While everyone has their own unique story, Donna Hernandez has certainly experienced her own set of trying circumstances and has overcome plenty of obstacles – especially in her early years. Donna experienced foster care and adoption as a young girl growing up in Phoenix, and understands how difficult it can be. Today, Donna is an HR Specialist with Arizona’s Children Association (AzCA) and is currently serving in the Army Reserves.
As a young child, Donna and her brothers were removed twice from their parents and placed under the care of their aunt and uncle, and then finally adopted by them when Donna was 13. While the adoption served as an opportunity to provide a stable home for Donna and her siblings, the stability was only temporary, as Donna and her adoptive parents struggled to maintain a nurturing relationship. When asked about the dissolution of her relationship with the family, Donna recalls the frequent reminder that she was a foster child, and the insecurities she experienced from that reminder.
“Children don’t need to be reminded that they are a foster child, they want to be treated like a child and a member of the home. At the time, being reminded that I was a foster child made me feel unwanted by my family. It made me feel that you didn’t want me to be yours. We just want to feel loved, and we want to feel the same as everyone else.”
While her adoptive family provided a material sense of security, there was little emotional security. At 16, Donna’s twin brother ran away to return to their biological mother. Donna followed a year later when she was 17.
“My mom saw us returning as an opportunity to start fresh, a second chance.”
Their biological father invited both to move to Colorado, and the two turned to each other to make a decision for both of themselves. They chose to stay in Arizona, which was a difficult decision as their biological family did not approve of their original adoption. After running away, Donna and her twin also lost that relationship with their adoptive parents.
“Our relationship with our Mom isn’t perfect, but that is still our Mom.”
The lack of instability in Donna’s childhood had a lasting impact on her. She recalls 9/11 as a pivotal moment in which she acknowledged her discomfort with uncertainty. This led to her wanting to structure her life. Although she maintained this desire, Donna would finally realize it at 32 when she enlisted in the Army Reserve, where she is currently in the 4th year of her 6-year enlistment.
“The transition was a total nightmare at first. I panicked and called my family when I was about to fly to South Carolina. I spoke with a soldier on the flight who helped me calm down. I felt out of place surrounded by 18-year-olds, but I took on the motherly role for these kids who were away from their families for the first time. It was heartbreaking, but I had a great bond with them.”
Donna remembers how hard she had to fight to get through basic training. She overcame the mental challenge of not seeing her kids for months at a time while also overcoming the physical challenge of breaking her hip during training. She credits her resolve during that time to wanting to prove to her two little boys that they can do anything they set their minds to.
Donna is focused on moving forward from her past, but acknowledges that it has a significant role in her life. When thinking about what she would say to kids who are in the same situation she was in as a child, she thinks about what she would tell her past self:
“It’s not always going to be this hard, just keep moving forward.”
Donna was inspired by her sister-in-law, Katie, and the career she has had at AzCA for the last 10 years, leading her to apply for a role of her own. In an effort to make a difference in the lives of other children in care, Donna began sharing her story with AzCA foster and adoptive parents. Donna is able to help parents and even caregivers understand things from the child’s perspective in care because, at one point in her life, she was that child.
“She has always been passionate about children and wanting to help those around her,” expressed Katie Hernandez. “When Donna joined the military, she was able to show her children and family that it is never too late to do something that you are passionate about. As a soldier and civilian (and mother), she embodies loyalty, dedication, commitment, strength, leadership, and kindness. She is such a hard worker and makes sure that her family is well taken care of.”
Donna is fulfilling her passion and using her life experiences to impact the lives of those she serves – at AzCA and through the Army Reserves. Her understanding of the uncertainty that children in care experience, and the lack of stability she endured, allow her to connect with kids in similar situations and guide them as they “move forward” on their own journey to fulfillment.