The last Home Visit

My visits with Ms. Peacock were still the highlight of my existence even though they rarely included my brother anymore.  I had nearly forgotten about my little sister, Joan.  The last time I saw her was when I had put a new diaper on her and tucked her in the corner of a room to try to keep her quiet and safe.  I didn’t realize that was the last time I would see her until she was nearly 11 years old.  Because of her extensive exposure to alcohol from an even earlier age than my brother and I, at the age of 2 she still couldn’t sit up on her own or do any of the things a 2 year old should be able to do.  While Bobby and I were just going through detox, she was also in physical therapy, learning how to do things she had not yet been taught by her own mother who was too busy destroying her own mind and body. 

One day Ms. Peacock showed up and we didn’t go anywhere at all.  We just sat in a little corner of the main hall and talked.  She handed me a little box and told me she wanted me to have a special gift from some special people she had met.  When I opened the box, it was a set of spinning tops.  I had never had a toy of my own before, other than the ones my brother and I picked up at the dump while playing, so I was fascinated by the idea of it being MINE.  We were forbidden to claim ownership of anything at the Allen House, so she and I found the safest place we could think of to hide my treasure before she left me we a quick hug and told me she’d be back soon with an even better surprise!  What could be better than a toy of my own??  I couldn’t even imagine! 

I don’t know how much time passed, but when Ms. Peacock returned, she had a brown paper bag with her and my heart sank.  I knew that meant I was going for another home visit, and since there was only one bag, my brother was not going too.  She ignored my sadness, gave me a hug, and told be to go find my treasure so I could take it with me.  My sadness deepened when I ran to my hiding place and found the box, but it was empty!  Could this day get any worse?  I ran back to Ms. Peacock crying, but she told me not to worry because the surprise she had for me today was even better. 

We sat in silence all the way to the home I was to visit.  It was a cuter home than most.  It was a little red brick cape cod house on a row of similar houses, each with their own yards and more trees than I had ever seen in one area!  There was a pine tree that took up the entire front yard, and I thought it must have gone clear to heaven!  I had never seen a tree so tall on any of the city streets where I played.  

We were greeted at the door by a lady who invited us to come in.  The house was the cleanest place I had ever seen.  I was instantly aware that I was starving because it smelled of food as soon as we walked in the door, and not the gross unidentifiable food they served at the Allen House, or Crème of Wheat that I ate constantly at “mother’s.”  This smelled GOOD and I didn’t hear anything anyone was saying because I was SO focused on the smells and where they were coming from. 

The next thing I knew, this lady left the room and came back with a box like the one Ms. Peacock had given me with the spinning tops in it.  She smiled and said that she heard the ones she had sent to me were missing, so she hoped I liked these as much as those.  THIS was THAT lady???  Someone had given me a gift before they even MET me!  My mind was spinning.  I was waiting for the big kids to come out from somewhere as they always did at these visits.  I shoved all the chocolate chip cookies I could get into my mouth to make sure that I got my fill before they stormed the kitchen.  I couldn’t believe they could resist the smell that filled the house, but I was glad to get first dibs!  The 2 ladies turned to me eventually and laughed.  One asked me what the hurry was, and I just looked at them, embarrassed to have been caught stuffing my face like some kind of animal.  The lady told me to eat all I wanted, but to save some for Bud who would be home around 6 when he got of work.  

Ms. Peacock realized what my fear was, and asked me what I thought of being there without any other children.  I would be the only child in the home.  I have no idea what I said at that point, but I know I was struck with excitement and fear all at once.  Excitement that I could EAT, and fear that there would be no one else for the adults to focus on but me.  That could be really bad if I couldn’t find a good hiding place.  My brother wasn’t there to protect me, so I would have to be smart about this new arrangement.  For now, I was going to EAT, so I grabbed another cookie and nodded.

