When he speaks, Rob Mitchell has a captivating way of taking his audience back in time - to the bitter winter of 1958 when he was an orphan.
"Dim, fuzzy images form most of my early childhood memories. But one is clear and sharp. Fear burned it permanently on my three-year-old brain. Mother and I are standing in front of a large building. Piles of snow line the sidewalk. 'C'mon, Robby,' Mother says as she drags me up the steps to the front door. 'They're waiting for us.'"
After an overnight stay there with his mother, she tells him to play building blocks with another child.
He recalls, "She plops me on the floor, facing the boy with my back to her."
"I turn...(and) only the strange lady is standing there. Mother is gone." -Castaway Kid
After his father's failed suicide attempt and his mother's worsening mental illness, young Robby was left at the Covenant Children's Home in Princeton, Ill. His mother would visit sporadically but then she would disappear again for months or even years at a time. And with each visit and the ensuing emotional disruption it caused, Robby's hope for being rescued shrank even lower.
Robby's grandmother Gigi was one of the only constants in his life over the years, her weekly visits were his lifeline. But her age and lack of money prevented her from being able to raise him and so his heart-wrenching desire to find a family and a place to call home continued.
During those years, Nola, one of his house parents was also a loving influence. Every night, she knelt at each boy's bedside, and whispered a prayer that only that boy heard, kissed him goodnight and told him she loved him.
Remembering back to those early years, Robby recalls a pivotal moment in his book.
"I struggled to keep hope (of being adopted) alive. But in the winter of second grade I lost that battle. It was February, 1962. I was seven years old...As I lay in bed, I finally had to admit the truth. My father was not going to get well. My mother would never be like other mothers. No one was going to rescue me. Reality crushed my heart."
He sobbed for hours that night at this life altering revelation, and then, he hardened his heart as so many abandoned children do, to protect themselves.
"Soon I stopped calling my mother "Mommy". It wasn't an easy thing to do. I wanted this woman to love me. But I thought "Mommy" was what you called a woman who tucked you into bed at night, who kept you safe and took good care of you. Mommy was someone you were proud of," Mitchell writes.
Years of loneliness passed with bouts of drugs and violence. After years visiting his extended family, Robby would later learn that his paternal grandmother had forbidden any of his family members to adopt him due to the shame she felt over what she viewed was her well-bred son's poor choice of a wife.
Robby's loneliness turned him inward and began a quest for spirituality. He looked to Dave, a caring social worker, talked to him about Jesus and began to challenge Robby's beliefs with questions such as, "Could it be that your view of your own biological father is so poor that you are opposed to the idea of God as a spiritual father?"
Mitchell recalls those days of his spiritual search in his book,
"Finally, I realized that it all boiled down to one issue. What am I going to decide about this Jesus? Am I going to reject him as a lunatic like my mother, or risk reaching out one more time for hope and accept him as who he says he is?
"...at age 17, I made a decision. In a little bedroom, too small to turn my bed around in, I got down on my knees. 'Jesus,' I prayed, 'if you are real, come into my nightmare. Forgive me of my sins and change me. If you really change me, I'm yours forever. If you don't, you're a fraud and a joke.' ...Not exactly the kind of prayer evangelist Billy Graham would have suggested...but somehow I knew that despite my weak faith, in that moment, that the God of the universe had reached deep into my heart and something had changed. For the first time in years, I couldn't wait to see what was coming next."
For Robby, that prayer marked a turning point in his life and things began to turnaround. He began to plan for the future and his hope for a good life began to rise, despite the despair of the past.
Robby was one of the last "lifers" in an American orphanage, aging out of the system. He went to college afterward. Eventually, Robby forgave his family.
Robby later married and started a family. Since then, he has become successful as a financial advisor to more than $200 million in individual and corporate assets. He has been a guest on more than 200 television and radio programs, and authored, Castaway Kid which sold out its first print, nationally and internationally, in just 10 days. Earlier this year, he spoke for the Oklahoma Adoption Coalition in Norman, Okla.
While discussing the value of influencing the life of hurting children in a phone interview with me, Robby (who now goes by Rob) said, "People don't have to be eloquent or trained, they just have to show up consistently in the life of a child."
Rob also mentioned that there is an elevated crime rate among males who age out of the foster care system. This fact is an important reason why he advocates for more financial assistance and counseling to be made available for older foster children. He reiterated that this need is especially pivotal as they finish high school, enter college and the workforce saying, "It's cheaper to build boys than to fix men."
According to Pew Trusts studies, "One in four (youth who "age out") will be incarcerated within two years of leaving foster care, 1 in 5 will become homeless, only half will graduate from high school, and less than 3 percent receive college degrees."
In Oklahoma, 487 children aged out of out-of-home care in 2009 according to the Child Welfare League of America. These were kids just like Robby - lonely, scared and desperate to find a forever family.
To take part in helping Oklahoma foster children, visit oklahomaadoptioncoalition.org and faithlinksok.org.
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