Childhood should be simple. It should be play time with friends, dinner with family, and staying up an hour later on Fridays to catch a favorite TV show or watch a movie. It should be laughter. It should be innocence. It should be safe. For the nearly 700,000 children who spend time in foster care each year, however, it’s often none of those things. Not until someone steps in and offers to care.
Sarah Jane Booth and Michaela Guthrie understand. Both women were born into unstable family situations. Both spent their teenage years in foster care. And now, both spend their days helping other kids in similar circumstances. Sarah, 30, is the program executive at Christian City in Union City overseeing their Children’s Village residential program, Safe Place runaway and homeless youth program, and Thrive graduate transition program, which helps high schooler graduates at Christian City move into the next stage of their lives. Michaela, 24, is program executive for Christian City’s Crossroads Foster Care and Adoption Program.
Sarah was born in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, but her family moved to Athens when she was very young. Her brother is about a year older; her sister four-and-a-half years younger. She was responsible for feeding and caring for her sister from the time the latter was born. Sarah’s childhood was also filled with abuse – physical, sexual, and emotional. She was first sexually abused at age three by her paternal grandfather. Her biological father began sexually abusing her at age 8, and shortly after she began experimenting with alcohol and marijuana to cope.
“It wasn’t good,” she says simply. “My biological father is currently serving a life sentence and other additional sentence for multiple counts of childhood sexual abuse.”
The day before her twelfth birthday, Sarah got extremely drunk and spilled everything about her home life after a friend’s grandmother observed and reported Sarah’s father touching her inappropriately. She was taken into foster care and spent the next three months in an emergency shelter before being placed at Christian City.
“I hated it,” she recalls. “I was just so angry. And I stayed that way for a long time.”
Right before she turned fifteen, new house parents, the Ogdens, moved into Sarah’s home at Christian City – and she promptly began a year-long campaign to get them fired.
“I did everything I could think of,” she admits. “I even got all the kids to run off and hide in the woods once. I found out later that the Ogdens used to lie awake at night and talk about which one of them wanted to quit because of me that day. Thankfully, they never both wanted to quit on the same day.”
About a year after they arrived, the Ogdens took the kids in their house on a vacation. Some of the couple’s friends joined them and Sarah found out that the people she’d worked so hard to punish had actually left families and lucrative careers in the Midwest to move to Georgia and become houseparents.
“All of a sudden, I realized what they’d given up – all to come take care of punk teenagers who hated them and made their lives miserable,” she says. “I started seeing then what unconditional love was. I met Jesus, and then several supportive relationships seemed to come into my life all at once. “I started seeing that I am not defined by my abuse or past. That my past is something that teaches and empowers, not limits me.”
I started seeing that I didn’t have to be defined by the abuse, that I was worthwhile to people. I owe that to the Ogdens. I don’t know where I’d be without them.”
Michaela agrees on that point.
“Foster care changed my life,” she says. “If I hadn’t been removed from my home, my life wouldn’t look the way it does today.”
Born in Birmingham, Michaela and her twin sister, Danielle, were the youngest of seven and the family lived in extreme poverty. They frequently had no running water or heat in their home. Her parents both abused drugs and her father, who is still involved with drugs, abused her mother, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
“My mother battled mental illness her whole life,” Michaela says, “and that’s where most of her problems originated. She was a wonderful person. My loving, caring nature comes from her. She was fighting a mental health issue that was out of her control.”
Her mother’s difficulties included a tendency to self-harm. Michaela grew up amidst frequent threats of suicide, and her mom made a failed attempt when Michaela was 11. When she fired the shot, Michaela and Danielle were the only ones home and they had to jump into action to save their mother’s life.
She’s always been strong and has always put others first, ever since we were little. – Danielle Gooch, Michaela’s sister
We’d already been removed from the home temporarily due to physical, sexual and emotional abuse,” Michaela says. “We lived with our aunt and uncle for a year during third grade, and there were other, shorter stays, but the suicide attempt was kind of the last straw.”
Thankfully, the twins had family willing to step in. They did spend about two years in a group home while their second cousins, Stacy and Johnny Brooks, were completing training and paperwork, but Michaela says it was a good experience. On the twins’ thirteenth birthday, they moved in with Stacy and Johnny. The plan was to eventually reunite the girls with their mother, who was working to get back on her feet so she could provide a secure home. Four months later, however, their mother passed away during a grand mal seizure.
Michaela was devastated, but her cousins were wonderful, she had her twin sister; and she was incredibly driven. After high school, she attended the University of Alabama on a full ride, completing her BSW (Bachelors in Social Work) in three years. She then earned a Masters in Social Work in just a year, married her high school sweetheart the next weekend, and moved to Atlanta.
“Social work was a natural for me,” she says. I always wanted to help people. I remember being nine and wanting a billboard with my name and number on it so people could call me if they needed someone to talk to.”
Sarah’s goals were a little different.