 When Ms. Peacock left, she hugged me tight, and I saw tears in her eyes.  She told me she had a GOOD feeling about this one, and pleaded with me to try and make it work.  She told me it was up to me now and the little Volkswagen backed out of the drive way and she was gone.  I took a deep breath and sat down on a little green rocking chair.  It was just me and the lady now.  I fiddled with the box of spinning tops, not really knowing what to expect next.  The lady turned from the door, looked at me and said, “Well, I suppose I better get started fixing dinner!  Would you like to help?”  DINNER?  More food?  I once again nodded.  She told me to go wash up and join me in the kitchen.  I went into the bathroom and found a bar of the best smelling soap I had ever smelled.  I rubbed and rubbed until I had a HUGE pile of bubbles in my hands.  It was a lot different than the white stuff we had at the Allen House that smelled so bad it burned my nose.  This smelled… clean and I loved it!  After a while, she came and told me she thought I was probably clean enough, and we walked into the little kitchen where she had started preparing dinner.  I stood just inside the door and watched.  I wasn’t sure yet if I wanted her to realize I was there.  My survival instincts were very confused by this situation. 

She didn’t seem to change like the adults usually did when Ms. Peacock left.  There were no big kids popping out and staring at me.  It was just her and I and those wonder smells that always seemed to be coming from the kitchen.  She chatted a little bit while she poured things into pots on the stove.  I wasn’t really listening.  I was thinking ahead to what it would be like when “Bud” got home.  Maybe that’s when she would change.  I needed to scope out this house so I knew where the best place was to hide when the time came.  I was suddenly brought back into focus when I heard the lady say, “Would that be ok with you Vicki?”  I wasn’t accustomed to being called Vicki… My mother had always insisted everyone call me Victoria.  I like how Vicki sounded, but I had no idea what the lady had asked me, so I took a chance and nodded, hoping I wasn’t agreeing to something I’d regret.  “Good!  I know it must seem odd to call me Mom, but I’d want you feel like you can whenever you’re ready and for as long as you choose to.  Bud will be thrilled for you to call him Dad too!”  

Mom and Dad?  What in the world was she talking about?  Why would I call them Mom and Dad for the weekend?  Maybe this was going to be one of the longer visits that lasted for a week or even a month.  I had never been anywhere longer than 3 weeks before.  Oh well, at least I got to eat.  I didn’t plan on calling anyone Mom & Dad, but I just nodded again and waited for this “Bud” to get home. 

When 6 o’clock came, Bud walked in the door, carrying a little black bag.  He was dressed in clothes I had only seen strangers wear.  I had never known anyone who wore a suit before.  He wore a little hat too, and when he took it off, he had black hair on the sides, and barely any on top.  He looked at me, and didn’t really smile, but he seemed like he was smiling with his eyes even though he wasn’t with his mouth.  The lady said, “Dad, this is Vicki.  Vicki this is Bud, or Dad, when you’re ready.”

  I just looked at him and said nothing, but he held out his hand and shook my little hand and told me it was nice to meet me.  Then he kissed the lady on the mouth briefly, and said, “What’s for dinner mom?  It sure smells good!”  I don’t think I had ever seen to people act this way before.  They seemed to actually like each other.  They acted like this was normal behavior, even though Ms. Peacock was no where around.  I decided to be sure and watch them closely, but for now… It was time to eat!!  I didn’t know how long I was staying here, so I knew not to pass up a meal or a cookie!!  I had no idea where I was going to put anymore food since I had eaten so many cookies, but I’d worry about that later too!

 

 

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3. Battered, But Not Broken… And still learning

When Ms. Peacock made the announcement that we would be separated if she was able to find us another home to visit, we panicked. That was not an option! We could not be separated. Our mother would never find us if we didn’t stick together. We tried running away from the Allen House, but somehow we were always caught and the punishment was so severe we finally gave up. I became quiet and withdrawn and wouldn’t speak to anyone, not even Ms. Peacock. She tried to explain to me that she was just trying to do what she thought was best for me. She even wrote a letter and put it in my file to read when I got older. I guess she knew my little mind and heart just could not understand why she had betrayed my trust. The letter stated that she felt as long as I stayed with Bobby, neither of us would ever find a home that could keep us. Bobby would always be too busy doing what he thought was protecting me, to ever allow me to get close enough to anyone to form a bond, and as long as he felt his job was to protect me at all costs, he would never give himself the opportunity to live as a 7 year old little boy should live. She said it broke her heart, but she just didn’t know what else to do.

