Preschoolers often put up shy facades—frequently interspersed with passionate filibusters about cartoon characters or their favorite snacks. Sometimes, their knowledge is transcendent.
Grown-ups can learn a lot from a 4-year-old.
Just ask Racquel Collins, PhD, assistant dean of the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences. She has traveled around the world in the Air Force, earned a doctorate in cancer and radiation biology, and run for public office. No matter where she’s been, her 4-year-old son, Wes, always seems to teach her some of life’s valuable lessons.
“We like to go for walks. When he sees a worm or bug, he wants to pick it up and touch it. He is fascinated by such simple things that I have maybe ignored for most of my life,” Collins said. “He teaches me patience and how to appreciate every day.”
That gratitude deepens when she reflects on how Wes came into her life.
Adoption is an option
Collins knew that her plan to grow her family would be through adoption, long before she learned that she could never have biological children. Once she felt that she had work and financial stability, she explored adoption as a single mother. Shortly after that, she met her now-husband, Steve, and shared with him her desire to adopt. To her surprise in 2015, Collins learned she was pregnant. She and Steve made plans for their new family. A few months later, she miscarried.
The couple began exploring adoption in November 2014. Collins desired to adopt a Black child because she grew up in a predominantly Black neighborhood. Her childhood neighbors and friends often took her in and showed her the meaning of family. She never forgot it.
On Collins’ birthday in November 2015, the couple received good news: They were matched with a child. On Thanksgiving Day of that year, they spoke with the child’s birth mother, who they affectionately refer to as “Fairy Godmother.”
“During that conversation, we found out that she had learned she was pregnant on the same day that we lost our baby,” Collins said.
Collins was in the delivery room when Wes was born in January 2016. She stayed in the hospital with Wes’ birth mother. Collins keeps in touch with her, and they visit on Wes’ birthday. Recently, Wes met his birth father as well as his maternal and paternal grandparents for the first time.
The month Wes was born, St. Jude launched its adoption assistance program. The benefit was inspired in part by St. Jude Child Life Specialist Ashley Carr, who shared her daughter’s adoption story and how a benefit might help future employees looking to adopt. Employees are reimbursed up to $5,000 in eligible adoption expenses.
When Collins adopted Wes, her family became one of the first to take advantage of the new benefit. It was a welcome relief, given the steep cost of adoption.
“In addition to the support of my family, I was grateful to have the support of my workplace,” Collins said. “St. Jude is a place where you can go to work and not worry about the bad things that life might bring. People are always going to be there to help you through.”
Since 2016, other St. Jude families have used the adoption benefit to help grow their families. For the second consecutive year, St. Jude has been recognized as an Adoption Advocate by the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption.
“Adoption is a long process, and it’s expensive. But for my family, it was an easy choice even though the process was difficult,” Collins said. “It’s an arduous journey because parenthood is an arduous journey.”
The experience of a lifetime
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Collins traveled around the country to colleges to recruit students to the St. Jude Graduate School. She spent lots of time on college campuses talking with prospective students. Wes often joined her. He’d hang out under a table or in the back of a presentation hall preoccupied with games and toys while Collins touted the benefits of the school. During breaks or downtime, Wes learned the art of making friends.
“He’s been to countless research symposiums,” Collins said. “He loves to make friends, but he likes to pretend he’s shy at first. He just goes up to people and starts talking.”
Collins describes Wes as spunky and rambunctious. He loves “Paw Patrol” and “Spider-Man,” and he enjoys disassembling and reassembling toys. He might be a future mechanical engineer, but sometimes Collins merely sits back and admires the person he is becoming—a thoughtful and charismatic kid who has changed her life.
“It’s amazing to see how he hugs people when they’re sad or he tries to make you laugh when you’re upset,” Collins said. “I don’t know if we taught him that, but we hug a lot and we say ‘I love you’ a lot.”