From Foster Child to Adoptive Parent – The Story of Richard Oden
Growing up in the Alabama foster care system, Senior Airman Richard Oden says he knew the odds were stacked against him — but he was determined to fight for his future. As he moved through nine different foster homes, Oden held onto his faith and the hope that he would someday overcome the odds and help others do the same. As an adult, Oden has continued to fight for the future, both as a veteran of the U.S. military and as a foster and adoptive parent. Now, he is sharing his story of faith and resilience in his new book, My Full Life Circle Squared. Through his book, Oden is continuing to fight for hope and encouraging others to do the same. Below, read more about Oden’s story and the message he hopes to give to others in his shoes.
Fighting for a Future in the Foster SystemAt the age of 3, Oden was placed in a foster home with his younger sister — the first of nine the children would live in over the next 10 years. Like many children who are “bounced around” many different homes, Oden says he had some baggage. He was angry, but as he got older, he says he realized he needed to hold onto the positive things, rather than letting the negative things bring him down. Now, when he looks back on his foster care experience, Oden says he feels blessed, something he credits in part to his positive attitude and his determination to rise above his circumstances. “I would overhear people talking about my story, and they’d say, ‘These kids don’t have a chance. They won’t amount to anything,’” Oden says. “And I used that as positive motivation. I would say, ‘I will show you that this kid, with cards stacked against him beyond his control, will be a productive member of society and much more.’ “I was determined that I would be successful,” he adds. “And I think my stint in foster care… that instilled in me the drive and motivation I needed to do exactly that.”
Beating the Odds and Becoming an OdenOden continued to battle the statistics and stereotypes surrounding foster children until he and his sister were placed in a home in Huntsville, Alabama, with foster parents who were dedicated members of their church. It was there that Oden met his childhood best friend, Wes. The boys grew close, developing a deep bond and spending most of their time together, until Oden was forced to move again to a new foster home in a different part of the state. Despite the distance, Oden kept in touch with Wes, sending him letters that Wes would share with his parents, Gerry and Debbie Oden. “They said these letters just broke their hearts, just crushed them,” Oden says. Gerry and Debbie decided they had to do something. They contacted Oden’s foster care agency and told them they wanted to adopt Oden and his sister, who had long been awaiting adoption after their biological parents’ rights were terminated early during their time in foster care. “They didn’t take no for an answer. They were resilient,” Oden says. “They knew that TPR had already occurred on us, and they knew nobody else was willing to step up to the plate to adopt us, and so they did.” Oden’s adoption was finalized the same month he turned 13, but his fight wasn’t over. Even then, he knew he wanted to pay it forward and give hope and a future to other children in the foster system.
Coming Full Circle: Becoming Foster ParentsOden’s wife, Brittany, knew from the beginning that Oden felt passionately about becoming a foster parent. In fact, she had known almost as long as Oden had — it was during his time in foster care that the two met as middle school sweethearts. After getting married, the Odens planned to have biological children and then add to their family through the foster care system. But they say God had other plans. “We had miscarriages three different times,” Oden says. “As the old saying goes, we as humans make plans, and God sits back and waits for us to stop and trust in him, and then he’ll reveal his plan for you.” Oden says the couple was devastated, but they decided to move forward with their plan to become foster parents. In 2013, they got the phone call for their first placement: siblings named Gabbi, now 4, and Kentrell, 5, who were later joined in the Odens’ home by their older brother, Elijah, 7. “One night after we had had them for a while, I was lying in bed and I said to Brittany, ‘You know, if any of those pregnancies had worked out, and [the agency] had called and said they needed us to take two kids, would we have taken them?’” Oden says. “And we both agreed the answer would be no, not with a newborn. God had a plan there. We are 110 percent convinced that the Lord’s plan worked out in our story.”