There were several homes that I visited by myself. I wouldn’t speak to anyone. I wouldn’t interact in anyway. I was scared to death without my brother. I was convinced that without him, everyone wanted to hurt me. No matter how nice people were, I refused to even look at them. I was wasting away to a shell of a little girl. The bright blue eyes were now shadowed by dark sunken circles, and even though I was nearly four years old, I only weighed about 35 pounds. Even the big girls at the Allen House no longer bothered me. I wasn’t any fun to pick on because I didn’t try to fight back or even run. I didn’t have the energy to do anything. I’m sure if I had been seen by a child psychiatrist, I would have been diagnosed with severe depression.

Somehow, my frail condition didn’t deter the people who used the foster care system to prey on children. It did however seem to spoil their fun quicker. They seemed to grow bored of a child that had no fight left in them. I finally found myself spending all my time at the Allen House. No one wanted a 4 year old, scrawny little girl that no longer had any light in her blue eyes. I still managed to avoid the guards whenever possible. I had enough fire left in me to refuse to succumb to the abuse they dished out on anyone who wasn’t strong enough to fight for survival. For some reason, I didn’t let go of that last little spark. I refused to completely give up. I knew I was meant for more than I had seen of life so far. There had to be more. I remembered some of the nice people I had met. People I saw on the street that were kind to me. What made them different? If they could be different, maybe I could figure out how to be different too. I had to hold on long enough to figure this out. I had to hold on long enough to find the answer.

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2. Foster Home Lessons

Ms. Peacock was the highlight of my stay at the Allen House.  She was the Case Worker assigned to my brother and I and she worked tirelessly to find us a home.  Every now and then she would come and take both of us out of the dinginess of the massive gray building and out for a sunny ride in her little Volkswagen Beetle.  We LOVED the way that little car sounded, and would imitate the sound of the shifting gears.  We didn’t even care where she was taking us, we were just thrilled to be OUT.  Out in the sunshine.  Out with someone who seemed to actually cared about us.  Someone who smiled when she saw us and opened her arms to hug us tightly every time she was in the same room we were.  This was the closest experience we had with LOVE, and we almost trusted this woman with the long straight hair typical of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Many times she would bring two brown grocery bags with her.  We always knew that meant we got to stay out over night.  The brown bag was our overnight bag.  We got to grab 2 pair of underwear, 2 pair of socks, and a clean shirt in that little brown paper bag because there was a home that wanted to “try us out” for the weekend.  Unfortunately, many of these homes weren’t much better than the Allen House, but at least we got to enjoy the ride to and from with Ms. Peacock.

The first 5 minutes of every visit was the same.  Lots of smiling faces.  We were fawned over like a couple of puppies.  “Look how cute!  Look at those eyes!  Look at those freckles!  Aren’t they sweet!  Aren’t you a big boy holding your sister’s hand like that.”  It was the same every single time.  My brother and I would stand there smiling and acting like we believed every word.  Once Ms. Peacock shook hands and the door closed behind her, we’d listen for the shifting gears of her little Beetle, and then turn and look at the people we were being left with.  We knew it was time to watch for the signs.

Usually the “fosters” that were chatty and smiley in Ms. Peacocks presence, instantly changed.  Sometimes it would take a few minutes or even an hour, but inevitably, the situation would become the same as it was in the last home.  The older kids would come home from wherever they were and start circling their prey.  We would hear the clinking of bottles and cans as the beverages started flowing and the adults paid less and less attention to what was going on with and to their new little charges.

