In the early part of my career, when “Stay Gone” was a big hit on country radio, an older man and woman often came to my shows and always made a point to say hello, take a few photos, and leave a gift for me. There was nothing unusual about that; fans still do that today.
One evening after a show, at the meet-and-greet table, the woman asked, “Where’s your sister?”
She’d heard me talking about my sister during my show as the person who inspired the song, “Stay Gone.” A red flag went up immediately. Why is this stranger asking about my sister? I wondered.
“Ahh, I’m sure she’s around here somewhere,” I said and then quickly moved toward the next person in line.
“My husband and I would like to meet her,” the lady said.
Huh? Now, I was definitely looking around for the closest exit door to get away from this weird couple who was pursuing my sister.
I didn’t respond. I just looked at them the way you look at someone who gets in your personal space and you want them to get OUT!
Over the next few months, I saw this couple at several other shows in the area close to my hometown. After one of the shows, my sister nodded her head and asked, “Who are those two people?”
“Why?” I asked.
“Well, they approached me a few minutes ago and said they’d like to talk to me in private,” she said.
I couldn’t believe this couple had bypassed me and had gone directly to my sister to have a private conversation with her. I’d always been protective of my sister. She was my only “family” growing up, in and out of the foster care system.
“Be careful, Sis.”
“I will,” she said.
My sister eventually had a phone conversation with this couple and came back with some very interesting news.
“They want me to be their fundraising coordinator for their nonprofit organization,” she said.
My first thought was, I knew it! They’re asking my sister to help them raise money for their organization, because they believe the first person she’s going to ask to help with the fundraiser is me! And, of course, I’ll do it for free—for my sister.
I’d been on three record labels in the past three years and I was just getting settled into my fourth record label, and living off the royalties I’d earned two years prior. I was still trying to get on my feet. But the world outside the music business didn’t know this. Everyone assumed I was rich because I had a song on the radio and probably wondered why I wouldn’t help get my sister out of the factory, where she worked long, hard hours. I helped her the best I knew how, and quite frankly, she didn’t depend on me to do that, anyway.
When I calmed down and began thinking clearly, I realized that the couple’s offer was probably not a bad idea, after all.
If this means my sister doesn’t have to stand on her feet 60 hours a week in a textile factory, and the only thing I have to do is perform a free concert once a year for this organization, then by all means “take the job.” Even though she didn’t ask me, I still offered to do the first show for free but, in the back of my mind, I’m thinking, This couple has hoodwinked my sister. “I’m gonna keep my eye on them,” I said to myself.
In addition to working in a textile factory, my sister had been raising a teenage son. She had no time for herself, and definitely no time for college. This new job allowed her, well, kinda . . . sorta . . . to choose her hours, to work from an office or at home, go to college, and raise a teenage boy. What a blessing this couple was to my sister!
The first fundraiser was held at Gardener Webb University. Fans traveled from states all over America. The arena was packed with approximately 4,000 people, including a small girl dancing in front of the stage.
I was so proud of my sister. This was her first fundraiser. She had made all the flyers and passed them out and had gone from business-to-business, asking for support. On the day of the show, buses arrived filled with kids. Sponsors from all over the area and beyond donated items to give away to the crowd. My sister filled the arena up to the rafters. The couple from the organization was pleased. They loved on my sister even more.
The next day, I called my sister and asked, “Who’s little girl was that dancing in front of the stage last night?”
“Her name is Charleigh. She’s a foster kid who belongs to one of the ladies where I work.”
“Well, she sure stole the show,” I said with a laugh.
The second year’s fundraiser was much like the first. The organization raised lots of money and little Charleigh was on the front row again, dancing.
Although my sister had gotten to know Charleigh’s foster mom, and I’d been hearing bits and pieces of stories, I still didn’t know Charleigh.
During the concert, in the middle of performing, I stopped and asked, “Who’s kid is this? She’s stole the show last year!”
The crowd oooh’ed and aww’d when they saw the little girl on the front row holding a pink guitar and mimicking me on stage.
“It’s hard to compete with her,” I joked. The crowd laughed and cheered for little Charleigh.
Before the next song, I invited Charleigh up on stage so everyone could see her. The place went nuts! I think the entire arena fell in love with that little blonde haired girl that night, including me. I just wanted to squeeze her face, but I had a show to finish. I tried to rebound, but Charleigh’s infectious smile and charm stole the show for the second year in a row!
