This hand-painted quote sign sits in the kitchen of the photographer’s home. These photos were taken on May 25, 2019 for an assignment on experimenting with exposure as part of a digital photography course for Colorado State University. Photos by Brooklyn Matlock.
Michael Johnson will tell you that he does not remember much of his childhood. He will tell you that he blocked most of it out. And as soon as he starts telling you what he does remember, you will understand why.
Chad and Ashley Johnson were married in their early twenties. Chad eagerly adopted Ashley’s 4-year-old son, Tom, as his own, and Michael came along just a couple years later. The two served together as youth pastors, raising their boys in Chad’s childhood home in Parker, Colorado.
In the beginning, Michael was doted on by his loving parents. Michael hung the moon and stars for his dad, who insisted on rocking his son to sleep nearly every night. But as life became more contentious between Chad and Ashley, Chad worked and drank and avoided home more and more.
Quickly, Michael revealed himself to be a challenging kid. Undiagnosed hypoglycemia caused extreme mood swings. That paired with ADHD and some learning disabilities led him to frequently act out. He faced bullying at school, and the problems Michael faced at school only fanned the flame his parents sparked every time they were home together.
Before he would see his tenth birthday, his parents’ marriage was over. These years are still shrouded in bitter resentment, and over ten years later, it is extremely rare to hear either parent say something positive about the other.
“Your dad left us.”
That was the only explanation the boys would receive. It was up to them to fill in the blanks.
In the months following, the boys tried to keep up a relationship with their dad, but his descent into alcoholism was too much for them to watch. Tom went off to college and completely lost touch with Chad. Michael recalls that after a while, he felt like he needed to prioritize finding his own sense of stability. He focused on his social life, school sports, and his part-time job.
When Michael was 14, Chad called him to let him know that he was breaking his biggest promise. Chad was remarrying, and he wanted Michael as his best man. The hole Michael punched in the wall is still in his childhood bedroom. He stood by his dad that day, but the weekends at his house became fewer and farther between. Eventually, Michael stopped making time for his dad.
With both his older brother and his dad gone, Michael felt a responsibility to be the man of the house. Stress caused his mom’s health to rapidly deteriorate. Boxed wine was her medicine of choice until she got hooked on painkillers after a back surgery, right before Michael’s senior year of high school.
At 17 years old, Michael went to a concert with his mom and his girlfriend. Too early in the evening, he had to carry his inebriated mother out of the venue. She will never know of the verbal and emotional abuse he suffered because she will never remember those nights. This was the only parental figure he had left in his life. His grandparents watched the situation unfold at arm’s length. He had not spoken to his dad in a few years. He was alone.
Now, he was met with a choice: accept a football scholarship three states away or pursue a basketball scholarship close to home. He had already signed to play football for Hastings College, but his conscience would never let him abandon his mom. Still, he knew he could not keep living in the same household for much longer.
By chance, he ran into one of his dad’s Alcoholics Anonymous buddies.
“Your dad is two years sober now.”
Michael reached out to his dad almost immediately. After years, they were finally able to sit down and have an honest conversation about what happened nearly a decade before. Chad was now a much worldlier man, but a jollier one. This was the dad that Michael remembered from his early childhood, the dad that Michael thought he lost. Chad told his son about his failed marriage and apologized for his failures.
This level of vulnerability and openness astounded Michael. Finally, he felt safe enough to tell someone about what he was facing at home. Chad’s heart was broken for his son, and Michael’s was broken for his mom, but the two were finally reconciled.
Chad offered to let Michael move in with him and his wife, and Michael decided that would be the best possible situation. He knew his mom would be upset, but he would still be close enough to keep an eye on her, and their house was much closer to the school that would let him play basketball.
He moved in that summer, started working at a nearby coffee shop, and realized that his relationship with his mom’s side of the family was officially fractured. For years, he had felt abandoned by them. But now, the feeling was mutual.
College was a welcome distraction. Between work, girls, and basketball, Michael was not left with enough time to dwell on his pain. In this new and positive environment, he was finally beginning to heal.
One night, he was invited to hang out with a bunch of other college students in a girls’ dorm. He knew one of the girls, and he had been flirting with her for a couple weeks. He had no idea that her roommate would be his future wife.
