When Richard Oden was a child being shuffled from one foster home to the next, he remembered once overhearing a group of adults talking about their foster children.
“That kid is not going to amount to anything,” Richard remembered hearing about himself. “His momma was a prostitute, and she was on drugs. He doesn’t have a chance.”
But he had heard similar words said about another boy.
“David knew he had a chance [against Goliath] because he had God on his side, but his people didn’t know, didn’t believe that he had a shot,” Richard said.
He reasoned that he, too, could be a productive member of society because he had what David had.
“The rest of my life was my giant, and I was determined to succeed because I knew that God was on my side,” he said.
Richard, an Opelika resident and senior airman, has come “full circle” after a being a foster child and adopted son and 18 years later becoming a foster parent and adopting children. With the November 2016 release of his first book about his experience, Richard plans to donate a portion of the proceeds to foster care, adoption and military charities.
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The Department of Human Resources took Richard from his mother, who he later learned was a prostitute, when he was about 6 years old.
Usually he and his siblings would sleep in the back of cars, but on the night DHR found his siblings in Birmingham, they were spending the night in a hotel — a rare luxury. A neighboring visitor complained that children were being too loud, and the police found the four of them in the room without parental supervision.
Richard spent six years in the Alabama foster care system, moving 11 times. Along the way, he and one of his sisters were separated from their other two siblings. Though the situation was far from ideal for him, he had a bed to sleep in and food, two items he didn’t have all the time with his mother.
Richard stayed in a couple of homes that took him to church and showed him two things: who God was and what love was — concepts he said he didn’t know when he lived with his biological parents.
Foster children carry baggage with them throughout their life, Richard said. Often times he would settle in with a new family and make new friends just to be greeted by a social worker who told him to pack up his things.
Like other foster children, Richard had a black garbage bag that held a few personal items — like a light-up robot and clothes — a symbol of impermanence and baggage.
“A lot of times in foster care, you feel like you’re other people’s baggage, you’re other people’s belongings that they just toss out,” he said. Without a reason and upon command, he packed up, moved, unpacked somewhere else and packed up all over again. “So you kind of just feel like a suitcase just passed from one house to another.”
Growing up in foster care, Richard said he was forced to grow up faster that most people. He questioned God often, asking why he couldn’t live a “normal” life like other children around him with parents of his own.
But Richard and his sister did finally get a home and parents. Gerry and Debbie Oden, of Huntsville, adopted them into their family of four after Richard moved from Huntsville to Gardendale right before he turned 13. He would write letters to their son, Wes, who was Richard’s best friend. When they read the letters, they were heartbroken.
“I was just telling them how unhappy I was,” Richard said. “So my best friend did indeed become my brother, and it was pretty cool.”
Brittany Oden, 32, met Richard at a Huntsville church and started dating him as a 13-year-old and all throughout high school before marrying him at 19. They agreed to have their own children after 10 years of marriage and in the meantime decided to get a foster care license.
In 2014, Richard was deployed to Afghanistan as a part of the 187th Fighter Wing. There, he watched his daughter’s birth on Nov. 11. He was allowed to go home early from Afghanistan shortly after her birth.
In 2015, the couple ended up adopting their three foster children not long after having their biological daughter.
“We were family from the very beginning almost,” Brittany said of their connection with their now adopted children. “We just loved them from the beginning.”
With that, Richard received the answer to the lifelong question of “Why me?”
“God said, ‘Richard, I want you to be able to relate to your foster children better than 99.9 percent of the population,’ because very rarely do you find that a foster parent was in their foster children’s shoes,” he said. “And I was.”
His experiences also led him to write his book titled “My Full Life Circle, Squared.” He wanted to find a way to use his story to “change somebody’s world.”
“I’m not here to take the credit for my life,” he said. “I think that God has used me as a tool to show his light and his glory. If I don’t do that in the form of a book to show the world his providence, then I would be doing God himself a disservice, and there’s no way that I would do that.”
He wrote the book in Afghanistan, where he wrote about experiencing Taliban attacks in between outlining his life story.
Now 34, Richard weaves around the quadrants of the Haley Center with a dolly full of packages week in and week out. He waits for the elevator, takes signatures before dropping off boxes and bee lines back to his brown UPS truck. He has been with UPS for 15 years, and works as a package delivery driver.
He has five children, including one new foster child, ages 1 to 8. He said when he becomes a millionaire, he will write his second book. But with portions of the sales from his first book, he will give to adoption, foster care and military charities.
Big House Foundation in Opelika already received about $200 from a banquet in which Richard was a speaker, said Micah Melnick, founder of Big House. Those funds, which came from half of the proceeds from his sales at the banquet, will go into the foundation’s general budget, which helps pays for overhead and program costs, Melnick said.
He will give to Together We Rise in California, Agape of North Alabama and United Service Organizations after calculating the total book sales of first quarter since publication, which will be at the end of March.
“We want to take our story to motivate people to get involved,” he said, noting that people can contribute with their time, money or clothing. “And so we want to shine a light on what people can do even if they’re not foster parents.”
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