A few weeks after the event, my sister called me in a panic. “They’re sending Charleigh back,” she said loudly into the phone.
“Charleigh, the three year old little girl who was dancing in front of the stage at the benefit concert.” If they sent her back and to another foster home, this would be her third foster care placement in three years.
“Huh? Well, what are you going to do?” I asked.
“I’m going to get her,” my sister replied matter-of-factly.
My sister and her husband acted quickly, and before long, Charleigh moved in with my sister and brother-in-law. They were Charleigh’s third and final foster family. Around that same time, my sister’s son moved away to college, setting up a divine transition.
Things were looking up at home. But in Nashville, the record label I’d recently signed with was sold to another label and I was placed on the shelf for a few years. No current music on the radio means few attendees at concerts, which means no need to pay a fundraising coordinator whose brother was raising a lot of money for the organization in his prime—but may not now. Even though my sister’s work ethic was much better than most of her coworkers (who were also the elderly couple’s relatives), and my sister raised more money for that organization than anyone else had ever raised previously, fear set in and the organization fired my sister—via email. The elderly couple did not even show up to say goodbye the day my sister cleaned out her desk. It was so sad. She had been tremendously loyal and very honest and treated everyone fairly.
I was used to this type of betrayal, because I’d been in the music business. But my sister is a small-town-girl who’d never experienced this type of corporate backstabbing. She was heartbroken.
She had really believed this couple was her “Bea and Russell,” and had thought that they loved her the way Bea and Russell had cared for me. Their relationship was more than just a business relationship; at least, my sister believed so. The elderly couple went above and beyond to make my sister feel like she was a part of their family. They even referred to my sister as “their daughter,” and would always let her know how much Jesus loved her.
But when they didn’t speak to my sister after they let her go, it unfortunately mirrored the many people and letdowns she had encountered growing up in the foster care system, not to mention the abusive man she married at the tender age of 14. Pain was all she had ever known growing up 14 years in foster-care-hell and then 13 additional years married to a woman-beater. Now, the couple she finally opened her already broken heart to and trusted more than anyone she’d ever trusted, other than me, had betrayed her. She was absolutely devastated.
I didn’t say a word. I didn’t say, “I told ya so.”
My sister spent the next several months looking for a new job—no small challenge when 99% of your life was spent growing up in foster care and with a husband who beat you down physically and emotionally. She had to drop out of college, since she was not only unemployed, she also had a three-year-old adopted daughter to raise.
The next few years were difficult for my sister and her husband. They were also challenging for the elderly couple, who lost their biological daughter shortly afterwards.
Although her disappointing experience was a major stumbling block, my sister never missed a step. She stood tall and used the experience as a steppingstone. She moved forward and up and never looked back or down.
I was disappointed by the way that couple treated my sister. It wasn’t right, but as the old saying goes, “Everything happens for a reason,” and of course, “God will restore what the locusts have eaten.” Well, He did. That was seven years ago. Charleigh turned 10 years-old on October 21. She’s a great kid and makes great grades in school. She loves gymnastics and reading. She loves her mom and her new family. My sister taught her to sew on a sewing machine. She attends every event and cheers Charleigh on from the sidelines. Interestingly, Charleigh even looks like my sister. They are inseparable.
In some ways, I believe my sister lives vicariously through Charleigh, because like so many young girls in foster care, whose childhoods are robbed by the broken system populated by irresponsible adult women and bad men, my sister’s childhood was stolen away. Now, Charleigh gives it back to her each day. In a way, Charleigh adopted my sister, too. I realized this morning, as I was writing this blog, that I have 11 photos of Charleigh in my kitchen. I guess Charleigh has adopted us all!
Today, we look past all the bitterness, and we realize that Charleigh would not be a part of our lives had the circumstances been different. Charleigh would probably be in a foster home somewhere—or who knows where—had my sister had not taken that job. Despite how it all came about, we’re glad it happened the way it did, and we wouldn’t change a thing.
November is National Homeless Awareness and Adoption month. There are a lot of children out there similar to Charleigh—good kids who need a permanent loving family and home. Don’t wait. Adopt now and give a child a chance to have a good life.