Committed to each other—and to giving back

A shared interest in community service brought this mother and teen together.

October 31, 2016

Elizabeth Benstead and adopted daughter Ashley Rivera
"My daughter has an amazing heart. When she hears about someone in need, she wants to go help them."

Liz Benstead knew from a young age that she wanted to adopt. As the only child of parents who were committed to serving others, she learned that there were many kids in need—and it was her job to help them.

“Growing up, every Christmas morning I would have to choose one present from under the tree to give away. I wouldn’t know what it was until after I had picked it,” Liz said.

When Liz decided to adopt, many of her friends tried to steer her away from foster care adoption. One colleague even offered to go to China with her to adopt a baby. But Liz was determined to give a child from the United States a good home and a chance at a better life.  

“Adopting an older child was my fit”  

When Liz started her adoption search, she had a 12- or 13-year-old daughter in mind. One of the first youth she inquired about was a 12-year-old girl. But in the course of Liz’s conversation with the girl’s caseworker, the worker became convinced that Liz would be a better match for a Ashley, 15-year-old teen who was also on her caseload.

“The worker was nervous when she told me; she thought I would be reluctant to adopt a teenager. But I thought, OK, if she thinks it is a good match, then why not?”

Liz and Ashley had their first meeting at a Friendly’s restaurant near Ashley’s foster home in western Massachusetts one cold winter afternoon. According to both Liz and Ashley, they immediately clicked. One of their shared interests was service and giving back to others.

Liz and Ashley immediately started talking during the week. On the weekend, Liz drove across the state for visits. Soon, Ashley was spending weekends at Liz’s house. Things were going so well that Ashley was able to move into Liz’s house in time to start the second half of her freshman year of high school. Together, they worked on making up for the years that Ashley had fallen behind in school before she entered foster care.   

Liz adopted Ashley on National Adoption Day in 2012. Immediately, Ashley told Liz that now that she had a family, she wanted to help other children in foster care.  

“I had always volunteered—in a nonprofit thrift shop, at an animal shelter, and now with Mom in a soup kitchen. But I wanted to do more,” Ashley said.

Giving back—together

Liz helped Ashley start Suitcases of Hope, a nonprofit that provides duffle bags to children and youth in foster care. The bags are filled with a stuffed animal, personal-care items, new sheets, an autobiographical book written by a woman who grew up in foster care during the depression, and a letter from Ashley.

“I understand how it feels to have your belongings placed in trash bags when you have to move from one home to another. It happened to me many times,” Ashley said. “My goal is to eliminate trash bags as an acceptable form of luggage.”

In the four years since founding Suitcases of Hope, Liz estimates that Ashley has given away more than $8,000 in stuffed duffle bags.

College—or community service?

In her junior year of high school, Ashley and Liz tussled over Ashley’s next steps. Ashley believed she was ready to take the SATs and apply to colleges. Liz felt strongly that she would benefit from a gap year to prepare. Working with Ashley’s guidance counselor, they arrived at a plan that would tap into Ashley’s passion for giving back to people—joining AmeriCorps, the national community service program.

Ashley was accepted into the AmeriCorps City Year program and assigned to serve as a teacher’s assistant in a fourth grade classroom in South Carolina.

“The kids were dealing with really emotional things at home. I had to help them balance home life with academics. I learned a lot—but it was really tough. I’m just glad my mom was there by my side,” Ashley said.

At the graduation ceremony, each young person has to make a speech when they receive their official red City Year jacket. When it was her turn, Ashley asked Liz to stand before addressing the audience.

“You all know that I was adopted from foster care. What you might not know is that if it wasn’t for my mother, I’d be dead, homeless, or pregnant right now.”

Proudly sharing their success story

Ashley recently turned 20. She is finishing her first year at a community college in North Carolina, with the intention of transferring to the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Liz and Ashley are frequent presenters on adoption panels and in other public settings. As an AdoptUSKids spokesfamily, they will be talking with the media during National Adoption Month this November.

“Ashley loves talking about how being adopted has changed her life. She is proud to be a ‘success story’ and to show people that kids, especially teenagers, in foster care are not juvenile delinquents. They are children that have been abused or neglected by their biological parents,” Liz said. “Foster children have hopes and dreams just like everyone else. They want a forever family, a safe haven, and help to pursue their goals and dreams.”

Liz and Ashley talk about their first meeting, the process of getting to know each other, and the ways that adoption has changed them and their lives.

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