This was our signal to evaluate the situation quickly and prepare our defenses.  If possible, we would claim to be tired and try to find a quiet place to lock ourselves away and become invisible before anyone got any ideas.  If that wasn’t possible, we liked to sit on the stairs going into basements because most people didn’t pay any attention to the basement when they were looking for children.  In Ohio, basements were typical dark, damp and scary, and no child wanted to go there.  My brother and I found those dark, dingy places to be our safe-havens.  On occasion, this would back fire when a member of the party would come downstairs for some reason.  We learned quickly to listen for such intrusions and take the appropriate measures to hide.

I learned that if the drinking went on for more than an hour, Bobby typically grabbed me by the hand without saying a word and we left the house.  The first time he did this was after an event that happened during a particularly rowdy party.  I was sitting on the basement steps waiting for my brother to come back downstairs from going up to the bathroom.  I heard footsteps that I thought were his so I didn’t run and hide.  By the time I realized I wasn’t looking at my brother’s tattered sneakers, it was too late.  What seemed like the largest black man I had ever seen, was standing over me with a wicked smile on his face.  I instinctively tried to get past him and up the stairs.  I had seen that look before.  There was barely room for him on the stairway, and it didn’t cause him much strain at all to block my attempts to get past him.  Before I knew it, I was at the bottom of the stairs and he was grinning at the panic he saw on my face.

True to his hero status, my 7 year old brother came up behind him and grabbed the bottle the guy had sat down next to me so he could have both hands free, and swung with all the strength he could muster.  The bottle didn’t even break when it struck the back of the giant man’s head, but it startled him enough for me to get free and the two of us bolted up the stairs and out of the house.  I don’t remember how we got back to the Allen House, but it wasn’t with our brown paper bags, and it wasn’t in the VW Beetle with Ms. Peacock at our side.  It was months before we got to go on any more get aways from the Allen House.

Once we got off restriction, for our bad behavior, Ms. Peacock once again started her mission to find us a home. Every now and then, we would end up at a Foster Home that would surprise us. The smiling lasted longer. There might even be a real hug or two. The older kids would still show up, but they were nice and actually tried to find ways to entertain us and tell us stories. I found this very confusing. Why were these people so different than the ones we usually stayed with? What made them different?

You would have thought that Bobby and I would do whatever it took to stay with a family that offered this kind of life. The truth is, we didn’t know what to do! We didn’t trust these people. My brother convinced me that they were just pretending to be nice so they could really hurt us later. That our “mother” was going to come and get us soon, but if we weren’t at the Allen House, she wouldn’t be able to find us, and that we would end up alone forever. My brother was the only person I knew would protect me no matter what, so while I longed for that kind of family, I trusted the only trust worthy person I knew, and together we sabotaged any effort that was made to make us a part of any family. We’d break things, we’d run away repeatedly. Bobby would pick fights with the other kids, and I’d lie to the parents and blame the other kids for starting the fights. Eventually, Ms. Peacock would sadly show up at the door with 2 brown paper bags, and we’d head back to the Allen House. She’d lecture us all the way back, but we were happy that we had avoided another attempt to keep us from our “mother.”

The words that snapped us to attention were, “This just isn’t working guys so we’re going to try something different next time. Victoria, you are going to the next home without Robert.”

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1. Allen House Lessons

My life on the streets of Cincinnati was no walk in the park, but life at the Allen House was even worse. Bobby and I were immediately separated and put in separate wings and floors of the expansive building. My constant consumption of beer and vodka had left my little 3 year old body addicted to alcohol. Bobby wasn’t doing any better than I was and after an agonizing week or so we were put in a de-tox facility together. As miserable as I was, I was thrilled to be back with my big brother! For the next few months we were fighting miserable symptoms that go along with the withdrawal from daily alcohol consumption, but we were together.

