Having spent her whole life in a Colombian orphanage and foster homes, 15-year-old Vanessa now wants a family more than anything. She and her 12-year-old sister, Bianca, have limited time left to be adopted.
Vanessa doesn’t remember being taken from her mom. She was 17 months old and too little to develop memories. She’s not even sure why child protective services took her, exactly. No one has ever told her, and her mom has only tried to contact her once — late last year, just a bit before her 15th birthday. Vanessa didn’t end up seeing her.
Vanessa keeps tugging at the hem of her T-shirt, pulling the embroidered, floral fabric layers down flat. She tinkers with the ring on her right middle finger, spinning it around nervously. She smooths her black skinny jeans that tuck into a pair of shiny, black lace-up boots. She pulls her long, brown hair behind her shoulders.
She’s never really talked about what it means to grow up in Colombia’s child welfare system — what it means to have bounced from Colombian orphanage to foster home to group home — and to watch her five siblings do the same for their entire lives. No one has ever really asked.
But she’s also calm and determined. She squares her shoulders and tightens her jaw. Her bright green eyes are wide and full of fire.
I explain to her twice how we will share her story: to help look for a family for her and her little sister, Bianca, and also to raise awareness and raise money to help kids like her. She smiles and nods her approval.
Vanessa and Bianca are not what most people picture when they hear the word “orphans.” They aren’t dirty and disheveled from life on the streets. They aren’t babies or little kids. Bianca, the younger sister, just turned 12. And their mom is definitely still alive — as is their dad — even though they haven’t seen either one in years.
But both girls are hoping to finally have the one thing they’ve hoped for their entire lives: a family. They’ve never known what it means to have present, devoted parents, adults who: love them unconditionally; listen when they are sad and when they are happy; share in their joy and pain; show up to basketball games; encourage them to stay in school and chase their dreams; and remind them that they don’t have to do life alone.
“My life was better than a lot of kids,” Vanessa explains, sitting on a rock wall at a tranquil botanical garden in Medellin.
She was born in Medellin, best known as the mountainous yet urban hometown of violent drug lord Pablo Escobar. When Vanessa was born, Escobar was already dead, but his violent reign had left the city with deep scars. For swaths of the population, poverty, violence and drugs remained rampant. Unemployment and food costs soared. In parts of the city, kids were and are commonly removed from their homes because of violence and abuse. Or severe neglect. Some kids are just found wandering the streets and no one comes to take them home. The Colombian orphanage where Vanessa lived wasn’t a terrible place, and they always got to go to school. It was filled with kids like her — kids separated from their families for abuse, neglect, poverty and other factors.
“I always had what I needed. I was never hungry. I was never on the streets. I’m very grateful for everything I have. But I never had my mom.”
Vanessa pauses but doesn’t blink. Her eyes fill with tears that threaten to pour down her cheeks. Even now, she feels like her life was easier than many of the kids around her. But the loss of her family remains a heavy, painful burden.
“When I first came into care, [my mom] would visit, but then she just stopped coming. Sometimes I lived with my siblings and sometimes we were apart and I didn’t know where they were or when I would see them. I didn’t meet Bianca until she was 2 and I was 4.”
Vanessa has six siblings, including Bianca. They also live with their younger brother and older sister in a foster home with a couple and the couple’s two biological children. The three girls share a small room, and Vanessa and Bianca attend school together.
Vanessa’s 19-year-old sister, Daisy, has a child of her own now. “I haven’t seen her in a long time,” Vanessa says. “I don’t know when I will again.”
Vanessa says her little brother Sebastian, who is 14, doesn’t want to be adopted. He is close with their foster family — he was raised by his foster parents since he was a baby — and they treat him the same as their biological kids. He wants to stay in Colombia, with the only family he’s ever known. Another sister, Luisa, is almost 18 and soon to be on her own.
In Colombia, older kids choose whether or not they want to be adopted; they must consent before the process can begin. Vanessa says Daisy and Luisa chose not to be adopted. They aged out of the child welfare system waiting and hoping for their mom to return.
But even though the thought of leaving her siblings behind breaks Vanessa’s heart, Vanessa and Bianca are determined to join their own family before Vanessa’s 16th birthday — before she loses her chance forever.
“For a long time, I was closed to adoption,” Vanessa says. “I wondered if my mom would come back. And one day I realized, no, she wasn’t going to come back. And my siblings were all going to get older and go their separate ways in their different lives, and I’d be all alone. That was when I realized I wanted a family. The opportunity for someone to adopt me makes me so happy.”
Vanessa and Bianca are like a lot of 12 and 15-year-old girls. They like clothes and have unique senses of style. Bianca is more feminine in an oversized rosebud hairband, a pink and polka dot ‘50s dress with a jean jacket and immaculately white Chuck Taylors. Vanessa’s style is a little edgier in her black combat-style boots and lace T-shirt. They like music and singing, karate and just hanging out together.
They are not quite kids but not yet old enough to be described as adults, either. They are still in middle school — Bianca in 6th grade and Vanessa in 8th. Bianca prefers Spanish and Vanessa likes English. Bianca likes basketball, dance and basically all sports. She’s bubbly, outgoing and engages quickly in light-hearted conversation.
“My favorite thing about Bianca is that she talks a lot,” Vanessa says, half teasing. “Sometimes I say ‘stay quiet for a second,’ but then I miss her.” Vanessa laughs and Bianca feigns blushing. Vanessa’s smile softens and she looks at Bianca with a mix of pride and adoration. “I love the way she can express herself.”
Vanessa smiles quick but compared to Bianca, she speaks softly and politely, considering her words.
Vanessa says her greatest hope in life is just to be successful. She hopes to go into medicine or forensic science someday. Her general interest in helping others or helping to solve crime is likely a reflection of her environment — of growing up in a place where death and violence were commonplace.
But both Bianca and Vanessa are sweet and engaging. They share a tight bond.
“We do everything together,” Bianca says. “We hope we will find a family together.”
“We didn’t get that from our mom. Our foster mom tried to give us that love,” Vanessa says, looking to Bianca as if she’s being careful not to speak for both of them. “But we hope we can be adopted by a family that is happy and understanding. We hope they will support us.”
It’s easy to picture both girls in a family, and to picture them together in the U.S., learning to cook American foods and listening to music with their parents. They are Catholic, and hope their family will be Catholic, too, or support them in their religion. It’s easy to picture them making friends at their new schools and trying out for sports teams or choir. It’s easy to picture them having all the first experiences they haven’t had the opportunity to have — like trips to the beach or first time back-to-school shopping. Or, finally just knowing they won’t “age out” of a family or a Colombian orphanage — because their family will be right beside them.
For more information about adopting Vanessa and Bianca, email Holt’s Colombia adoption director, Kim Uribe-Dowd, at email@example.com.