I've lived in and around Flint, Michigan, all my life. About seven years ago, I took in my 15-year-old niece, Ashlee, because her mom was having some troubles. The following year, Ashlee gave birth to a baby girl, Joi. Then, in February 2011, Ashlee passed away. Joi was 7 months old, and I became her guardian.

I'd always planned to have kids, but not this way. Some days I'd wake up saying, "God, is this really what you want for me?" It was all new: babyproofing my house, having to say no to Chicago shopping trips with friends. But Joi was mine.

I fought to adopt her for more than four years, through endless red tape: hiring a lawyer, tracking down her father, enduring waiting periods, getting written consent. During that time, I had a son, Carrington, with my then boyfriend. This photo was taken on Michigan Adoption Day; after the judge gave the final order, she let Joi come up and bang the gavel. I could feel Ashlee's presence in the room, like she was smiling down on us.

Joi's 6 now, and she lives up to her name. She's so happy and curious, always playing with her little brother. I work full-time and used to worry I couldn't handle the challenge of being a single mom, but I learned I have more strength than I knew. My heart is so much bigger than I thought.


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