I was always ashamed of being in a group home and I agree that I felt the need to prove myself to everyone. I did not want to be a statistic or labeled and discarded for being a foster youth,” she says. “I wanted financial security. I was terrified of graduating and being a statistic, of becoming homeless. I went to Emory because they had the number four undergraduate business program in the nation. I graduated debt-free with a double concentration in Marketing and Consulting /Venture Management. I immediately began working with a digital marketing company, 360i, as an intern. Within four years I had been promoted three times to a Senior Media Manager position.”
At the same time, Sarah became very involved with her church youth group and led a group of 20 girls.
“Always take the hard, arduous, and challenging path. There will be slips,falls, and bruises, but you will impact the world for good along the way.” – Sarah
“God placed each of them in my path and they had a variety of struggles – cutting, eating disorders, suicidal ideation, sexual abuse,” Sarah says. “During that time, I felt God calling me to more. I just didn’t know what.”
Sarah assumed that her nexet job would still be marketing-related and, when she started looking, she discovered an open marketing position at the very place she’d lived for ten years in foster care. She reached out in January 2014 to the CEO, but he had different ideas. Christian City had just applied for grant funding to start the Safe Place program and, if the funds came through, they were going to need a program director. He thought Sarah would be perfect for the role. She joined Christian City in August of that year and, after completing a masters in counseling in 2016, she became program director for the Children’s Village, and was promoted to program executive earlier this year.
Michaela didn’t come straight to Christian City after college either, but she did go into nonprofit work. She worked for Georgia Cares for eighteen months before she heard that Christian City was starting an in-home foster care and adoption program. She knew right away she wanted to be involved and came on board in October 2017. The program launched in February of this year. In July, the Crossroads program signed its state contract, and they now facilitate public adoptions, public foster care, and foster-to-adopt placements for children age 0 to 21 within a fifty-mile radius of Children’s City. The program also assists with private foster placement for families in temporary crisis.
“I love helping kids who’ve been through tough times or abuse or neglect feel safe and loved – maybe for the first time ever,” she says. “I’m incredibly grateful to my foster parents and I’m grateful that I can now help other kids.”
Her husband, Jason, calls Michaela the “real deal.”
“She’s incredibly determined,” he says, “and helping people is her biggest passion. When you combine that passion with her grit? Man. She’s just a force for good.”
“You will never look into the eyes of someone that God does not love. Love everyone.. including those who look, think, & believe differently from you.” – Michaela
Michaela and her husband attend Bethel Atlanta Church in Fayette County. She is quick to say her faith is the single most important thing in her life, and she knows the Lord has worked all things for her good.
“This is her calling, her heart,” agrees her foster mother, Stacy. “She’s overcome a lot of adversity and she’s handled it beautifully. She’s sweet and her faith is strong and she has incredible work ethic and integrity. We’re so proud of her.”
Sarah’s friends and family say similar things about her.
“Sarah is resilient and very, very strong, but also very tenderhearted,” says her former mentor Sondra Horst. “She’s passionate, but also compassionate. She often sacrifices herself for the welfare of others. She’s pretty incredible.”
“Her heart is genuine,” adds Sarah’s mom, Kathy Ogden. “She’ll do what she can to bring peace and rightness to children who are struggling, to keep them from going through what she went through.”
“Your background does not define who you are. If allowed, it can shape you into something beautiful.” – Sarah
Sarah and Michaela both remain close to their foster parents. Michaela, who was diagnosed with MS in 2014 but is doing well, lives in East Atlanta with her husband and their cat Nala. She loves going to concerts and festivals, enjoys reading and writing, and volunteering. Last years she was interviewed for “Nightline” in relation to the release of Be the One by Byron Pitts, which tells the real-life stories of six teens, including Michaela, who overcame hardship to help others.
Sarah now lives in Fayetteville with her greyhound mix, Zoe, who comes to work with her nearly every day. She visits “mom and dad” – the Ogdens – once a month or when possible. She remains close with the supportive relationships God brought into her life including the Horsts. Sarah invited a young woman to move into her home during her senior year of high school, when she had no place to go. The young woman is now a sophomore at Valdosta State and continues to call Sarah’s place home.
All in all, their lives are pretty terrific. And while they wouldn’t wish their childhood experiences on anyone else, they’ve come to see that they are specially qualified for the important jobs they now hold.
“Everyone at Christian City is passionate about what we do,” Michaela says, “ I know the difference foster care made for me, so when I talk to people considering fostering or adoption, I can tell them exactly how important it is. I can tell them how it changed my life. And I want people to know that if they don’t feel they should foster or adopt, they can still help children in foster care – by volunteering, donating, or becoming a respite parent.
We need people to spread the word about what we do. There are so many ways to help make a child’s life better. I’m grateful that I get to be part of that.”
“You know, kids say to me all the time, ‘You made it out! Why would you come back?’” she says. “But God has called me to come love and support them, so they can see they do not have to be defined or limited by their past, their childhood, their abuse, what has been done to them…those are awful and no one should ever go through what they have.”
“I’m proof that you don’t have to be defined or limited by your experiences or by what’s been done to you. You can let those things empower you. You just have to make the choice.”
For more information about the programs led by Sarah and Michaela, visit www.christiancity.org.