Within two months, Michael knew he was in love. He was already close with her family, and it made him want her to be close with his. Introducing her to his family helped him take that first step toward reconciliation, but he knows he has a long road ahead of him.
Every side of Michael’s family realized that this girl was the one, but his dad kept urging Michael to take it slow. He encouraged Michael to experience as much of life as possible before settling down. Michael tried to listen to his dad’s advice for as long as he could, but after nearly two years of dating, he knew he was ready.
“Dad, we’re getting married.”
Michael told his dad first. Michael and his fiancée decided to get married with only a few weeks’ notice, so there was no planning beforehand or a formal announcement. There were only those few words that each family member heard.
Chad heard them in person. He was immediately thrilled for his son and future daughter-in-law. Soon after, Ashley, suspecting something was up, wrestled the news out of Michael over the phone. Both parents separately supported and encouraged Michael.
Meanwhile, Michael became fully aware of the task he was undertaking. At only 20, he signed himself up for a caretaking role. His future was now overtaken by this responsibility, and he knew that someday, they would start a family of their own. He grew up too fast, but he felt that made him mature enough to handle this decision. He felt that he knew the difference between love and commitment. He learned from his own parents’ mistakes.
In front of all his friends and family, he promised to his new wife that he would do better.
*Names have been changed for confidentiality.
i feel like we’re chasing the sun
running out of time
we won’t always be young
we’re searching for just a bit of warmth
don’t want to be left out in the cold
worth its weight in gold
the weight of you is nothing new
i’ve never seen a sky so blue
off the beaten path, it’s their main drag
this old train car can’t go far
sticks and stones will never touch
those abandoned bones
where have all the people gone
a valley frozen, hidden from time
keep going ’til we find a way out
you don’t want to turn back now
you feel we’ve come so far
i won’t let you turn around
i’ll follow you through the dark
keep me safe from invisible danger
go on, drive higher
we can’t be lost when we’re together
the sun goes down
we’ll try tomorrow
safe and sound
on time we’ll borrow
November 20, 2018 was not supposed to be a special day. It was the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, and I had my Bio final that afternoon. It was a group project presentation (gag me), and it was the most brutal final ever. Not that it was hard – it was just an all-around awful experience.
I drove down to the coffee shop my boyfriend was working at immediately after. This was typical. The whole 6 months I spent going to DU, I became a regular at this library café. It was not close to campus, so I passed the time by calling my mom. Here’s the abridged version of that conversation:
“Mom, I hated it. This semester sucked. I honestly do not want to go back. I wish I could just move back home and finish college in Fort Collins. But I don’t want to move without Mike.”
“Well, I wish you could both move up here. It’d probably be easier if you guys just got married already.”
As much as she meant what she said, she was joking. But she gave me the most brilliant idea.
I basically ran into the library. I had to know how he felt. I had to know what he thought. I had to talk to Mike about this.
You see, Mike and I had been talking about getting married for six months already. We’d already worked it out to where I could probably graduate the following summer and we could get married and move to Fort Collins. I knew he was looking for a ring. We wanted this. I just wasn’t sure how he’d feel about me moving up our hypothetical wedding date.
I cannot believe how cool with it he was.
Looking back at this moment, I think God was stirring this idea in both of our hearts. Neither one of us were satisfied. We both wanted to be living more authentically, more dedicated to our visions and dreams of our future. We realized there wasn’t much more we could do unless we were married. We were not made to live alone anymore – it was time for the two of us to enter in to this anointed covenant.
There we were, in a quiet library on a cold November afternoon, casually discussing the most important decision of our lives.
It was a lot of:
“Well how do you feel about _________?” and
“What do you think about ___________?” and
“Are you okay with __________?” and finally:
“Are you sure?”
It was a discussion. It was a conversation. It was not a proposition.
Don’t get me wrong. Proposals are beautiful. And don’t worry, I got one later. And it was an incredibly magical moment I will treasure forever. But first and foremost, we entered in to this covenant on equally uncertain footing, figuring it out together. And to me, that’s even more beautiful. That’s what Mike and I do. We figure it out. That’s us.
