As we celebrate May as National Foster Care Month, OurWeekly takes a moment to reflect on the life of one prominent local citizen whose life was transformed by foster care.
In his book, “Dreamer in the Fields: My Life as a Child Migrant Farm Worker” (c.2010, Vision Publishing, $12.99, 124 pages), John Hill, who served former Los Angeles County Supervisor Yvonne B. Burke for 10 years as her chief of staff, writes of the torturous existence of being a child migrant farm laborer and the literal salvation he found in foster care in Fresno, Calif.
Hill started working in the cotton fields when he was 5 or 6, which he describes as a “tough, bloody, all-day job.” By the time he was 7 he had a quota of 100 pounds a day, which he could rarely meet. Although he hated picking cotton, he didn’t mind picking cantaloupes, oranges, apples, grapes, string beans, corn, plums, nectarines, or the myriad other types of produce the family traveled to various farms to harvest. A workday usually lasted from dawn to dusk, or about 12 hours, and was brutal, back-breaking labor for any adult, let alone a child.
But if hard work had been the worst part, he and his eight brothers and sisters could have borne it better. What made life hell for the Hill children was the constant drunkenness of their parents, who often consumed all the money in the evening that the family had earned in the fields during the day; arguments and bruising battles almost always followed their drunkenness.
“My parents’ battles were thoroughly upsetting to me,” Hill writes in “Dreamer in the Fields.” “My siblings and I would take bets on who was going to win, but when it was all over we’d go outside to sit and cry. We were all losers, and I think that thought alone may have been the most devastating part of my young life.”
After a number of earlier departures, Hill’s mother finally abandoned her husband and nine children, and Hill said his dad would leave them for weeks at a time to look for her.
Known for his affairs, when the elder Hill was caught with another man’s wife he beat the man so severely that he received a lengthy jail sentence. With their mother gone and their dad in jail, the Hill children were left to raise themselves. Even before that incident, things had gotten so bad that John had prayed and asked God to change his situation. He longed for a stable home and to get an education.
Finally, a highway patrolman came to collect the children as wards of Fresno County and took them to the place where they would meet their foster mother.
“She came over to us and said, ‘My name is Mrs. Seals, and all of you are going to live with me, and I am going to be your mother and take care of you. Would all of you like that?’”
Eight of the children said yes, but Thomas, the eldest, then 16, felt he was too old to be parented again, so he left to go live with his grandmother in Fairmead. The Seals house was like a mansion to the youngsters who had lived in tents, cars and filthy farm worker cabins most of their lives.
Hill writes: “It was a huge yellow house with big trees in both the front and back yards. There were lots of play areas, a wading pool, a picnic area, and chicken coops full of chickens. The house was surrounded by one or two acres of undeveloped land with many different fruit trees and vines….”
For young people who had grown used to sleeping on mattresses strewn around the dirt floor in one-room shacks, it was hard to conceive of living in a house with four bedrooms with real beds, a living room, a family room, a dining room, a large kitchen, and a breakfast nook.
“We could not believe that we had our own bedrooms that were almost the size of our cabin at the labor camp,” Hill writes. “All our lives we had witnessed other people who lived like this and now we were among them.”
For the first time in their lives they had regular home-cooked meals, daily warm baths and decent clothes to wear.
“We immediately felt welcomed by Mom and Pop, as they became known to us. Pop was an elderly gentleman who was about sixty-nine years old. He was a minister, and he welcomed us into his home with open arms.”
But there was a problem, Hill remembers.
“The discipline thing was very difficult for my brothers and sisters,” he said. “Mom and Pop were very strict about going to church, getting an education, not talking back, doing chores, and whippings, something that would not be tolerated today.
“We were kids who had almost raised ourselves,” he said. “We had no parental discipline. When we came into a structure, that’s where Mom and Pop had a problem–getting us to adjust. Before, when we wanted to do something, we did it. We didn’t need permission. Now, if you didn’t get permission, the strap came out.
“It took them a while to get us accustomed to that structure. Raymond, my older brother, had a tough time complying, but it wasn’t that hard for me. I was 9 going on 10. I really felt that I couldn’t follow my older brothers. I had to follow the structure.”
A couple of years later, when his mother showed up to reclaim her kids, young Hill refused to go. “My foster mother wanted to raise us to get an education, to be a success. She would take us to museums and libraries to show us what an education would do for us. My parents just wanted us back. My parents wanted to have this other life. My mother would sometimes say of my foster mother, “She doesn’t let you have any fun.”
The 12-year-old told his mother he could never return to his former life. “Mom had not stopped drinking, cursing, or partying. I demanded that we be left with Mom and Pop.” Oddly, his demands worked and his mother instead chose to live nearby and visit them often.
Hill went on to finish high school, where he lettered in basketball and football. After a tour in the Air Force, he earned a bachelor’s in business administration from the University of San Francisco and a master’s from the University of Phoenix. All but one of his siblings finished high school.