CEDAR CITY — May is Foster Care Awareness Month, recognizing the work of dedicated moms and dads to provide a foster home of safety, support and love to children who have endured terrible circumstances. One of those children has grown up and now credits foster care with saving her life.
Marie Landon, a patient care technician on the medical/surgical unit at Cedar City Hospital, was born in Chihuahua, Chihuahua, Mexico, and moved to Baja, Tijuana, California, when she was 4 years old.
“We called Tijuana ‘TJ’ for short,” Landon said. “And my earliest memories of TJ include my father drinking – and my angel mother doing everything she could to protect us from him.”
The story of her parents’ marriage is one that appeared to start like a fairytale, Landon said. Her mother, Maria, was 20 years old and working as a nurse at hospital in Chihuahua when her father, José, was hospitalized for tuberculosis.
“My mother took great care of him while he had to have half his lung removed from TB,” Landon said. “He was doing so poorly a priest was sent for to read him his last rites. While he was preparing to die, my father knew my mother already had a 4-year-old little girl, and he said ‘If you’ll marry me, I’ll adopt your little girl and then I’ll leave everything to you both when I die.’”
Miraculously, José ended up surviving the tuberculosis. He and Maria married, and they, along with Maria’s little girl Sylvia, went to live with José’s uncle, who was a wealthy and well-to-do governor of Chihuahua.
“My older brother George was born at their estate,” Landon said. “I was born there, and so were my two younger sisters Margarita and Teresa. My father and my uncle eventually had a big falling out, and our family then moved to TJ.”
While in Tijuana, Landon’s little sister, 4-year-old Margarita, accidentally fell off a retaining wall while playing outside and severely fractured her skull. She was sent to a specialty children’s hospital in California to save her life, where she spent months recovering.
“It was decided we all needed to move to California so our parents could be closer to her,” Landon said. “The paperwork to legally immigrate was extensive and took a long time, but finally was completed, and we all moved to Arcadia, California. My dad and mom found jobs as a caretaker and housekeeper for a home there, and the job allowed us all to live on the property. Each of us worked very hard to support our family, even as little kids we would pull weeds with my mom and dad, we worked strawberry fields too, just to be able to pay the bills.”
After some time, José started another job at a fumigation place, but it irreparably damaged his already weakened lungs, and he went on disability to collect welfare for the family.
“That’s when things went from bad to much worse,” Landon said. “He didn’t believe he had a purpose, and he began to drink again. A lot.”
Although she was known as a happy child and always smiling, Landon said, “nobody knew that behind my smile was a whole lot of pain and terror.”
The violence would often happen without warning, she said.
“My dad would be watching TV, and we would walk by to go to our room, and suddenly he’d just kick us, as hard as he could, right out of the blue,” Landon said. “I remember trying to gather courage to even walk past him, planning to myself, ‘OK, I have to go by him, so I’ll run as fast as I can, I can do this. Go!’”
Landon said they lived in a constant state of anxiety and fear, where her father would “fly into a rage and start knocking dressers over, throwing china, breaking things.”
“I remember hiding under the table many times, absolutely scared to death,” she said. “I would have bruises, welts, all over me, belt buckle marks from him beating us with a belt, all my growing up life. And the beatings were for no reason.”
The same violence was also endured by their mother.
“I recall jumping on my father and yanking his hair to try and stop him from beating her up,” Landon said. “He would, you know, do something like crack a Coke bottle over her head … but charges were never filed and the abuse continued.”
The violence went on through elementary school, junior high, then high school. Landon was a junior at Arcadia High on one particular school morning that became the final breaking point.
We were all having breakfast before we left for school, but we were running behind, and my little sister Margarita didn’t finish her milk. As we were getting ready to leave, my father spotted the unfinished milk and demanded, ‘Why didn’t you finish that?’ She wasn’t as afraid of my dad as the rest of us were. She shot back, ‘I was full!’ … He shoved Margarita and she fell backward onto my brother’s bed, and he began slapping her. I jumped on top of him and tried to pull him off. I remember I ripped some of his shirt because I was pulling so hard. He turned around and kept smacking me so hard that he broke his watch.
Landon and her siblings fled the home, she said, and later at school, her teacher suspected something had happened.
“I get to school, and sit down, but I’m late,” she said. “I was a model student; I was never late.”
Landon was sent to talk to the front office.
“I go up to the window and the office secretary asks me, ‘Why are you late?’” she said. “I was so beat down, so low, I decided to tell. I said, ‘My dad was hitting my sister, and he got on top of her, and I was trying to pull him off…’ And the secretary was like, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa! What? Come inside right now! You are going to talk to our dean Mr. Kramer and tell him everything you just told me.’”