Once we were able to eat and drink normal food without getting sick, and could sleep through the night without night-sweats and convulsions, we were put back into the general population at the Allen House and the nightmare was on once again. The worst time of the day was shower time. All females were lined up and ushered into the shower room naked, 8 at a time. The mix of ages didn’t matter. The little ones would try desperately to stay together, but there were always times when something would happen and one or two of us little ones would get stuck in a group of the “big girls.” The big girls loved to humiliate the little ones, so we would try to stay together and get done quickly before they realized we were in there with them. If we didn’t accomplish that goal, we would be subjected to physical torture and ridicule for the balance of the 12 minutes we were required to be in the shower room. There were days when worrying about shower time made me so ill, I would succumb to bouts of diarrhea that would leave me with underwear that had to be hidden in the massive pile of laundry in the middle of the holding room leading into the showers. If I got caught, I was forced to wear the dirty pair for a week and the ridicule and torture would be even worse.

Night times were spent in whatever bed could be found empty at lights out. The sheets were usually filthy, and the cots were lumpy, but the thing we really cared about was who the guard for the room was. Each night, the guards rotated, and if you ended up with Wanda as your guard, you were in for a rough night. We came to realize that she had favorites, meaning her favorite kids to torture, so we conspired to always lay with our faces away from the door and the sheets high so she couldn’t tell who was in the room she was claiming. We made it a point to be in this position at least 5 minutes before lights out. This gave us a better shot at avoiding her, but it only worked if we all did it.

Wanda carried a gun of some sort in a pocket under her apron. I didn’t know anything about guns, but I knew what she told me. She told me she could pull that little trigger and the last thing I would remember was her face smiling at me as I died. I also knew that it hurt a lot worse to get hit with a gun than a hand or even a stick, so I avoided Wanda at all costs!

The only thing worse than Wanda was when there was a shortage of female guards and the male guards filled in. The “big girls” loved it when this happened because they knew they could get special favors from the guards by giving special favors to the guards. Special favors didn’t always involve their own bodies, many times it involved playing “games” with the younger girls. They tried to convince us that these games were normal, and fun, and that agreeing to play them would save us from torture time in the showers. Some of the little girls gave in and seemed willing to play the games. I decided to find a way to avoid the games and still win favor in the eyes of the big girls. This was my first real exposure to the art of taking control of my own plight. It was the first time I noticed there were DETOUR signs on the road I had been put on. Eventually I’d come to realize there were also EXIT signs that would allow me access to a completely different path.

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The Early Years…

I was born Victoria Ann Rederick. Such a regal, royal sounding name for such a tiny baby girl with big blue eyes, born into a life of poverty, sadness, neglect and horrible abuse.

My mother was an 18 year old drug-addicted alcoholic with a 3 year old little boy. She came from a family that wasn’t in much better condition that she was. By the time I was two, a 3rd child had been born into this life and we were living on the streets of Cincinnati, Ohio. We would take shelter wherever we could, and mostly lived on bowls of creme of wheat and drank whatever was available to us. Beer, vodka, milk, it all went into the baby bottles and sippy cups. A drink was a drink after all!

I suppose our mother loved us, but she loved getting high and staying drunk even more. She thought nothing of bartering her children to feed her habit. My 7 year old brother, Bobby, was my only protector and I can remember him grabbing me by the hand and dragging me away from dark and dirty basement apartments full of dark-hearted and dirty, drug-crazed men who thought nothing of abusing a 3 year old little girl and her brother in ways not even animals would partake in.

I don’t know if she voluntarily gave us up, or if the state stepped in and removed us from her care, but I’ll never forget the day we were deposited at the “Allen House.” This was a home for high-risk children who needed emergency temporary care. One would think I would have been relieved to finally be out of that life, but I cried for days, wanting the only mother I had ever known to come and get me and take me home to the streets of the inner city. It was all I knew, and it was where I felt safest. I had been separated from the protection of my big brother, I would no longer be able to care for my baby sister, and the thought of life without my so-called mother terrified me. I had no idea what life would bring me now, and the fear of the unknown was way worse than any reality could have ever been, or so my little 3 year old mind thought. Little did I know what was coming up in the next year or so. My tragic little life was about to take a turn for the worse as my 7 year old body guard couldn’t always be there to protect me.

