For most of his 17 years, Undray Lewis has not had a normal childhood. He was in and out of foster homes in the Detroit area since he was a tiny baby, found by authorities at a meth lab. As he grew up, the families who fostered him lacked the time, patience and resources to manage his severe behavioral problems, including oppositional defiance and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder; these foster families were not able to call him their own. As a teen, he lived at a residential boys’ home through Wolverine Human Services, staying on campus and following strict routines.
At the age of 16, Undray’s life changed dramatically after Elliott Milligan read his profile on the Michigan Adoption Resource Exchange (MARE) website. Undray spent two weekends with Elliott at his home on Flint’s north side – the two clicked. “He had dirty feet,” laughs Elliott. “They don’t learn a lot of these things in the residential setting. I had to teach him how to sit on the edge of the bathtub and wash his feet. Then I took his boots outside and scrubbed them and put powder in them.”
Since that day, Elliott realized he sincerely cared about this boy he’d just met. They started spending more time together, and soon papers were flying as the adoption process got underway with help from Catholic Charities of Shiawassee & Genesee Counties. The adoption is expected to be finalized this year, and Elliott hopes to one day move to a better neighborhood.
“I feel real good about myself,” says Undray with a grin. “He’s taught me a lot of things.”
Having an uncanny knack for pulling things apart for repair and then putting them back together, Elliott works as a home maintenance man for RE/MAX. He has taught Undray vehicle maintenance skills, including how to install brakes and put on tires. With Elliott in his life, Undray has learned how to do everyday chores like laundry, washing dishes and taking out the trash. Undray, who likes playing basketball, following the NBA, and whose favorite food is meat-lovers pizza, is also gradually overcoming the hurdles of trusting an adult who he’s close to.
“It’s hard because you have a child with a whole lot of emotional feelings that they can’t make go away,” explains Elliott. “Over time, I’ve learned that as he gets older, he has started to trust me more. I had to tell him, ‘You’re here to stay. I’m not about to cash you back in and get another kid.’”
Growing up coping with a learning disability himself, Elliott feels he can relate to Undray’s academic difficulties in reading and math, and the stigma that goes along with it. Despite these issues, Elliot is not about to let the teen turn his learning disability into an excuse for pursuing a mediocre career. Elliott has recently started to investigate technical colleges for Undray, who will be a high school senior this year, hoping that one of them can address his educational needs and pave the path toward a degree or certificate. Undray likes his science classes, and hopes to learn computer repair.
“This is a kid who deserves a chance just like any other kid,” Elliott says. “I look at him and I hope to God he has a chance to get to those steps in life that I didn’t get to.”
Giving a child a chance to grow up in a loving home is something Elliott has done before when, a few years ago, he gained full custody of his great-nephew, Jamell, when the boy was two years old. “His dad was killed at Forest Park right down the street from me,” recalls Elliott. “There will come a time when I will have to explain why his dad is not in his life.”
Helping these boys learn to be independent and gain important life skills one day at a time is no small undertaking. His fatherly role with Undray has benefitted Elliott too, who is single and says he always wanted to adopt a child. “When he came along, I thanked God that He put Undray in my path,” he says. He takes the boys to church at Resurrection Ministries in Flint, and he’s looking forward to doing other fun things with them this summer, like going fishing.
“The kids who are in placement don’t have the chance to experience friendships or a normal childhood,” Elliott says. “They’re in and out of care and it’s not a steady relationship with a family. Undray has that relationship now.”
As Undray smiles over at him, it’s clear he believes it, too.
Photography by Mike Naddeo