Before she left Kramer’s office, the school already had a social worker waiting for her. Landon said the social worker, Mrs. Kinzer, would become one of the most powerful forces for good in her life.
“We talked and Mrs. Kinzer said, ‘Look, this is going to be rough for your mom, and I’m sure she’s not going to want to face this, but this is not how life is, honey. You are living in hell,’” Landon said. “It had never even occurred to me, up to that point, that our family life was any different than anyone else’s.”
Kinzer first suggested they could get Landon’s mother and the children who were still living at home into a shelter, but Landon said this terrified her even more.
“I started to cry, ‘No! We can’t do that! Our dad will come after us, he’ll kill us! He will find us!’” she said. “When you live in that kind of situation for so long, you truly believe that your abuser is all-powerful.”
The second option Kinzer offered was foster care.
“Of the two options, to me, that sounded better,” Landon said, adding that when she got home from school that day, she talked with her mom in secret about what had happened at school, and about their options.
“As painful as it was for her, she ultimately realized it was time something had to be done,” Landon said. “It broke her heart, but she agreed to meet with social services. … We made a plan: us kids would secretly pack needed items in a bag and in the morning pretend we were going to school but walk to our oldest sister’s place instead. Our mom would meet us there after we left that morning and we would all talk with the social worker about what our options were.”
That night each girl secretly packed a bag.
“I can only imagine what my mom was thinking that night, the pain she was going through,” Landon said. “I felt so guilty. I felt like I destroyed my family because I had spoken up. But you finally get to a place where you say, ‘This has to stop.’ … As hard as it is to understand outside of it, even after all he had done, each of us felt profound guilt. Even when he’d get drunk and violent, I felt I was responsible for his behavior. While it sounds crazy, it’s a very real thing you feel.”
She said her mom wept when they spoke to the social worker the next day, and through her tears, said she couldn’t leave their dad.
“I was actually grateful she decided to not leave,” Landon said, adding that even at that point, she was concerned her father would kill himself if they all left. “We weren’t sure how Dad would receive an income, as he received welfare for all of us children. But we needed to be safe, and foster care was going to make us safe.”
It was decided. The girls would enter foster care.
“My mom signed the papers that morning, crying as she did,” Landon said. “And she did this, for us. I said, ‘Mom, I love you. You’ll always be our mom.’ The Social Services team was there with Mrs. Kinzer, and it was time to go.”
In the Hispanic culture, Landon said, the oldest child present is given the authority and elevated respect, so she got to sit in the front seat of the car as they went to leave.
“I had always kept a journal and decided to write in it as we drove away,” she said. “I remember writing, ‘Here we are, on our way to freedom.’”
The Social Services team made phone calls all the rest of the day and into the night to try and place the three sisters together.
“Mrs. Kinzer didn’t want to split us up,” Landon said. “But at the time no one wanted three teenage Hispanic girls in California.”
Kinzer ultimately found a home that would take two of the sisters and another home for the third in different cities.
“As the oldest present, I had to make a decision who would go where,” Landon said. “My baby sister, Margarita, we called her Grit, was 12. The next older sister, Teresa, we called her Tree, was 15. I said, ‘Tree, somebody has to take care of Grit, she’s still young, so I will take Grit with me.”
Landon and her youngest sister lived in a few different homes for a time, trying to find a good fit.
“Sometimes there were challenges with a parent, sometimes there was challenges with another child in the home,” she said. “After a bit, we realized it wasn’t going to be possible for Grit and me to stay together and find a good home that would take us both, so Mrs. Kinzer found a good home for Grit, and she found a good home for me. I laugh when I remember how Mrs. Kinzer billed this new possible foster home to me: ‘It’s with a great Mormon woman! She makes her own preserves and bread! She sews!’”
Kinzer said this particular foster home only took babies, but she personally knew the parents and felt Landon and this family, the Vehawns, would be a great fit. Kinzer talked the Vehawns into taking the teen on a trial basis.
“The first thing I noticed when I arrived at their home was this tiny little woman, she’s like 4’9” and she’s adorable!” Landon said. “Her name is Ethel Vehawn. Her husband Tom was bishop of their LDS church ward. They had two biological children and also adopted two babies where their mother had used drugs, so they had a few little ones there already. One was a crack baby, a little boy, and when he had first arrived all his teeth had been rotted out from neglect. The Vehawns had adopted him and his older sister.”
As it was June at the time, the Vehawns were planning a summer vacation trip to Montana to see Yellowstone.
“Up to this point I had never traveled anywhere beyond where we lived,” Landon said. “How I hoped they’d take me. … I had never had a family trip before. I couldn’t even imagine what it would be like.”
The Vehawns ultimately agreed to be Landon’s foster parents, and she got to go on the trip.
“We set out on the road, and we are all together and safe and happy and seeing the sights, and oh, it was the most beautiful thing ever!”
