Her Story: Lesley Hemphill on Adopting a Teenage Boy
Lesley Hemphill is a 26-year-old single mother to a 17-year-old boy. If you ask her, she’d say she imagined she would be the last of our Kappa Delta pledge class to have kids. But when she was younger, she always told her parents she would adopt “big people” one day. They smiled at their adorable daughter, most likely thinking, “Okay Lesley. You will adopt big people one day. Whatever you want.” At 26, she has adopted a big person: a 17-year-old boy who has endured abuse, trauma, heartache and neglect beyond what most of us can imagine.
A few years ago, Lesley had the opportunity to mentor a child at the Tulsa Boys' Home. In most situations, mentors are paired through common interests and a couple two-on-one or three-on-one interactions to ensure compatibility, but Lesley felt in her heart that God was going to lead her to the right boy, so she said interests and such didn’t matter. Dakota, on the other hand, was asked by someone at the Tulsa Boys' Home if he was a believer, to which Dakota replied, “I don’t feel like I have a person who cares.” Dakota was told to pray for someone to come into his life who did care.
“At this point I had been praying the whole time. I was like, ‘look, I trust you, and I trust Jesus,’ so I’m cool with whomever.” – Lesley
Fifteen-year-old Dakota did pray, but he had conditions. He told God that He needed to deliver someone to him in seven days and then he’d believe He was real. Remarkably, on the seventh day, Dakota met Lesley. Seriously.
Lesley didn’t go into this mentorship thinking she’d walk out of it as a mother. It’s difficult for anyone at her stage in life to wrap their head around the idea of being a 26-year-old single mother to a 17-year-old boy. In fact, she went into the situation with the intention of being more like a cool big sister, but three months into their relationship, she knew there was something bigger going on, and she decided six months in to really start thinking on and praying for the possibility of adding Dakota to her family. And the coolest part is, adoption was originally Dakota's idea.
Dakota's life prior to meeting Lesley was far from a walk in the park. He has endured an immense amount of grief, abuse and heartache. Abuse was first reported when Dakota was two years old, but Lesley said “we can imagine it began at birth.” He was never stable in his home. He was abandoned by his biological mother and father, adopted by his biological paternal grandmother’s husband, and when he died, her next husband then adopted Dakota. He was malnourished, unloved and neglected. When practicing math problems or multiplication at home, abuse was utilized to instill the answers in his brain. For example, if Dakota missed seven times five, he was beaten 35 times. And then, at 12 years old, the unthinkable occurred in their home. Dakota and his 10-year-old brother Quin were playing—with a gun. Tragically, Quin was accidentally killed, and Dakota was then removed from the home for good.
For years Dakota believed he was taken from the home because he was at fault for what happened to his sweet little brother, but Lesley maintains “that simply isn’t true,” and CPS had been watching his home for years. Dakota spent some time in a detention center, and when it was time for him to leave, his only option was the Tulsa Boys' Home.
Lesley and Dakota’s relationship took off from the very beginning. The trust Dakota has in Lesley is extremely beautiful, and as an outsider and friend to Lesley, it is incredible to watch their interactions and how natural everything is between them. Dakota listens to Lesley. He respects her. At the same time, Lesley listens to and respects him, as well.
It wasn't always easy, though, and Lesley understands the situation looks strange. You have a 26-year-old woman who “thinks she can be a mom” to a 17-year-old boy. That could raise some red flags. Lesley didn’t know if there was a minimum age for adopting in the state of Oklahoma, and she didn’t know if all of the external forces around her would ever back down. She felt for the first time in her life that she had enemies. What she did know is that she trusted God’s plan and knew that whatever was meant to happen would. She learned a lot about obedience during this time, and looking back in hindsight, she said that is one of the most fun things about being a child of God—just sitting back, being obedient and letting Him guide you through the uncharted waters you are crossing.
