When instinct might tell other people to lock their doors, James and Carolyn Stephenson open theirs.
They’re therapeutic foster parents with Methodist Home for Children, caring for runaways, gang-affiliated teens or whoever else comes to them through the juvenile justice system. They teach big life lessons like right vs. wrong, pick your friends wisely, value yourself — as well as basics like take a shower, ask permission, knock before entering, hold your fork properly.
They do it all with grace, humor and a toughness that’s served them in their own lifetimes, growing up in rural farming communities in the 1950s.
|Their Back Story
“I tell the kids, ‘You’re just as good as that person over there,’ ” Carolyn says. “ ‘We’re all created equal. You can get the same thing that someone else has got.’ ”
These words no doubt have been spoken before by other adults, but James and Carolyn speak from experience.
James was the oldest of seven, living in a place and time when water fountains were segregated, front doors were for white people only and job prospects were mostly about working tobacco. He was “different,” curious about the world and unwilling to settle, and he told his mother he had to get out of rural Pitt County. He joined every high school activity he could, including a singing group that took him on tour out of state. He entered the Army at age 18 and left North Carolina in 1969, working as a pharmacy technician and seeing the world (Korea, Thailand, Japan, Hawaii and 30 other U.S. states). He spent 12 years in the military and raised three children with his former wife before coming back to North Carolina after his mother’s death in 2000. His work with juvenile offenders began when he was certified in 2002 to work in a group home and mentor troubled teens.
When James met Carolyn in 2004, she also was working with kids in trouble — middle-schoolers serving in-school suspension in Pitt County. She was their daytime mother, therapist, seamstress or whatever else they needed, and she had a huge heart for them, knowing many went home to struggling families. It was a theme from Carolyn’s own childhood, growing up the youngest of five kids who lost their father not long after she was born. Her mother worked harvesting and processing tobacco, so her older siblings took care of her and did chores on their grandfather’s farm. When she was in first grade, her teacher approached her mother and asked to keep Carolyn over the summer break. Her mother must have been relieved, she says, because she said OK. Carolyn remembers riding a tricycle up and down the sidewalks of Greenville that happy summer with her teacher. “She carried me to church, fixed my hair, put ribbons in my hair.” Afterward, she returned to the farm and “country life” without seeing the inside of a supermarket until she was 13. As an adult, she found herself struggling as her own mother had — a single mother of four, living in subsidized housing, surrounded by people who didn’t work. She wanted to do better, so she asked social services to help her go back to school. She did, and she went on to earn honor roll grades and a degree in human services.
James and Carolyn both knew they’d found a kindred spirit 12 years ago when they were introduced through church, and they were married on Aug. 27, 2005. In 2010, they became licensed as therapeutic foster parents and opened their home to kids in the juvenile justice system.
Therapeutic Foster Care
Their first foster child was 15 years old, just one day into her stay with the Stephensons, when they caught her heading out the back door with two kitchen knives stashed in her pants. “She was in a terrible place when we got her,” Carolyn says, and she had a history of running away.
James made the girl a deal in that moment, speaking just above a whisper: “OK. Nobody is going to hurt you. Here’s what we’re going to do. You’re going to give me something, and I’m going to give you something. What I’m going to give you is your freedom. We’re not going to call the cops. And you’re going to give me those knives.”
The persuading took more than an hour, but the girl finally laid the knives on the counter, and James put them away. The police never came, and trust sprouted in the heart of a suspicious child.
A few months later, the same girl was grinning in the Stephenson’s Christmas portrait, all of them wearing matching red sweaters, and the following summer, she vacationed with them at Virginia Beach for the first time. She lived with them for two years, and she never ran away from their home or approached the knife drawer without permission.
Since then, James and Carolyn have gone on foster about 20 court-involved children, getting to know each person’s likes and dislikes, showing them a wider world. They go to church, to restaurants, to ECU football games or Carolina Panthers games, and Carolyn makes their favorite comfort foods.
Generally, it takes six months to a year to build a bond with a child in foster care, says Erica Burgess, director of foster care & adoption, but the Stephensons can do it in three months. They don’t take it personally when someone messes up, and they have a gift for connecting with teens and their families, even years after they’ve left. “I tell them, you’re not done with us when you go home,” James says. “We’re going to be there. If I have to drive there to see you, I’m going to be there.”
The Stephensons will always take that 2 a.m. phone call when a teen is in trouble and doesn’t know what to do. They’ll also know which kid likes Chinese food and make sure he gets it on his birthday.
And that girl with the kitchen knives? She’s married now and the mother of two children. They talk every few days, and last weekend, they joined her at a surprise party for her mother-in-law.
“We are so proud of that one,” James says. “I tell you that.”