Standing on the stoop outside the Nineteenth Street Baptist Church, Charay Johnson warns me that we don’t have much time.
She knows it may seem strange that a woman who is more grown than wide-eyed cares about a children’s game, but she loves the competition. She tells me this as we talk outside about who she is and how she ended up here, celebrating her birthday at a joint party thrown for her and other teenagers who — for one reason, or many — landed in the District’s foster care system.
“It was a week before my 11th birthday,” she tells me, explaining that is when school officials noticed the bruises on her body and she was taken from her family and placed in a foster home.
“It didn’t work out at that first home,” she says. “After that, I just kept moving from house to house.”
She starts to tell me more when that shout she’s been waiting for comes. Musical chairs is about to begin. Johnson rushes inside and sits precisely in the center of 23 chairs. She won the game last year, and she hopes to do it again.
As I watch from the side, I realize I’m hoping she does, too. I’ve just met her and I’m already rooting for her.
We tend to take for granted that children get birthday celebrations, that someone in their life will, at minimum, buy or make them a cake and put their name on it. But a D.C. group that works with older foster children realized early on that those teenagers and young adults often don’t get that. No one is thinking about what prizes to hand out at their parties or making sure they have a present to unwrap that day.
So, every year at the Northwest church, the staff at Family & Youth Initiative holds a communal celebration for teenagers and 20-something-year-olds who are either in foster care or have recently aged out. It is one of several events the nonprofit throws to connect adults in the region with young people who need help creating support systems because they don’t naturally have them. It also shows a side of the foster care system that isn’t the babies and chubby-cheeked children who are more likely to get scooped up and adopted.
At the party, each young person gets a gift bag, a photo album filled with pictures taken of them in the past year and a piece of cake, or cupcake, with their name on it.
They also get the chance to be silly and carefree, at least for a few hours. Whatever toughness they might present on other days falls away as they play children’s games.
When Susan Punnett, the founder and executive director of the organization, tells people about the party, she usually mentions musical chairs.
“One has not seen musical chairs until you see the win-at-any-cost tactics of both adults and teens at the party,” she says.
She is right. In the few minutes it takes for 23 chairs to dwindle down to two, bottoms bump, people fall and elbows seem especially limber.
“Hold my glasses,” one teenager shouts to someone nearby.
When it gets down to the final chair, only two people remain. Johnson is one them. She and a young man walk slowly around that chair as the music plays. Suddenly it stops, and he slips into the seat first, taking the win.
“It don’t even matter,” Johnson says as she walks toward me.
We sit down to finish the conversation we started. We have at least 10 minutes until the water balloon toss starts, and she doesn’t want to miss that.
“Growing up, I didn’t get birthday parties,” she tells me. “My mom couldn’t afford to do that.”
After she entered foster care, she says, birthdays passed without anyone trying to make her feel special.
“When I was 12, 13, 14, they didn’t do nothing,” she says. “It was really just ‘happy birthday’ and that’s it. One time my foster mom didn’t even realize it was my birthday until her daughter reminded her.”
There were different reasons she left each home, she says. One locked the freezer, controlling what she ate. Another made her clean the house every day, which left her so tired she was falling asleep at school. “ ‘I don’t get paid enough for keeping you’ — I’ve heard that so many times in my lifetime,” she says.
Older foster kids are lucky if they find a home where they feel comfortable and supported, she says. She has that now, but even so, she knows that, in a little more than a year, she will age out of the system and be on her own. Right now, she has a job at Forever 21, and she hopes to one day work in an office.
But there is time to worry about that later. Right now, games and cupcakes wait.
“Coming here and having all this,” Johnson says while looking around the room, “lets everybody know someone cares about them. A lot of kids here have depression and PTSD and when they come here, all that goes out the window. They’re happy.”
When it comes time for the water balloon toss, she is standing outside, ready. The game goes quickly, with balloons popping in hands and on the hot ground, eliminating one team after another.
“Charay wins almost all the games,” Cierra Bailey says. The 21-year-old just aged out of foster care but is also here to celebrate her birthday.
“Not this year,” Johnson says after her balloon bursts.
If she is disappointed at losing, it doesn’t show. She is smiling a short while later when everyone gathers to sing happy birthday. With her cellphone, she takes a picture of the cupcake with her name on it.
After that, the gifts are handed out. Inside each bag is a journal with a quote, uniquely picked for each person, written by hand on the first page.
“Who wrote this?” one girl yells when she opens her journal. “It makes me want to cry. Especially with what I’m going through right now.”
Hers reads: “It will never be easy, but it will always be worth it.”
When Johnson opens hers, she sees a quote from Serena Williams — and it is perfect.
“A champion is defined not by their wins,” it reads, “but by how they can recover when they fall.”