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Angela Stephens

Between doctor visits, therapy appointments and hours spent filing adoption paperwork for her soon-to-be daughter Payton, Angela Stephens hardly has time for a life of leisure.

“I’m not somebody who gets my hair done or my nails done,” she reveals. “I don’t allow myself that downtime.” Angela admits that she should be better about taking time for herself; but, luxuries that appeal to so many other moms just don’t do much for her.

She’s always been a little bit different. “My heart’s bigger than my head,” she jokes, as she sits perched on a chair in one of her classrooms. In her teens and early 20s, when peers were busy making plans for their futures, Angela could think of little else except finding ways to help others, especially children.

After graduating from Baylor University, Angela discovered a passion for teaching children with special needs, particularly nonverbal children. Having suffered from hearing loss herself as a child, Angela found that she was able to relate to children who struggled with auditory processing and sensory integration.

“I could understand how these kids felt on an instinctual level,” she explains.

At just 23, Angela put together a business plan, lined up contacts and (by late 2007) launched It’s a Sensory World! in Farmers Branch.

Since then, Angela has nurtured and educated many children in her gym. But for the past several years, she’s dedicated herself to improving the plight of one child in particular — Payton.

On this day, fresh out of her kids’ yoga class at the gym, blonde-haired, brown-eyed Payton is all smiles. The 6-year-old offers a quiet “hello” and points out the flowers on her sweater. Angela beams with pride; Payton’s come a long way.

With vivid detail, Angela recounts the first time she laid eyes on the little girl, who was still wearing a size nine-month onesie at nearly 2-years-old. A concerned family member suspected neglect and asked Angela, a family friend, if she’d visit the girl at her home.

“She wasn’t making eye contact and was drooling,” Angela remembers. Every rib was visible. She was completely bald. She didn’t have a stitch of hair, not even eyebrows.

“I immediately fell in love with her,” shares Angela.

Eventually, Payton was diagnosed with developmental delays, failure to thrive and prenatal exposure to drugs and alcohol. Angela also suspects neurological damage stemming from a brain injury. Payton’s biological father told Angela he abused drugs with Payton’s biological mother. Matter-of-factly, he also disclosed that Payton was frequently left in her crib and neglected for days at a time, which led to severe malnutrition and injuries.

As a result of the trauma, Payton struggles with regulating her sensory system, auditory processing, and fine and gross motor skills, as well as numerous other health issues. She’s progressed by leaps and bounds under Angela’s care, but her needs remain extensive.

To meet Payton’s needs, Angela goes above and beyond. Sometimes, she says, it’s hard to remove her “teacher hat” at the end of the day. “I’m literally dong this 24/7,” she explains. When she’s not at the gym, where Payton is enrolled in multiple programs and undergoes therapy, she’s shuffling Payton between their Richardson home and appointments with medical specialists in the Dallas area.

“People think I’m crazy,” she says, referring to the lifestyle she’s chosen. “But if I wasn’t doing this, I’d probably have some foster home. I feel like it’s what I was put on this earth to do.”

It’s not an easy path she’s on. In addition to what’s been a grueling and demoralizing adoption process, Angela’s had to adjust to life with a child requiring special needs as a single parent on one income.

“I’d be lying if I didn’t say it’s taken a lot out of me,” she confesses, going on to say that she’s both emotionally and financially depleted. “I’ve had my fair share of meltdowns. I can’t even afford a babysitter until this adoption is finished. I’m not going to say it’s been sunshine and roses.”

With little time and even less money to spare, Angela’s social life has become practically nonexistent. Though “marriage and a baby carriage” was never something she aspired to, she says she would like to give dating a try someday. Until then, she relies on support from family, close friends and coworkers when she’s feeling overwhelmed.

“I can’t tell you how many people have helped me,” she emphasizes. Friends and family members have stepped in, organizing fundraisers and selling t-shirts to offset some of the adoption costs. Frequently, when she just needs a break, close friends take Payton for the night.

“It’s been a village,” she asserts. “It’s hard for me to take that kind of help because I’m always the one doing that for other people. That’s what I love to do.”

However challenging raising Payton is, Angela says she wouldn’t change a thing. Her concern for Payton trumps all, outweighing any reservations she’s had to overcome.

“I just wanted her to have a good life,” she says of making the decision to adopt the young girl two years ago. After the parental rights of Payton’s biological parents were terminated last year, a teary-eyed judge granted custodial guardianship to Angela. “In all my years sitting on this bench, I’ve never heard a story like this,” he remarked in court, according to Angela. “I’m completely amazed.”

Today, five years after she first met Payton and over a year since she initiated adoption proceedings, Angela says she’s exhausted but hopeful. The adoption is still pending but in the final stretch. Angela has high hopes for a huge celebration this summer when everything is finalized. She looks forward to gathering her friends and family at her parent’s ranch outside of Abilene, one of her favorite spots, and relishing in the sense of closure she knows she’ll feel when the gavel comes down.

Though she always wanted to be a parent, Angela says she knew from an early age that, for her, motherhood was going to look a little different. “I always knew I was going to raise somebody else’s child,” she affirms. “I just had this pull that this is what I was supposed to do. But it feels like she’s my child. Sometimes I look at her and I forget that I didn’t have her.”

While she’s anxious for the adoption to be made legal, so she and Payton can move on with their lives, Angela, now 35, says she’s happy with where she’s at. “I’m living my dream,” she adds. “I have my dream job and I got exactly what I asked for — the chance to change the course of at least one child’s life. I’m just taking it one day at a time.”

Published April 2014