“It feels good. I’m proud of myself for what I’m doing. I always think, ‘Wow, I’m so lucky to have a family, my mom and my sister, and to be able to do this.’ If I wasn’t doing this, I don’t know what I would be doing.” Tammy says. And it was Heather’s way of getting a grip on her own past, of conducting her own therapy. So she began typing her thoughts up. They took form in such titles as, “Why Do I Have to Move Again?,” “All Dressed Up and No Place to Call Home” (about the longing and fear kids have when they’re waiting to be adopted) and “Why Do I Have to Take Medication?” “I wanted to give the foster kids something they didn’t have,” Heather says. As she wrote, she and Tammy would print the stories out and read them together, make corrections and changes. Eventually they printed the stories out on colored paper and folded the pages in half to make booklets of eight, 12 and 16 pages. She wrote eight short books between fifth grade and ninth grade. And like any obsessed writer, she returned to them again and again to revise, to tinker, to make the language more mature, to correct grammar. “Sometimes I would think back and think maybe I need to add something, or something needs to be done with this story,” she says. “Mostly it’s just been … each year I learn something new in English or writing and I would look back.” The Wilders gave copies of the books to social workers and caseworkers in town, who passed them to kids across the city. One request came in from as far away as Virginia, from a little girl who later wrote and told Heather she was her hero. Heather’s altruism had opened a door for her, a door out of the past, out of a world where many thought there was little she could do. The books had fueled it. The books were “just therapy at first. While I was still writing and still thinking about foster care and my life, I started thinking about the different kinds of things the foster kids didn’t have. I felt I was lucky enough to have these things, so I should do something about it.” But the books were just the start. With a close friend she made through foster care, she began a Christmas toy drive — at the age of 9. They wanted to make sure “the other kids at least get something for Christmas and to feel loved and know somebody cares about them.” The first year, they delivered 200 toys. Then 750. The most successful year they collected more than 1,600. To date, they’ve collected more than 8,000 toys. “If she’s mindful she’s not a foster child anymore, she’s empowering herself. … (She understands) she’s not the one who’s going to be stuck having to go back to group homes,” says Tammy. “It feels good. I’m proud of myself for what I’m doing,” Heather adds. “I always think, ‘Wow, I’m so lucky to have a family, my mom and my sister, and to be able to do this.’ If I wasn’t doing this, I don’t know what I would be doing.”
Work in progress But as polished as she is, as stable and loving as her home is, she’s still healing. While her reading proficiency is at grade level, she’s struggling with reading comprehension. Her math scores are still at a fifth or sixth grade level. Her emotional development is at the same level. Girls her age are dating their classmates; Heather is still playing with dollhouses and entertaining crushes on pop stars. (Ten years from now, she says with sweet sincerity, she wants to have a horse farm and marry Nick Jonas.)
“When she’s on that stage, you’d think she’s 20, 25,” Tammy observes. “When she’s home, she fighting with Lexie (her adopted younger sister) over who gets the three-foot Barbie doll house.” And underneath her very sunny demeanor still lurks the occasional wild child. Tammy notes that Heather has kicked her, bit her, smacked her in the face and left her with many bruises. I look to Heather to see her confirm this. She looks neither shocked nor embarrassed. She keeps an even, matter-of-fact expression on her face. It is what it is. It underscores an important fact about Heather. She’s still a kid. She turns 18 next month and while she still has a year left in high school, Tammy suspects Heather is not ready to be on her own. Even simple hygiene is still an issue — she often won’t brush her teeth, or will go a week without taking a shower. “I’m not ready,” Heather agrees. But she’s also very excited about the prospect of going off to an equestrian college in California. Tammy knows how anxious Heather is to move on, but “she’s also going to get eaten alive at this point.”
The continuing journey
“I hope maybe you can find some time to be a lucky bamboo plant for a child. You do not have to be green and tall. But you do have to have strong roots, need a little bit of sunshine in your life and have a thirst to help others. Because this is what a foster child needs. Strength, sunshine and guidance.” — All Dressed Up and No Place to Call Home
Heather’s unique journey continues. She has less than a year to pass proficiency tests in science (where she’s not too far off the pace) and math (where she lags considerably). Without those, she can’t graduate from high school. She’s been taking extra tutoring. At the same time, in June she received the Congressional Gold Medal for Youth for Service. But she’s got a head start on other foster kids: She has a home. That’s the first step — one that all foster kids deserve, Tammy says. “The community needs to step up too, open their homes. Where are all the citizens saying, ‘I’ll open my home’?” Tammy worries that some foster homes are overburdened. She calls them foster farms, which end up with five or six kids. “Heather’s a huge handful. I couldn’t have moved her in any type of forward direction if I had three or four like her. All I’m doing (then) is housing them. I’m not helping them develop their future. You’re not empowering six kids at a time when they demand 500 percent of your attention.” Tammy is trying to encourage Heather to stay close to home over the next few years, maybe take some classes at CSN to help her ease her way into adulthood. “Am I pushing her out the door at 18? No. But there’s not a whole lot you can do.” Heather took three special ed classes last semester and three regular classes. She aced them all. For her perfect grades, her mom let Heather get her ears pierced.
Learn how groups like Boys Town help foster kids on “KNPR’s State of Nevada” at www.desertcompanion.com/hearmore d e s e rt c o m pa n i o n . c o m 57
Your guide to living in Southern Nevada.