What if the choice came down to this: Clean up your act and be there for your children, or continue as a methamphetamine addict and lose your family, your home and your self-respect?
The answer seems obvious. But Kelly Olsen's younger sister chose meth.
That's why Kelly is now helping four extra kids with homework, running them to soccer and band practice and tucking them in every night. Already a mother of five, she now is responsible for a brood of nine, ever since the phone call came almost three years ago on Memorial Day weekend.
"Kelly? I'm wondering if you could come and take the kids," her brother-in-law asked from his parents' home in Idaho. "I just can't do this anymore."
With her sister out on a binge somewhere and her brother-in-law also hooked on meth, Kelly knew she had to act quickly. "I'm going to bring my sister's kids to stay with us," she told her husband, John. Then she was out the door and on the highway, hoping it wasn't too late to make a difference in four young lives.
Today, she knows it is never too late. If you were to drop by the Olsens' house in Herriman at bedtime some night, you'd find Kelly sitting in the middle of the hallway, reading from "Harry Potter" or "Little House in the Big Woods," speaking loudly so nine children in surrounding rooms can hear her from their beds.
After a chapter or two is finished, you'd see Kelly go from room to room to hear prayers and turn off the lights. Night after night, her sisters' children hug her and tell her the same thing: "Good night, Aunt Mom. And thank you."
"That's the best part having their trust and thanks," says Kelly, 41, over a Free Lunch of grilled halibut at McGrath's restaurant in Sandy. She wanted to get together in the hope of helping others who have stepped in to care for the oft-forgotten victims of meth.
"So many people are in this situation most of them grandparents with no idea where to turn for help," says Kelly, who, after months of paperwork, now has legal custody of her nephew and three nieces. "I'd like them to know there are options, like free school lunches, state assistance and Medicaid."
Doubling the size of her own family overnight was a strain financially and emotionally, she admits. For the first few months, her older children resented the intrusion. Sleeping bags covered the floors and clothes were strewn everywhere. "We had to eat in shifts because there wasn't room for everyone at the table," says Kelly.
The family has since moved into a larger home, but her sister's kids still face problems with anger and insecurity. Their parents are now in jail on forgery charges and could be facing prison time. "The kids wonder, 'Why did they choose drugs over us?"' says Kelly. "But we've stopped focusing on the 'why.' We concentrate on the 'what.' What can we do to make everybody's lives better?"
When each day ends, she is exhausted, but Kelly takes comfort in small rewards. She knows that one day she'll be attending nine high-school graduation ceremonies and seeing nine children off to college. "The best time to make a difference," she says, "is now."
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