Landon would go on to flourish under the attentive, loving care of the Vehawns, who cared deeply about the teenage girl and keeping her connection to her siblings and family strong.
“Mom Vehawn was insistent to get me with my sisters at every possibility,” Landon said. “She’d also say, ‘If you want to see your mom and dad, I’ll drive you there.’ We weren’t ready for that, so instead, my mom would come over to visit us at Mom Vehawn’s.”
Landon said the Vehawn home provided a level of safety and stability she’d never known, and as a result she decided to change the spelling of her name, “to reflect my new self.”
“I was born Maria, and I grew up being called Mary,” she said. “I didn’t like being Maria, I didn’t like being Mary. When I entered foster care, I decided to change my name to a new one, Marie. I wanted to start a new life. My foster parents called me Marie. I left Mary behind.”
However, while life was good for Landon, she said that as she began to experience what a home was like without violence, her resentment grew.
“I was a little angry my mom didn’t leave my dad,” she said. “I felt like, ‘How dare you let him beat us? Beat you? I would never let that happen to my children.’ And my mom didn’t admit it until later, but she was jealous of my foster mom, that she could provide a home of peace and safety.”
Now as a single parent with six children of her own, Landon says she understands the deep pain and complexity of what her mother went through just to survive.
“It has taken time and work, but I would say I have forgiven my mother,” she said. “My mom and dad stayed together after we left. I learned later from the neighbors my father had told everyone his girls were in a girl’s home for running away.”
Landon would see her biological parents when she got married. Her father, José, insisted on walking her down the aisle for the wedding.
“It turns my stomach to think of it,” she said. “We are literally walking down the aisle, and, referring to the watch I broke when I was protecting him from my sister when she hadn’t finished her milk, my dad turned to me and the only thing he said to me was, ‘You still owe me a watch.’”
Shortly after the wedding, her father and mother moved back to Mexico. Her father passed away at the age of 47, and Landon’s mother passed away just six years ago.
Through a time of great change and uncertainty, Landon said the unconditional love of Ethel Vehawn – whom she alternately refers to as “Mom Vehawn” or just “Mom” – was a lifeline and source of strength and comfort.
“No matter what, Mom Vehawn was there for me every minute, supporting me in whatever I chose for my life. Just a rock.”
Landon said Vehawn remains a loving, devoted mother.
“Mom Vehawn is in her 90s and is still going strong, and is very close to me and to all my children,” she said. “My youngest child, Rachel, is on the autism spectrum and sometimes Rachel calls Mom Vehawn twice a week just to say “hi” and tell her about her life. Rachel loves her!”
Landon added that Mom Vehawn had gone through some big challenges in recent years.
“Dad Vehawn passed away three years ago,” she said. “One of her two biological children just passed away from cancer, the other she is losing to cancer right now, too. One of her adopted children struggles terribly with addiction and is in and out of rehab, tries to clean up her act, but has even stolen from my mom. Mom Vehawn continues to love her and be there for her.”
Landon said that life has had some extremely painful challenges.
“But also, life is what you make it,” she said. “Mom, despite the challenges she had in her life, on an act of pure faith, took in an abused Hispanic teenage girl and loved her as her own. Gave her stability, and safety and support. Loved her no matter what. She has always stood by me and has been a constant source of love to me. Her serving me has helped me find my purpose in life.”
Landon said her purpose is to love and care for others.
“Serving others brings out who you really are,” she said. “We were the recipients of the Salvation Army countless times in my life. They would give my mom vouchers to be able to get us clothing at thrift stores, or for Christmas presents.”
As a result, Landon said she rings the bell at collection locations every year for the Salvation Army and volunteers for the Southern Utah University Angel Tree program, which provides needed items and gifts at Christmas for families in need.
“These kinds of programs were kind and generous to us, as those suffering from poverty, abuse. I want to give back in some small way what we were given.”
She added that taking care of others includes taking kind care of oneself.
“I am a big believer in mental health counseling,” she said. “It helps to identify old patterns and create new, healthy ones. Setting and enforcing important and healthy boundaries is also part of this.”
Finally, just like Mom Vehawn, Landon said she never judges anyone.
“We have no idea what each of us have gone through in our lives,” she said. “You can be sitting next to someone and have absolutely no idea that they might be going through the worst time in their life. I know what crushing pain feels like. I know what terror feels like. I know what it is to feel utterly worthless. I know agony. And it’s humbled me.”
Landon said these experiences have contributed her sense of deep compassion for others.
“I have been where they have been, perhaps not in the exact same way, but pain is pain. I can truly be there for someone else, because I truly understand. Mom Vehawn was there for me. She loved me without condition. I want to be that for others.”
Written by BECKI BRONSON, Cedar City Hospital.
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