November 20, 2018 was not supposed to be remarkable. I always told Mike that I wanted to be surprised. And boy was I. I had no idea that would end up being one of the most special days of my life. I had no idea that was the day I’d get engaged.
Why is it that
beauty, in all its abundance,
just cannot be captured
in all of its glory?
Why is it that
you, with your easy appetite,
make it seem so simple
despite all its challenge?
You show me that
love is how we can discover
everything we want and
everything we need and
You tell me that
I am the one who your soul loves
in all of my glory
despite all my challenge.
Listen to a podcast on this topic.
THE BROKEN BACKBONE
As of 2017, it is estimated that 7.5 million Americans work two or more jobs. That is roughly 5% of the American workforce.
People in urban areas are choosing to juggle multiple jobs, and it is probably due to the rising costs of living. No city has seen a jump in the cost of living quite like Denver has recently. As higher costs push out lower earners, some people are choosing to take on more responsibility in order to maintain their lives.
I met with some of these people, all working the same primary job but at different stages of life, to talk to them about their experience.
Mike, 20, is a Starbucks employee and Pizza Cook at a local Italian restaurant. To pay for college and rent, Mike has to work two part-time jobs. He has found that companies are reluctant to give him a full-time position because they do not want to give him benefits. On a typical day where he has to work both jobs, he has left his home at 6 AM only to return after 9:30 PM, then get up to open again the next day. For Mike, he feels that maintaining two jobs is depriving him of a social life. He has “no chance to release his energy into anything other than work,” and when he finally sees his checks, “it’s really not worth it.”
Waseem, 22, is a Starbucks employee who also works the box office at the Alamo Drafthouse, where he says that people get to see his “beaming sunshine of a face.” Waseem has maintained both part-time positions for 2 years. Right now, he is grateful that his jobs are different enough that they tax different parts of his work ethic. For a while, he worked two jobs that drained the same kinds of energy, and he called that “doubly-exhausting.” He remembers a time when 40 hours at Starbucks was enough to sustain $620 a month for rent in Denver, but rent can no longer be found that low and Starbucks can no longer give him that many hours. Now, he often pulls double-shifts, working over 10 hours a day in order to afford rent.
Micah, 32, is an Ebar Barista and an Excavation Operator. He has worked two jobs for most of his adult life. As a single male, he says that he uses two jobs to keep himself busy and make extra money. He believes that if he were able to find and keep a full-time job, he would be able to live off of just one salary. Unfortunately for now, he must keep both part-time jobs to maintain his standard of living. In his opinion, one of the biggest struggles of working two jobs is finding spare time to run important errands. He told the story of how his registration had been expired for weeks, and he had to spend one of his first days off in over a month at the DMV.
Steve, 50, is now a full-time Ebar Barista. However, for 34 years prior, he consistently held two jobs. Typically, Steve worked one full-time job and one part-time job. In 1999, he decided to be a full-time barista, a choice that he described as the “best decision he’s ever made.” However, baristas typically do not make a living wage, so he always held another job. His secondary positions included bartending and sales. Steve likes working in the service industry because it gives him the chance to work with younger people. “I never had kids of my own, and this way, it’s like I get to have other people’s kids,” he joked. For Steve, the most frustrating part of balancing two jobs was time management. He lamented the fact that he never had time to do anything he wanted and that left him with no chance to spend any of the money he was making.
All of the people I talked to expressed their discontent with this job juggle. In my time at their coffee shops, I met more people with similar situations. I even met a girl who needed to find a second part-time job but was unable to because she was required to keep open availability for the job she already has.
The number of Americans juggling multiple jobs hit an all-time high back in 2016, and USA Today explored why this was happening. Employers frequently reported that it cost them less to hire multiple part-time employees than it would cost them to fill one full-time position.
In response, people are now making this balancing act their full-time gig, in a move that is coming to be known as “plural careerism.” For some, perhaps this is feasible. But clearly for others, this is a move that is made purely out of necessity.
