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  • Gabriel Gallego and Phoenix Medley

A Hug Can Make All the Difference

Updated: Apr 6, 2021

I’m Phoenix, age 15. On September 23rd Gabriel and I listened to “Anything But Normal” a virtual roundtable hosted by You Gotta Believe. Two former foster-youth, Dequonna Rasheeda Mills and Rico Vasquez, shared difficult, personal stories from their experiences in foster care.

I speak for Gabriel, too, when I tell you that they opened our eyes to the underlying dark side of adoption and foster care. 

Two people were adopted into my family, my Uncle Joe, who is really my cousin but wanted to be an uncle to someone. Uncle Joe was taken in by my grandmother when my mother’s sister died. My sister was adopted by us when she was three weeks old. These two people are part of our family as much as I am biologically. Hearing Dequonna and Rico makes me wonder what it would be like for Uncle Joe and my sister if they were not adopted?

Everyone should have the chance at a loving family like my sister and Uncle Joe.

I’m Gabriel, age 18. We all “age out” of childhood with memories that remind us of where we have come from, stories and experiences that have shaped us into who we are today. Many would agree that family is one of the most shaping factors of our adult selves, but what about those who were deprived of the experience of a stable home base? For youth who do not find a family until their teenage years, or end up aging out of foster care without a parent, uncertainty encompasses daily life. 

You Gotta Believe, Inc (YGB) is a nonprofit organization focused on finding permanent families for older youth, ensuring they have a life-long support system. In 2018, only five percent of teenagers from age 15 to 18 were adopted. It is clear that we have an issue in our adoption and foster care system.

Both speakers connected with YGB years ago and expressed their sincere appreciation.

Dequonna introduces herself as a foster-care survivor, which is extremely important for people to understand. Navigating a deeply flawed system as a child means encountering struggles like physical and verbal abuse, constant instability, and the absence of genuine love and care. Dequonna feels that the system prepared her to be institutionalized from a young age by labeling her as “the bad kid.” The stigma that comes with that label makes it less likely to be adopted.

This reminds me of my school experiences, and how the kids that were seen to be troublemakers were treated very differently by teachers. Often, they were punished for their actions instead of asking what was wrong. How can we expect children with emotional problems, which often manifest as behavioral problems, to heal through a system of punishment? I wish there could be a more holistic approach to helping youth sort through our troubles.

Now a single mother, Dequonna still longs for parental support.

What advice does Dequonna have for those who consider becoming foster parents?

“Act like you just walked out the delivery room...this is a life event… Fostering a child is a commitment, and some kids are going to act out. This doesn’t make them bad kids; they’re just going to need a little more attention. Greet them with … open arms. You’ll be surprised what a hug can change and what an ‘I love you’ can change.”

Rico Vasquez entered the foster care system at age six and, through struggle and luck, came out with a loving adoptive mother. He was placed five separate times, all of which were difficult. At 14, he was in trouble with the law. At 15, he connected with a social worker who looked out for him and went the extra mile to get him what he needed. At 17, Rico moved in with his social worker. Though he was met with warmth, he was slow to trust and become part of the family. At 19, he finally opened himself up and was enveloped in a family of love and support, a family he relies on to this day. Rico explains:

“From day one, they didn’t treat me like a stranger…and that’s what really allowed me to let down the guard because they were very consistent; they were genuine…”

Rico now advocates for youth in the foster care system. He works with YGB to provide the services—especially the families—that every youth needs to live a comfortable and fulfilled life.

What does Rico say to those who believe that teens are too old to have a family?

“The teenage years are when you need the most support. Teenagers are finding themselves and choosing which path they want to follow. The support of a family can completely change the direction a teenager may take their life.”

Before Rico was adopted, he says he was always in survival mode which meant that his decisions could lead to negative consequences. I remember reading an article about how living in survival mode can lead to the denial of emotions which, over-time, pile up deep in our minds. The weight of bottled-up emotions can have a wide range of effects on the body, soul, and mind.

Rico speaks of the impact his adoptive mother had on his life outlook. He says it took time to absorb her knowledge. Now as an adult her teachings impact him in a positive way. He stresses how important it is to simply have someone to speak with, who knows and understands you as a person. Those who raise and guide us through this complex journey of life have such a deep effect on how we view the world around us.

As Rico says, “...being in a family is part of being a person.”

Youth with no stable home, and no consistent person to guide them through all the complexities of growing up are placed in an extremely difficult position that society must be open to understanding.

You Gotta Believe connects youth and young adults with families, provides training and licensing to parents, and supports families long-term.

There are lots of ways you can help YGB make family the number one priority for every youth in foster care.

To explore possibilities and learn more about what YGB is doing visit

To hear the “Anything But Normal” roundtable visit

Don’t miss YGB’s next virtual event: Tuesday, Nov 17, 7 pm. 


Gabriel Gallego, age 18, and Phoenix Medley, age 15, began volunteering at SEED Impact in 2020. As diverse nonprofit leaders (SEED clients) reflect on their vision, obstacles, progression, and outcomes, Gabe and Phoenix reflect on the deeply profound intentions of those working in the nonprofit sector, and share their views on important social causes of our time.

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