A Growing Family and Deployment to AfghanistanIt was not long after they received their foster care placement that the Odens say God revealed his plan once again. After losing their three previous pregnancies and adding three new foster children to their home, the Odens finally got the miracle they had been planning from the beginning — they found out Brittany was pregnant. “The order in which things happened was in the complete opposite order of what we had planned,” Oden says. “We had planned to have biological children and foster and adopt later… but it’s on God’s timing, not ours. And we are very happy with the way it worked out.” With the foster children and pregnancy the Odens had always wanted, things were beginning to fall into place. But life was about to take another unexpected turn. “We got Gabbi and Kentrell and a little later got Elijah, found out we were pregnant, and then got the news, ‘Oh, by the way, you’re getting deployed to Afghanistan,’” Oden says. He deployed to Afghanistan on Easter Sunday in April 2014, leaving Brittany to manage their three new foster children and a baby on the way. “There’s a little guilt there as far as being foster parents and getting deployed,” Oden says. “One of the things foster children need is stability, not only in a home, but in family members…they come into our home and get attached to me, and then I’m leaving for six months.” Oden says it was difficult to be away from home, not only because of the separation issues it caused with his foster children, but also because he was deployed during most of Brittany’s pregnancy and the birth of his daughter, Annabelle. She was born September 10, 2014 — September 11 on Afghanistan time, in the combat zone where Oden was stationed. He watched his daughter’s birth on Facetime amidst the threat of indirect fire, which would have sent him taking cover. Looking back, Oden says he is bewildered by the timing of the family’s foster care placement, pregnancy and deployment. With so much for Brittany to focus on at home, Oden says she deserves the same recognition he has earned as a veteran. “She had three foster kids. She was pregnant,” Oden says. “I was away and she had to hold down the home fort by herself. I really think Brittany earned that [recognition]. I really think there are other military families out there who definitely have earned that as well… They serve this country just like we do.”
Completing the Circle and Sharing His StoryIt was during Oden’s time in Afghanistan that he wrote most of My Full Life Circle Squared, which he describes as a military story as well as a foster care-adoption story — two themes that have more in common than one might think. “Foster care and military families have a lot in common,” Oden says. “On the foster care side of things, we put our hearts out there knowing what could happen. We could fall in love with our children and they leave us. And yet, we still do it. Same with the military — we know what could happen. We sign up to serve our country. We could get deployed, and we may not come home. And yet we still go.” When Elijah, Kentrell and Gabbi were placed with Oden, he says he knew they would potentially break his heart. The state’s plan was still to reunite them with their birth family, and Oden knew from experience that it was likely that most of their foster children would only be with them for a short time. The chances of the couple adopting their very first foster placement were slim, but it was clear from the beginning that the children were meant to be a part of their family. “The first night we got Gabbi and Kentrell, I told my wife I wanted to adopt them,” Oden says. The Odens waited three years for the courts to grant termination of parental rights, and close to another year before they had an adoption date. During that time, the agency searched for the children’s blood relatives, hoping to find a willing and able kinship placement to take them — a common outcome for children in the foster system. Through it all, Oden continued to bond with his children, holding onto his faith that they would beat the odds and get to stay with his family. And finally, on January 29, 2016, after 1,008 days in foster care, he got his wish. The adoption completed their family and brought Oden’s story full circle, from foster child and adoptee to foster-adoptive parent. “The fact that we got to adopt the first placement that we got is like winning the lottery,” Oden says. “It just does not happen. We were very blessed.” Now, Oden says he looks forward to instilling in his children the same sense of determination that he relied on during his time in foster care. He also hopes his message will reach beyond his own family through his book. “I looked back on my life and saw the way God had blessed me, and I saw the providence of his will in my life,” Oden says. “I thought I would be doing a disservice to God if I didn’t share with other people what he did in my life.” In his book, Oden shares his story openly, writing honestly about his past, his experiences as a foster parent, life in Afghanistan, and his belief that regardless of a person’s history, with God, they have a fighting chance at a future and a hope. He says his message to other children in the foster care system is that no matter where they came from, they don’t have to let that define their future. His book also includes a message for prospective foster parents. Oden says he often hears would-be foster parents tell him that they don’t want to get their hearts broken — that they are afraid to get attached to a child who will likely be returned to his or her biological parents “If you can take a kid who doesn’t have much of a chance and make an impact like my nine different homes did on me, I think you will see that it was worth it,” Oden says. “If you could open your heart, give these kids a home and show them who God is, then no matter what may happen, you know that these kids knew, at least during the time they were in your care, who God is and what love is. And that’s worth it.”
***My Full Life Circle Squared will be released this Veterans Day, November 11, during National Adoption Month. It will be available for purchase through Barnes and Noble and Amazon, and is also available for pre-order at www.myfulllifecirclesquared.com. A portion of all proceeds from the book will be donated to foster care and military charities. For those interested in learning more about the Odens’ story, you can contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org.