A biography I did in May of 2011 on my mother, Elizabeth Trent Stephenson.
By Emily Stephenson
One is all it takes to change a person’s judgment- one home run from a baseball player who normally occupies the bench for his teammates to think of him as a hero, one step from a disabled child who was supposed to never walk for its parents to believe it will have a chance at normality.
In this case, all it took was one misguided little girl to disregard her past so she could make something of herself and prove to those that had no faith in her that they thought wrong. This girl, now a fully grown woman with a wise conscience and strong character, is Elizabeth.
Welcome to Russellville, Kentucky, where gas-guzzling Chevy trucks own the streets, run down Mini Marts appear to be the only non-housing buildings around, and poverty is the main attraction.
Among the littered yards and decaying barns in weed-consumed pastures, a baby girl was born into a severely struggling family with seven mouths to feed already and abusive boyfriends to please.
As this newborn grew into a toddler and then a child, the difficult times got no easier. This girl, Elizabeth, had some of the worst possible memories a child could obtain. Out of all of the occasions she had been neglected, had witnessed the beatings or sexual abuse of her siblings, and gone to sleep with a vacant stomach, the humiliation she faced from her peers felt just as ghastly.
As she walked to the school she attended, gravel and grass entered through the torn soles of her shoes. It couldn’t have been more obvious that she was deprived. Anyone who had eyes could see the patched, worn clothing she wore and her lack of hygiene.
The other children were too young to understand what they did to her self-esteem. They pointed and laughed, the hatred in their eyes burned into the heart of an innocent, helpless human being.
Besides those who added to her misery, there were kind-hearted civilians who brought necessities to her family on holidays, especially Christmas.
Train tracks were less than 600 feet from one of the many houses she lived at. The caboose of the train was generous enough to take time out of his day and provide them with sacks of fruit for no charge.
There were evenings in the midst of winter so harsh, so bitterly cold, that Elizabeth’s teeth would violently chatter as her and the other occupants of the house gathered around the wood burning stove for warmth. This same stove would later scar her, becoming the basis of her disturbing nightmares.
The incident with their only source of heat took place when Frances, Elizabeth’s sister one year older than her, was trying to operate the stove. Minutes later she was completely engulfed in flames. She had run outside, arms flailing, deafening screams escaping her lips, her face twisted with agony. Her horrified brothers and sisters, including Elizabeth, rushed to put out the fire.
Even though Frances survived, the tragedy resulted in a year in the hospital, recovering from the 40 percent of her body hideously burned. She faced consequences of special needs, many painful operations, such as when she had her ear and left breast completely rebuilt, plus many cruel remarks and stares from her peers.
So I take you back to Elizabeth. What you are probably predicting is that she will grow to be like the rest of her family- poor, the females pregnant at young ages, barely educated, and troubled. These scenarios could have been a look into the future for her, but a decision from her sister made the outcome of her life quite the opposite.
The oldest sister, Maybelline, became desperate and confessed to the police about their dire need of help. Maybelline and the two brothers, Junior and Billy, had left home or were kicked out before the Child Protective Services came to investigate.
Immediately after the examination, Elizabeth at seven years old, Nancy, Frances, and Rachel were placed into foster care. This was the start of the life Elizabeth had always dreamed of- a life with people who loved her unconditionally.
After quite a few years of living with countless foster families and having to survive apart from each other due to the distance involved, the sisters found themselves visiting their Uncle Hoover, who was their birth dad’s brother, and his wife Faye after the heartbreaking death of Nancy. Nancy was the second oldest of all of the sisters and was struck by a semi-truck one night while trying to runaway with a friend.
Hoover and Faye found it absurd that the girls were separated, and after many gatherings with the caseworkers to complete paper work, they took in Elizabeth, Frances, and Rachel into their home in Frankfort, Indiana. Rachel and Frances struggled with school and discipline, which was highly looked down on in their new home.
Although Rachel’s grades improved, her placement disrupted six weeks upon arrival and was returned back to Kentucky along with Frances, who had decided to go back into foster care. This was another disappointing time in Elizabeth’s life. She felt alone, hurt, and betrayed once again by her birth family. Hoover and Faye were devastated.
As she grew fond of her new living situation, Elizabeth’s out look on education and life improved. Before, she was bullied and lacked many, if not any, friends from the constant changing of schools. Now, she found herself enjoying her classes, teachers, and classmates.
She was a very high-quality, intelligent student. Sports and in-school activities became more common in her life. Her love for singing guided her to choir and theatre. Basketball and summer softball leagues kept her satisfied. Many wonderful memories and friendships were shared.
Over time, Hoover and Faye became more than just her foster family. Elizabeth came to realize how good they were to her and that she loved them as the parents she had never had, a much deeper love.
She took their gentle, aging hands, sat them down at the dimly lighted kitchen table, and expressed her adoration towards them by asking them to adopt her. It took her almost four years to do, and she was a junior in high school, but she felt the time was perfect and she was right. They were more than willing to take her as their own.
Hoover and Faye, now referred to as Elizabeth’s parents, convinced her when the time had come to pursue her goal of going to college. She received a scholarship to Western Kentucky University, where a bachelor’s degree in social working was earned. Soon after, a full scholarship to the University of Louisville was given to her and she graduated with another degree as a social worker- a Master’s degree.
This was one of the proudest moments in her life. She was now the first in her family to graduate high school and the first to have ever made it to, much less graduate from, college.
This was not the end to her accomplishments. Elizabeth went on to meet the love of her life, Gary, through one of her colleagues. The two both shared a passion for helping other people, especially children. With Gary’s money inherited from his parents after their deaths, they developed, owned, and operated Pathways, a foster care and adoption agency.
One year later, the couple was engaged on an exceedingly romantic boat, the Star of Louisville, and was wedded in the beautiful gardens of their home in Louisville, Kentucky.
Following their marriage, they put their focus into Pathways, where Elizabeth recruited, trained, and hired foster parents and staff while Gary was the marketing and business man.
Over the next 14 years, they were the cause of positive impacts on over 100 children in the care of their agency. To this day, they stay in touch with and get many thanks from the foster families they reached out to.
They now own a business by the name of Gymboree Play and Music, Louisville, the global leader in early childhood developmental programs, where Elizabeth continues her life long passion for helping children and her goal to continue inspiring parents to be attentive, kind, and loving towards their children.
By doing this, she feels accomplished in life. She believes that parenting is a hard job and everyone can use some guidance, advice, and a lot of encouragement.
The birth of her children, David and Emily, and the genuine compassion she has towards giving them what she didn’t have as a child shows her desire of wanting to give back.
Although her dearly adored parents have walked the valley of the shadow of death and are so greatly missed, Elizabeth found the strength to stand tall and continue to inspire many lives with her fascinating life story and gregarious, accepting personality.
“My family is what I’m most grateful for in this world. I have overcome many obstacles, especially in my childhood. I’m grateful that I was taken into foster care before I was grown up. My life would have had a very different outcome otherwise, and not a good one. Gary and my children have been good listeners and supports of me during my weakest moments. My family has been my ‘rock’ to lean on. I would not be the caring, successful person I am without them. I adore my family and love them with all of my heart.”
Those were the words of the woman who has lived through it all. From rags to riches, she proves that the seemingly impossible is in fact possible. I’m proud of you, Mom.