One of the most comical stories Dakota told me during our conversation for this piece was about his first trip to church. Lesley had given him a T-shirt that donned Life.Church’s address, the church she attends and where she works. Dakota asked his friend if he wanted to go to church with him, and his friend said “why not?” So, they created a diversion (boys will be boys, right?), snuck out of the Tulsa Boys' Home, slept in a dumpster, hitch hiked, and successfully ended up in Bixby, Okla., from Sand Springs, Okla., a 30-mile trek. Lesley begged the Tulsa Boys' Home to let them stay and attend church the following day, and when that mercy was granted, the first thing they did was head over to Walgreens to clean up, because as Lesley says, “they stunk.”
Since that first trip to church (after a months-long confinement to the Boys Home as a consequence), Dakota has attended church and dinner with Lesley’s family every weekend. And after multiple court hearings, tons of pushback, quite a few tears and a whole lot of praying, Dakota was officially adopted by Lesley on Aug. 12, 2015. He had been a part of their family for months before that day, but the thought of Dakota finally having a stable home, a home that he can wake up in every morning, a home where he can be cared for when he is sick, a home to spend Thanksgiving and Christmas, a home where he will only know love, that was Lesley’s biggest wish throughout the entire process. Lesley’s mission is to ensure that Dakota always knows he is loved and cared for, and he is not a lost cause, he is not unlovable, he is not unworthy.
This photo is from adoption day. I am loving that bow tie!
“He has had a lifetime of hearing really, really ugly, wrong things about him—that he’s a monster, that he’s a liar, that he’s unworthy, unwanted, unlovable, and there’s just no greater joy for me than to counter that and to make sure he understands he is so loved.”
Dakota is currently in a program at Union High School in Tulsa that allows him to recover credits, and he is doing extremely well. He loves English, science and history. While those subjects are fun for him, math can be a bit of a challenge as it resurrects difficult memories from his childhood, but with the help of his teachers, school administrators and Lesley, he is excelling beyond expectations. His future is bright, and he understands and acknowledges that, and his dedication to his studies is further proof that this boy is far from a lost cause. He’s been baptized, and he has baptized three other boys from his lodge. Dakota continues to corroborate that just because you’re born into a certain situation doesn’t mean you have to be defined by that situation.
Now that they’re officially a family, the fun stuff can continue with the notion that it’s permanent. Dakota will not be placed in a group home across the state and lose complete contact with Lesley (this was a big fear throughout the entire process). Lesley is allowing Dakota to experience major firsts—first Oklahoma State football game, first Fall Break vacation, first putt-putt experience, and coming up, first holiday season as a Hemphill. But with the holiday season comes the sad reminder that there are nearly 400,000 kids across the U.S. who will not eat Thanksgiving dinner surrounded by loved ones in the comfort of a home. There are nearly 400,000 kids who don’t know what family looks like.
Lesley continues to work and pray for a solution to this problem. She knows the “buzzwords” adopt and foster can be difficult for people, but her biggest advice is to take that first step, even if it’s small. She didn’t go into the mentoring program with the intention of adopting, but it happened. And she and Dakota couldn’t be happier. She also understands that adoption is not physically, emotionally and financially possible for all families, but even the simplest acts such as mentoring, volunteering your efforts and talents at a group home, and getting involved in other ways can make the biggest difference in the world to a child who just needs to know someone cares.
The Connected Child by Dr. Karyn Purvis (Lesley swears by this book.)
General adoption resources
If you’d like to speak with Lesley directly, please let me know (either via email or leave me a comment) and I’ll connect you.
Throughout the entire process, Dakota’s go-to verse was Jeremiah 29:11. From Dakota…
“I’ve clung to that verse since the day I met [Lesley]. I went back to my room and I started reading through the Bible. It was almost like God was telling me turn to Jeremiah. And as I was reading through it, I read that verse. That was the very first thing I saw. I read it and thought, that’s now my favorite verse.”
As Lesley says, Dakota is such a goofball!
All photos provided by Lesley Hemphill.