Dakota was just 15-years-old when he was placed into the Tulsa Boys' Home by DHS.
"He's overcome abuse of every kind,” said Lesley Hemphill. “Neglect, years and years and years of trauma. There was a tragedy that resulted in him being removed from the home right before his 13th birthday.”
Hemphill was assigned to be Dakota’s mentor at the Tulsa Boys’ Home.
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“At the Tulsa Boys’ Home a mentor is like the greatest gift you can be given and for many of them this is the first person not required to be a part of your life."
Hemphill is one of more than 300 from Life.Church who volunteer at the Boys’ Home. These volunteers offer help with homework, give life advice, laughs, and moments of healing, a focus on hope. For Hemphill, the connection she shared with Dakota was instant.
"From the moment I met Dakota he has been abounding of joy and it is very hard for me to understand when I look at the circumstances that he walked through,” said Hemphill. “I mean [he] ate and found his food in trash cans, he has stab wounds all over his belly, I mean, he's a survivor, very much a survivor."
Hemphill was 24 years old and her bond with Dakota would grow. Soon her parents were volunteering at the Tulsa Boys' Home and getting to know Dakota. They started inviting him to family gatherings, movies, dinners, holidays, and even family vacations.
"I just can't imagine life without family, life not knowing that you're cared for and I think it was such a privilege that my family was able to get to spend so much time with them and what we were exposed for just, genuinely, some of the coolest kids ever,” said Hemphill.
Over time, Dakota was becoming a member of the Hemphill family. Hemphill remembers a moment that changed everything.
"They were going to send Dakota to boot camp and he's like, ‘No I don't think my mom would like that' and they were like, ‘Dakota you don't have a mom. What are you talking about?’” said Hemphill. “He was like, ‘Well, my mentors like my mom’ and so they're like, ‘Let's ask her if she will apply to adopt you.’ So I get a call what I had been praying for someone in authority."
At 27 years old, Lesley Hemphill went from being a single woman with no other children to being 17-year-old Dakota’s adopted mom.
The process wasn't easy. Hemphill says Dakota required continued therapy, monitorship, friendship, and discipline. He also needed an education. Dakota’s trauma was so severe Hemphill says he only had a 3rd grade level of education in his best subject.
He was able to graduate high school through Union Public Schools after 3 1/2 years.
"It felt like a lot of two steps forward, five steps back, three steps forward, seven steps back there was always progress and pushback always and we had to go back and seek help and thank goodness Tulsa Boys’ Home was always there to catch us every single time, our church was always there to catch us every single time, our family," said Hemphill.
Pastor Tome Dawson is the campus pastor of Life.Church South Tulsa. He says more than 300 volunteers from his church spend time at Tulsa Boys’ Home each month.
"Gregg Conway (Executive Director of Tulsa Boys’ Home) said … ‘I've got no problem getting people to donate footballs or baseballs or frisbees to the boys' home, what I struggle with is finding people to show up to throw that football, that baseball, or that frisbee and that's a way we can be hand to feed them Jesus and show up to throw a ball to those boys and be a constant in their life so they can experience healing and know there are adult relationships that you can have that are healthy,’" remembered Dawson.
Pastor Dawson says he can relate to the boys at the Tulsa Boys' Home.
"I come from a very abusive childhood and that was rough, that was rough, but here's what I found out when I came into Christ when I was 11 years old, was if anyone comes to Christ you're a new creation, old things are passed they passed away all things become new,” said Dawson. “When you have the hope of Christ in your life and he transforms you, there's a plan and a purpose.”
Perhaps it is because of that connection that Dawson is so passionate about helping the boys in the program. His staff and the attendees of his church, like Lesley Hemphill, offer healing and hope.
“The wonderful stories that we've been able to be a part of and contribute to on multiple levels at the Tulsa Boys’ Home are because of the hearts of those who have consistently gone out there and showed up weekly, many of them for years they've done that and it's made a tremendous difference,” said Dawson.
Lesley Hemphill is grateful that she made the decision to open her home to one of the boys.
“He is the most joyful person I've ever met and our house is just full of joy,” said Hemphill.