There were only a few times a week she felt like she could be free from the responsibility — when she and her siblings were at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Cleveland.
“It’s where I didn’t have to take care of them,” Maria said. “I could be a kid for part of the day, and vent.”
Now, Maria, who just turned 18, no longer has to play the role of mother to her younger siblings. She, her 14-year-old brother, Rickey and her 9-year-old sister, Angel are home to stay with their adopted mother, Jennifer Burke, whom they met at the Boys & Girls Club. The three are all still in school.
Jennifer, who is 33 and single, has been working with the Boys & Girls Club for 12 1/2 years. She is currently director of the James H. Tucker unit in Cleveland. When she first met the children she would eventually adopt as her own, she was working at the B.G. Powers unit.
She and the children are now known as the Burke family. Jennifer finalized her adoption of Maria, Rickey and Angel this past March, and they opted to change their last names.
After their mother died, their father became a drug addict, was verbally and physically abusive and had also been neglecting them, Maria said.
Last December, their father overdosed on drugs and ended up in the hospital. They were then put into the foster care system. Fortunately, they were able to be placed with someone they already knew — Burke.
While the transition was made easier by the fact everyone knew each other, they still had to get used to living together. The children still carried their past experiences with them, and they had to learn how to get used to living in a safe home.
“It was easier than most foster care situations, but it was an adjustment,” Jennifer said.
Maria said she had a hard time learning to not always take charge of her younger siblings. She said Jennifer sometimes scolded Maria for trying to discipline Angel when she got out of line. She wasn’t the mother anymore.
“I’ve always taken care of them because of all the things we went through,” Maria said. “When we moved in, I had to learn to be more of a teen — to be myself — instead of a parent.”
The children had also resigned themselves to the fact that they did not have much when they were living with their dad. They were not used to being able to walk into a kitchen and find food in the cupboard. Maria said they would sometimes even stockpile their food when they first began living with Jennifer.
“We didn’t have food in our home,” Maria said. “When we first moved in, we would hide food in our rooms. We didn’t get that there would be more later.”
Rickey said another thing that complicated the situation was that he did not know what was going on at the time. He said he was in denial of their dad’s abuse of him and his sisters, and he didn’t see why they had to leave. In hindsight, Rickey said he didn’t want to believe it was true. Their father was the only one he had known.
“When she [Jennifer] took us in, I still loved my dad,” Rickey said. “I didn’t know what was going on and that what our dad did was bad. Later, I started to know that what my dad did to us was true.”
Making the decision to suddenly become a single mother of three adopted children after having never been married or having children of her own took a lot of soul searching, Jennifer said. She prayed about whether or not she should become a mother. After all, it was going to be a drastic change. But she knew the children needed someone to help them, and she said God told her she should be the one to take them into her home.
“Part of it was knowing all they had to go through,” Jennifer said. “It was something that God showed me — that they should be a part of my family.”
While she did know the three children before they came to her home as part of the foster care system, she had to adjust to the new responsibility of caring for them even when she was not at work. That meant investing time and other resources in them in ways she had not before.
“I think a lot of people think it was easy. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Jennifer said. “But it’s worth it.”
Now, the Burkes are learning how to be a family together. Maria, Rickey and Angel have their bad memories of abuse and neglect, but they also have the assurance that they will not have to deal with that as long as they are together as a family.
“It’s awesome,” Rickey said. “I love my mom.”
The three siblings also have a 10-year-old sister named Amy who found a new beginning of her own when she was adopted by another family in Cleveland.
“She’s in an awesome family,” Jennifer said. “We still see her all the time.”
Maria, now a senior at Cleveland High School, has set her sights on being the first person in her biological family to graduate from high school. She said her family history included people dealing with issues like drug abuse and teen pregnancy, making graduating a goal that nobody who came before her ever met. She’s determined to break that family tradition.
“My dad used to say that I couldn’t do it,” Maria said. “But I will. I’m planning on it.”
She is not just planning to earn a high school diploma; she has a couple of college degrees in her sights as well. She wants to attend Cleveland State Community College for two years to earn an associate’s degree in teaching before enrolling at Lee University to earn a bachelor’s degree in psychology. Her eventual plan is to become a guidance counselor so she can help young people achieve their own goals.
Rickey, a freshman at the same school, is not far behind her in planning for his own future. He said he wants to attend Lee University too. He also said he will pray about whether or not to do things like join the Marines or become a missionary. He said he wants to learn God’s thoughts on the matter first, whatever he does. He added he feels there are not many “people who listen to God.”
Angel, a third-grader at Mayfield Elementary School, also has a list of goals. However, hers are more in line with her third-grade view on life. She said she plans to meet her goals by going to college like Maria and Rickey.
“I want to be rich, have a pretty home and have a cool phone,” Angel said. “I’m definitely going to college.”
The children said their time at the Boys & Girls Clubs cemented their desire to set big goals for themselves. But, of course, a bigger impact was getting to meet the woman who would eventually become their adoptive mother. Jennifer said she would not know them otherwise.
“It’s like a home away from home,” Rickey said. “I just wouldn’t be who I am without it.”
The club is where Rickey also met Rodney Gipson, a Cleveland High School teacher who also volunteers at the club. He refers to Gipson as his “father figure” and said he is grateful for the words of encouragement and advice he gives — the sort he never received from his own biological father.
“He’s awesome,” Rickey said. “He tells me things a dad would tell a son.”
As the one who often had to make sure the siblings had food to eat, Maria pointed out that it was always a relief to be able to eat the snacks and meals given to kids at the Boys & Girls Clubs.
The Burkes stay busy nowadays. In addition to their time spent in school and at the Boys & Girls Clubs, they all juggle extracurricular activities as well. Maria is on her school’s yearbook staff, Rickey recently joined his school’s football team, and Angel just began playing soccer.
The family’s youngest member thinks they have never been richer. They have a new home and a new adopted mother.
“She’s rich,” Angel said, pointing to Jennifer and making sure a detail about her adopted mother was not forgotten.
Jennifer laughed and dismissed her comment, adding that she wasn’t what most people would call a rich woman.
“You are,” said Angel. “You just don’t realize it. We got a beautiful home with you now.”