.”
But it has been a bit different than she imagines those of other first-time parents.
“As teenagers,” she said with a laugh, “they expect bigger gifts.”