Innerviews: Life-altering diagnosis inspired adoption specialist
The interview was rolling along nicely. Early life. Schools. Jobs. All the normal stuff. Then, the bombshell.
“I had a brain tumor,” she said.
That jolting revelation was the dividing line in her life. Suddenly, everything before that, the first half, paled compared to what awaited in the second half, that second chance granted to her by successful neurosurgery.
Before, B.J. (Bobby Jean) Miller taught school, peddled welding supplies, sold real estate, a litany of endeavors geared simply to making a living. After, she wanted to do more, something that mattered. She wanted her life to make a difference.
She started working for the state as a home finder, evaluating homes for foster care and adoptions. Today, she’s the state’s senior adoption specialist, the go-to person who handles all the details that arise post-adoption, everything from arranging subsidies to resolving personal problems.
It’s a perfect fit, the tailor-made niche she wouldn’t have found without the turnaround afforded by life-changing brain surgery.
Along the way, she adopted two sons. Giving back. More reason for gratitude.
Failed marriages and other impetuous choices punctuate her journey. She blames (or credits) an open heart always willing to take the plunge.
“I’m a southern girl. I grew up in Aiken, S.C., and moved to West Virginia in 1979. The B.J. stands for Bobby Jean, very Southern.
“I had a very normal middle-class background. I was a majorette, very involved in baton twirling and all that in junior high and high school. My dad was in insurance and my mom worked in an office. I was basically an only child. I have a half-brother, much older, who wasn’t there most of my life, so I got spoiled.
“I always wanted to be a teacher. I had an aunt who was a teacher who I admired. I played school all the time. In high school, I worked with children, taught them swimming, that sort of thing. I enjoyed being around children.
“I went to the University of South Carolina, a Gamecock. It took me 10 years to get my degree because I worked my way through school, mostly in banking.
“I moved to Atlanta with my ex-husband right after I graduated. I taught fifth and sixth grade in an all-black school. Color makes no difference. Kids are kids. At the time, Atlanta was going through a court-ordered thing where teachers were bused instead of children. The school had 80 percent white teachers. I had 100 students and only two were white. I started teaching baton twirling after school.
“My husband was transferred to West Virginia. I was offered a job in banking and went that route instead of teaching. My friends had me convinced I was going to the end of the earth. I expected everybody to have blackened faces just coming out of the coal mines. But I found Charleston to be a delightful town.
“I was in banking for about 15 years. Then I became a stockbroker with Merrill Lynch. I didn’t miss teaching so much — the system — but I missed the kids. I never had any children of my own.
“I sold welding supplies for several years, until the company closed their office here. I learned to weld. You do what you have to do to survive. Most of the people I called on were men in the plants, very blue-collar people. If you know your product, you can sell. I managed a shoe department and sold real estate. I was divorced.
“About 15 years ago, I had a tumor in my brain the size of a softball. I’d started having problems reading. I got to the point where I would see a stop sign and could not read the word stop. It didn’t compute. I could spell it out in my head and figure it out, but not by just looking at it.
“A friend, a doctor doing her residency here, arranged for me to have an MRI one Saturday morning. We took the X-rays to her house and held them up to a window, and she panicked and said it wasn’t where she thought it was and it was larger than she thought.
“I was scared to death. My doctor friend knew John Schmidt, a brain surgeon here who is world-famous. He said I had to be in his office Monday morning. I took my friend Jeff Steindler with me. He took notes. I was operated on on Wednesday.
“Jeff took me to the hospital. I remember telling him what to do about my dogs and my belongings and all that, just in case. We generally put off those things.
“I had to go every year and have an MRI to make sure the tumor wasn’t growing back. So far, everything has been wonderful. Dr. Schmidt has turned me loose.
“After all that, I reevaluated some things. My mother had died, and as a reaction to that, I worked with hospice for four or five years on their speakers bureau and as a home care volunteer, so I realized none of us are going to make it out of here alive. My brain tumor made me face that more.
“I was selling real estate then. I decided there must be a reason I was given this other chance, and I started looking for something else. I found out about a job with the state as a home finder, someone who certifies homes for foster care and adoptions. I began working in Lincoln County as a home finder. I lived in Alum Creek and drove to Hamlin every day. Then I transferred to the Boone County office.
“I did that for about three years and met a lot of families who did foster care and had adopted children, and I started thinking that was something I could do. I had always liked kids. So I became certified and got my son Michael, who was 11 when I adopted him.
“The department has a website that has all the children who are available with their pictures. I saw his picture and a short description. It said he liked to read and was quiet and introspective. I fell in love with his picture. He was in a group home, and I started making weekend visits, and we would go to movies or go out to eat or something for a month or two. He got to move in with me, and six months later, he was my son. He is 21 now. He has some issues, but he’s a good kid.
“I have two sons. I decided I was spoiling Michael, and he didn’t need to be an only child. I saw a picture again and called the worker about meeting him. She called back the next day and asked if I could take him tomorrow. He was 14. I drove to Flatwoods and met the worker and Matt at McDonald’s in Flatwoods. I tease him now and say that in addition to a Happy Meal, I got a child at McDonald’s. Matt is 23.
“I have never regretted adopting my sons. I wish I had the capacity to take 10 because it has definitely been worth it.
“About the time I got Michael, this job became available. Originally, I wrote the adoption policy for the state. A few years ago, they reorganized things and I started doing adoption subsidies. I handle all the adoptions after they are finalized. I have 10,000 cases and I manage all the subsidy checks, the medical cards. If people have problems with anything after the adoption, if they’re looking for resources or moving or have problems with the children, they call me. I’m adoption specialist senior.
“I don’t like the pay, but that’s how it is, working for the state. I love this job more than any of the other jobs I’ve had. I help people. There are days when things aren’t so great, but I have a bulletin board in my office. I call it my Wall of Fame. There are pictures and thank-you cards from people who have adopted kids. When I have a bad day, I like to turn around and look at those smiling faces, and I realize it’s all worth it.
“There are a lot of kids out there who need homes. People don’t realize. They think these kids are more troubled than they are. Sure, we have kids who have problems, but with a biological child, there’s no guarantee they aren’t going to have problems. Everybody has problems. That’s life.
“I’m 64. I could probably retire in a couple of years, but I don’t know that I will. I’ve always been big on volunteering. I’m on the board of the Childhood Language Center, which helps children with language disabilities. A long time ago, I was the first female in the Kiwanis Club in West Virginia. I was a member of the Junior League and the St. Albans Woman’s Club. So I can’t imagine not doing something when I retire.
“I’m not sure things ever go the way we think they’re going to. I’ve been divorced several times. One of my favorite songs is ‘The Dance’ by Garth Brooks. If we knew what was going to happen, we might not have done what we did, but we would have missed the dance. And I’m a dancer.”
Reach Sandy Wells at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 304-348-5173.