But I have found
that being lost
And now I find
that losing yourself
One of America’s most glaring problems involves its most vulnerable citizens, and the people in power need to be more informed on how to help. Children in foster care are facing serious problems that demand to be addressed, and California-based non-profit Together We Rise just hosted a successful campaign in Colorado that will directly impact the lives of some foster children in Denver.
For more insight into this article, you can listen to the podcast here.
Between Jefferson, Arapahoe, and Douglas Counties, there are around 1,000 kids living in foster care. In the state of Colorado, there are 2,131 total children and teens living in foster care. By far, the biggest need of the foster care system in the state is the need for more foster parents. Colorado has a shortage of foster homes, with only 2,000 homes currently certified.
Many potential foster parents are hesitant to open their homes to the scrutiny of the homestudy. This is the test that parents must undergo in order to be certified as a safe home for children. Kate Feeback, the director of the international adoption program at the Nightlight Christian Adoptions agency in Loveland, Colorado, tried to put this fear to rest, saying, “Homestudy programs are 30% clearances and 70% education because a parent needs to be prepared for the challenges of raising an adopted child.”
Foster children are taken from their homes and their parents. They are often rushed to pack all of their belongings into a trash bag, then placed with strangers for an indefinite amount of time. These children need a space to live.
One adoptive mother confirmed that all the hard work is well worth it. In an interview with Rachel Auch, the third time mother stated, “Now that he’s home, I ask myself, ‘How did we do life without this kid?’ He is the most pleasant person. It’s like seeing the world through new eyes.”
Together We Rise is a non-profit based in California that was started by a group of young adults who are passionate about improving the lives of foster kids in America. They advocate and fundraise for foster kids around the nation.
TWR hires interns across the country to run their own fundraising campaigns for the organization. A recent campaign across Fort Collins and Denver used social media to raise awareness while fundraising. This campaign raised over $1,100, enough for 42 Sweet Cases. The Sweet Cases project raises enough money for brand new duffel bags filled with essentials so that foster children have something nice to move their belongings in.
At the time, Emma-lee Jordan was the intern manager for Together We Rise. In a meeting with her, she once said, “One of the biggest challenges we face is that people just don’t know much about the foster care system. There’s a lot of misinformation out there, and one of our missions is to educate people.”
“Most people don’t realize that they can help out without opening up their home. That’s a big commitment that not everyone can do. But there are smaller things that anyone can do,” says Jordan. TWR wants to offer people the chance to give these children something they would not have otherwise. Through their programs, foster children can receive a bike, a birthday gift, a duffel bag, or even a college scholarship.
TWR collaborates with volunteers, social workers, CASA advocates, and others. They also work with various communities to meet kids’ specific needs. Through fundraising with these partners, they can give foster kids unique opportunities that otherwise would have been missed.
THE FOSTER CARE SYSTEM
There is a small and silent demographic in our nation. Its members are unable to affect their story’s ending. They are forced to trust the people around them to have their best interests in mind, even when that may not be the case. This group is defenseless and often forgotten. These are the children in foster care.
On any given day, there are about 428,000 children in foster care in the US. Around 75% of foster children come into care because they were neglected. One study found that one in three children had been abused while in foster care. They often struggle in school and have a hard time finding employment. Children in foster care also report significantly worse mental health, citing that they are 12 times more likely to be prescribed psychotropic drugs.
More children, especially teenagers, are in group homes than they are placed with families. Group settings are more expensive and less supportive for the child. Teens often age out of the system without the proper support needed for that transition, making it harder for them to go to college or even finish high school. Siblings are often separated from each other and kids are separated from their parents with very little focus on reunification. Children’s needs often go unheard and unmet.
These statistics begin to explain why many foster youth are used to feeling overlooked, neglected, and traumatized. Foster children may never feel stable or connected, and instead they risk missing out on the family and community ties critical for development.
Children are placed in foster care at no fault of their own. They are there to be taken care of, and Together We Rise wants to ensure that they are indeed receiving the proper care.
- Top left: Intern promotional picture
- Top right: Bear visits Elitch’s
- Second left: Supplies waiting to be packed in Sweet Cases
- Third left: Bear finds a home
- Bottom left: Young girl flaunting TWR stickers
- Bottom right: Teenage girl working on her homework, repping a TWR sticker