‘Sometimes life gets worse before it gets better’

This time, she waited too long. By the time Zalecia got to Wesley Medical Center, the broken pencil she’d swallowed had passed through her stomach and punctured her colon. Too far down for the scope to reach, doctors would now need to open her stomach, take out her colon, and remove the foreign body stuck inside. They’d warned her that this would eventually happen.

Zalecia doesn’t recall exactly when she entered into foster care, but a family in a small Kansas town adopted her and her half brother when she was about three years old and her brother five. By the time she was eight, her brother had been removed from the home for alleged abuse. By the time Zalecia was 13, she had been removed for a similar reason.

“I never knew I was adopted until I disclosed the abuse to my school counselor, who saved my life,” says Zalecia. “That’s when I learned that my whole life had been a lie. I was told that my birth dad was in jail for killing my birth mom, but I later learned that my mother was alive. My birth dad was an addict in jail.”

Confused and angry, Zalecia couldn’t understand why her adoptive mother didn’t believe her about the abuse. Yet, at the same time, she missed her adoptive parents and wanted to go back home. They were the only mother and father she had ever known. But they didn’t want her back and in 2019, they relinquished their parental rights.

“I remember waking up on the first day of Christmas break and looking forward to the holidays, then it was all gone – my family, my animals, my everything – and knowing that I’d never see any of it again. I had to start from scratch for something I didn’t even do.”

Zalecia spent six months at her first foster home in Liberal, Kansas, but it didn’t go well. She started self-harming, cutting and swallowing foreign objects. She spent time in her first mental hospital, then, as she says, “it snowballed.”

“I wanted to end my life; I didn’t want to go through it anymore,” she says. “I didn’t want the flashbacks; I didn’t want the thoughts. I was so confused.”

A series of moves followed, bouncing her from foster home to foster home in places like Garden City, Holcomb, and Liberal, and from psychiatric treatment centers in Topeka, Larned, and Saint Francis Ministries’ own psychiatric residential treatment facility at Salina West.

“My behaviors prompted the moves,” says Zalecia. “No one would take me because I was so unpredictable. I was mostly mad at myself because I thought everything was my fault. I was also mad at the world because I couldn’t figure out why I wasn’t back home.”

She first arrived at Salina West at the age of 14. She says it was beautiful, and she loved the open fields and natural setting. After discharge she went to a foster home in Goddard, which she says was her favorite because the family seemed to sincerely care about her. Nevertheless, her self-destructive behaviors persisted. She swallowed batteries, pencils, box cutter blades – anything she could get her hands on. She eventually ended up back at Salina West.

“I swallowed stuff to hurt myself,” she says. “At first, it was about suicide, then it was about attention.”

She lived at Salina West from ages 16 to 18 simply because she had nowhere else to go. Part of that time, she spent in the seclusion section because of her violent behavior towards staff and other kids. She inflicted some serious damage on people and on property. Her case team struggled to come up with solutions; some even wondered if she was beyond help. Still, they persisted as staff

traveled from outside counties just to sit with her. They rented Spruce House (owned by another provider), where she lived alone and under 24/7 supervision because no one else would take her. They refused to give up on Zalecia.

When she was about 16 ½ years old, one of her therapists asked if she knew anything about her birth family. If Saint Francis could locate them, would she like to talk to them? She did, and that’s when she met her birth mother and began trading letters with her father who was serving a four-year sentence in Hutchinson Correctional Facility. She also met her grandmother, with whom she grew close. Her birth family worked hard to bring her home, and she was scheduled to go with her aunt for weeklong pass when she self-sabotaged again, ending up in the Salina Regional Health Center for swallowing six batteries and two pencils. When she was finally able to go live with her family, Zalecia lashed out again, and her grandmother told her she couldn’t take her back again. Then, her grandmother said she was moving to Kansas City.

Throughout her life, the one constant in Zalecia’s life – besides the chaos – was her journal. She still writes in it everyday and considers it her coping tool. That journal gradually enabled Zalecia to understand the harm she was causing to herself and how her behaviors threatened her future. It was her roadmap to self-knowledge. One day, she learned that her grandmother would be leaving. Then, a swallowed pencil perforated her colon. Finally, it dawned upon the 18-year-old that she would soon be aging out of foster care and her future would lie completely in her hands.

“It took those events, plus lots of journaling and realization to learn that self-love is a real thing,” she says. “I began to see that people can help you only as far as you’re willing to go. I’d told myself over and over that ‘I’m trying to get better,’ but when I told myself, ‘I’m going to get better,’ I did.”

In April, Zalecia was released from care at 19-years-old. The day before her release, she visited Salina West to thank the staff and apologize for her behavior during her several stays. She says they

helped change her life: “Tough love is real.” Today she’s working on finishing her high school credits, after which she plans to attend Wichita State University, study psychology, and eventually earn a doctorate. She wants to help kids in similar situations. She lives independently with a dog and a ferret in a sober living apartment complex in Wichita, where she also volunteers. She helps out with group therapy, and everybody knows her. She remains in contact with several Saint Francis staff who helped her during the rough times, and she’s grateful for the benefits she still receives after aging out, like free college tuition.

“I wish more kids in foster care would take advantage of the benefits offered to them,” she says. “Just because you were dealt a crappy hand doesn’t mean you can’t trade it in for something new. So many say, ‘I’m checking out as soon as I turn 18,’ and then they lose out on everything that’s available to them – like support. I was thrilled to learn that Saint Francis provides after care for up to six months after discharge, and DCF provides support until I’m 26, until I’m almost out of college. That’s when I knew I’m going to be okay.”

Zalecia believes that kids in her situation don’t need to hear that everything’s going to be okay – because sometimes a situation is so bad that they can’t see any way out of it. Sometimes life gets worse before it gets better.

“But you have to want to change,” she says. “You have to want to change; nothing’s going to change until you do. Just find someone you trust and who will listen to you and help you. Then decide to get better. I’m grateful for all the people who didn’t give up on me, but I’m also grateful for those who did – because they motivated me to prove them wrong.”

Picture of Shane Schneider
Shane Schneider

Shane is the Editorial Content Manager for the Marketing and Communications Department at Saint Francis Ministries.

Share this article:

Join Our Mailing List

Sign up to receive regular updates about Saint Francis Ministries.

"*" indicates required fields

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Recent Articles

Skip to content