The Allen House was immense, housing hundreds of kids from 2-18 years of age and all walks of life. Few of the people put in place to “care” for us, knew the meaning of the word, and the horrors of that place were kept secret until the late 70’s when it was finally shut down permanently after allegations of sexual abuse, neglect, and even negligent homicide came to light. I shudder to think of the things that were endured by some of those children whom I share a history with. We were guarded like prisoners by gun carrying custodians. The girls just under 18 years of age, who had been thrown back to the home after being arrested for prostitution, shop-lifting, and dealing drugs, showered right along side the 3 & 4 year old little ones. There was no regard for our safety or well being, only that we were accounted for and that we received the basic necessities to sustain life.

At this early age, I was learning quickly that to survive, I needed to become invisible. I needed to only speak when spoken to because if I was heard, I would be seen, and if I were seen, I would be watched, and if I were watched, I would be a target of abuse, and that abuse became unbearable. I decided I would teach myself how to survive since there was no longer anyone there to teach or protect me.

My lessons began before my 4th birthday…

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Welcome!!

Hello There! 

I have never thought too much about sharing my story.  I never thought of it as being particularly special.  My story has a very painful beginning, and I figured the world had enough pain in it without me adding my chapter.  Recently, however, I was asked to share my story at AmeriPlanUSA’s national convention.  I have been working with this company since 2005 and have enjoyed climbing through the ranks and achieving pretty nice success as a National Sales Director with a fantastic team.  When the corporate office asked me to do this, I don’t think they had any idea what they were asking!  They thought it would be a story of rags to riches, the reward of hard work, of triumph over tragedy, of perseverance and faith and ultimately victory, and they were right, BUT my journey was one that took twists and turns that most do not. 

After sharing a 12 minute version of my story (that was probably closer to 25minutes), I was asked by dozens of people to share more. 

What they didn’t understand is that the few minutes I had spent on that stage telling my story nearly wrecked me.  I have lived with this story for 40+ years, only telling bits and pieces of it to those closest to me.  I had never disclosed such details to a group of people I now had to pass in the halls of the convention center and see the shock and pity on their faces as their eyes met mine.  I had shielded myself with a bright smile and a warm embrace to whomever I felt needed it, but had never taken down the veil that shrouded my inner pain.  Just sharing the 12-15 minute version resulted in a sleepless night full of nightmares and cold-sweats.  Did I really want to risk breaking down that protection that I had worked so hard to maintain.  It’s so hard to smile when feeling that everyone knows even a few of the details that have made me who I am today. 

Convinced that my story could be a catalyst to bring others from the world of barely surviving to truly thriving is the only thing that has convinced me to share.  There IS a road less traveled that is worth the effort.  A road that leads to freedom.  Freedom to choose a different path in life than the one you were originally placed on.  Freedom to become the person YOU decide to be.  Freedom to live the life you DECIDE to live.  Freedom to be LOVED the way you deserve to be loved.  The Freedom to be truly FREE! 

This is the story of my path to that freedom!  From surviving to thriving!! 

I pray that you will something in my story that will guide you in your struggle or as you help someone you love who is struggling as I did to find their way in this world.  The path is not an easy one sometimes, but if a scrawny little blonde haired, bright-blue eyed girl who was abandoned by all who should have fought for her survival can find her way to success and happiness in this world, anyone can.  My path was guided by people placed in my life to teach me lessons, and I was fortunate enough to learn those lessons.  Now I feel it’s my job to pay it forward by sharing the lessons learned in my journey through a life originally destined to be a disastrous and dead-end life, to one of endless possibilities! 

My goal is to show as many people as I can, the DETOUR that is available to anyone who is willing to take it!  You may have been put on one road in life, but that’s what exit-ramps and detours are for!  If a 3 year old kid can have the insight to know this, SO CAN YOU!!  Let’s go off-roading for a bit!  I promise it will be worth it! 

Vicki

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