I was homeless and my life was trash. Then this Seattle family took me in
This is me and my family. My mom, my dad, brother, and sister. (Not pictured: cats.)
Six months ago, they were just strangers. And six months ago, I was homeless and couch surfing. I worked about 35 hours a week at Panda Express while attending school full time. I was a junior in high school, 16 years old.
For most people, family will always be family because you're blood. But in my case, it doesn’t quite work that way. If you’re wondering, my parents were divorced and my dad lives in Japan. My mom raised me, but she passed away in 2010 when I was 11.
I moved to Seattle last year to live with yet another group of family members, but I didn't get along with them, so they kicked me out.
It was February, and I was running out of friends to ask if I could sleep on their couch. I became desperate.
There was this guy at school I kind of knew. I'd only talked to him like twice. I thought he was a valid person to ask for a place to stay only because I knew his name, Tamar Manuel.
One day, I approached him in the lunchroom. Instead of the usual, "Hi Tamar," I was like "Yo, I need a place to stay. I'm homeless."
"It was a little bit of a shock," he told me later, "just because we weren’t super close." But he added, "I’m the type of person like if you need help, I’m going to go out of my way to try to help you."
Tamar's stepdad Alan Lee had reservations.
"I wanted to have an open mind about it," he told me. "We didn't know you. Tamar didn't exactly know you."
Tamar’s mom Tanya Kim came to my school, interviewed me and wrote everything down. I was intimidated.
But she said yes.
The first night I slept at their house, Tamar’s older sister, Mariya Manuel, cleaned up her room and insisted I sleep on her bed. Some couches I slept on before would be considered soft, but nothing compared to this.
"You needed it more than I did," she explained. Her mom even knocked on my door and offered me a glass of water. It felt like a hotel.
I stayed for a couple weeks, and then the strangest thing happened. One evening, Tamar’s mom picked me up from work around 11:30 p.m. She asked if I would like to join the family.
I was in complete shock for a couple of seconds. When other families usually talked to me, they asked me to leave, but this time they asked me to stay.
This may sound silly, but I considered this my miracle.
Tanya Kim told me that she and Alan Lee really had to think about if they could support me for a year, until I go to college.
"We felt that's something we can provide," she said, "and you blended in. It was like, this is working, so why not relieve the stress?"
At that point I decided to call Kim mom because for once someone was sincere about taking care of me.
So this is my everyday life now. I wake up and pick out clothes from my dresser. I feed my cats. I still sleep in my sister’s bed while she still chooses to sleep on the couch.
I used to sell my clothes for extra money, and the longest I’d usually stay in one place was four days. Now it’s different.
I never questioned anything because I wanted to be appreciative. However, I wanted to know how my brother Tamar felt. This all started because of him.
"It was a little weird at first," he explained. "Don't take this personally, but we went from friends to somebody I was like, 'Goddammit, go away!' It's fine, because that’s how families are."
I'm really feisty, or as my mom put it, I have "the full range of intense emotions and experiences." She said my natural disposition is really positive and warm but that I'm also managing some sadness.
"Hopefully the warmth and happiness will take over so you can just be your natural self," she said.
It was weird to have someone know me. I wasn’t used to it.
I didn’t grow up with a dad but Alan Lee filled that role. I call him appa, Korean for dad.
"To hear you call me appa, like how I called my dad appa, I want to honor that," he told me. "I know that you have a dad, and I know that you’ve called other folks Dad, too. I'm very honored to be part of that."
I usually go to him when I want to talk, so we went and sat in the car in the garage.
"How are you doing?" he asked me.
"I think that I've been better," I said. "Now that I can be stressed somewhere else but then come home to get away from it. I can say my life was crap all I want, but the truth is these past months have been the best in my life."
"That's great," he said.
"And like the amount of food you guys feed me," I said, "I'm pretty sure I gained a little bit of comfort weight."
Lee laughed. "Well, how you describe home is how I would too," he said.
I finally found people that understand me. My life was trash, but this family changed my life.
April Reyes is now a senior in high school and plans to pursue college and a master's degree in social work. She created this story in RadioActive's Summer 2016 Intro to Journalism Workshop for high school students at KUOW. Production support from Nina Tran. The editor is Jenny Asarnow. Listen to RadioActive stories, subscribe to the RadioActive podcast and stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.