Fifteen-year-old Davion Navar Henry Only made national headlines earlier this month when he stepped up to the podium at St. Mark Missionary Baptist Church in St. Petersburg, Fla., and pleaded for someone in the 300-member congregation to adopt him.
“I’ll take anyone,” Only said. “Old or young, dad or mom, black, white, purple. I don’t care. And I would be really appreciative. The best I could be.”
His story ran in the Tampa Bay Times on Monday, Oct. 7, and went viral. Within days he was featured on ABC News as Diane Sawyer’s “Person of the Week.” On Monday, Only and his Eckerd adoption specialist, Connie Going, appeared on The View where Going announced more than 10,000 families from around the world had contacted her, wanting to offer the teen a home.
Sitting in the front row of The View audience was Richard Prince, 23, Only’s mentor for the last year and a half. Prince could hardly believe the teenager in front of him, the one who prayed before going on stage for God to give him the right words to say, was the same one who used to use profanity, kick holes in walls, and do all he could to push people away.
“You’re the first news person to ask what God is doing in all this,” Prince said when asked to do this interview. “God put Davion in my life for a reason.”
Two years ago, Prince was a college student at the University of South Florida, working in a medical office, and serving as caregiver for his grandparents. He regularly attended St. Mark, where his uncle is the pastor. One Sunday, St. Mark’s One Church One Child representative, Michelle Pearson, asked him to consider mentoring a foster child. She told him that while many young men who need a good male role model are in the system, most people they interact with are women.
Prince agreed to learn more and One Church One Child referred him to 4Kids of West Central Florida, a Christian foster care and adoption agency that also offers mentoring for foster children. After Prince learned he’d have to meet with a child for an hour a week for a year, he said he was too busy to commit. But in the end, he agreed to a compromise of meeting every other week with his mentee. When asked what kind of child he’d like to be paired with, he said, “I’ll take anyone.”
Pattie Cleberg, 4Kids’ mentoring coordinator, met Only in May 2012 when his caseworker referred him to the program. In a recent letter to supporters, Cleberg recalled Only as angry and depressed, desperately wanting her to find someone to spend time with him: “Anyone,” he said.
Cleberg matched the two people who said they’d take “anyone” and before long, seeing Only twice a month wasn’t enough for Prince. As their relationship deepened during the next 18 months, the pair spent as many as 3 hours a week together.
“I felt like God wanted me to do it. … My week isn’t complete if I don’t see him,” Prince said. “I had to take a leap of faith with my schedule—and I’m glad that I did.”
As they spent time together, Prince found it natural to bring up God when Only discussed his struggles, offering him a different way to look at his circumstances. Early on, Only said he didn’t know how to pray, so Prince told him to “just talk to Him like we do and tell Him what you’re angry about [and] happy about.” Over the months, Prince continued to tell the troubled teen he cared about him and his future.
Last June, Only did an online search for his birth mother for the first time and was shocked to find her obituary dated just weeks earlier—no one even bothered to tell him she’d died. With the fantasy of his mother returning to rescue him shattered, Only decided it was time to straighten up: He dropped 40 pounds, worked on controlling his rage, and now earns mostly A’s in school, according to the Tampa Bay Times.
Prince noticed the change in him immediately and began working to help Only set goals for himself. Meanwhile, adoption specialist Connie Going became concerned that Only had just three years before he “aged out” of the foster care system. With time running out, God put it on Going’s heart to go directly to the African-American church to find the teen a family, Prince said.
Going discussed the idea with Only, who agreed to speak in churches if it meant he might find a family, as well as bring awareness about other boys in the same situation. St. Mark was the second church to let Only speak. The morning they arrived, brought surprises all around: Going didn’t know Only had already attended St. Mark several times with his mentor; Only didn’t know he was going to his mentor’s church that morning; and Prince didn’t know they were coming.
When he saw them, Prince exclaimed, “Why are you here?”
“You’ll see,” Only replied.
As they sat together during the service, Prince helped Only locate the Scripture verses in the Bible and urgently prayed for whatever was about to happen. He whispered to Only: “God has called you to do this. Just be who you are. … Everything you have been through is a testament to how strong you are. This is nothing. Pray before you go up and God will give you the words.”
Despite media reports that the sermon was on-topic for Only’s upcoming plea, Prince said St. Mark’s pastor was not aware that the boy was going to speak until after the sermon, when someone handed him a small note during the announcements.
With the comfort of his mentor nearby, the familiarity of St. Mark, and the hope of God flowing through him, Only went off script and gave his now-famous address.
Prince was as shocked as everyone else when Only passionately disclosed he was an orphan looking for a family. “‘Wait—he feels that way?’ I thought. I’d never looked at him as an orphan before,” Prince recalled. After his talk, Prince shook the teen’s hand and for the first time ever, told Only that he loved him.
Like many of the reporters who interviewed Only, Prince was shocked to learn that there are thousands of foster children in America who are truly orphans—children with no legal parents, living in limbo as “wards of the state,” and needing new parents to commit to them. Almost 102,000 foster children currently are waiting to be adopted, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Children’s Bureau.
Godly Daniel, executive director for 4Kids West Central Florida, worries about what the press has dubbed the “Davion Effect”—the thousands of people who have heard his story and now want to take in an American orphan.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of it was an emotional response,” he said, pointing to the response people had to the hundreds of children orphaned during the 2010 Haiti earthquake. At first, families seemed desperate to adopt a Haitian child. “After awhile, they start really thinking, ‘Can I do this?’ Their heartstrings are pulled, but then when that child kicks a wall in, they will ask themselves, ‘Did I do the right thing?’ Yes, they did, but the [real question] is will they commit to that child even if he does that?”
Only might even have a difficult time adjusting to living in a family, and he could test their commitment by acting out, Daniel said. Families who adopt older children need ongoing therapeutic support, a “Christian therapist [who can help children] deal with past rejection and come to a place of forgiveness,” he said.
Prince hopes Only’s new family, whomever they are, will not only love him, but challenge his character and further his ability to grow as a Christian: “He knows it’s going to happen. His faith is unbreakable. He behaves like God has already selected him a family. He behaves like he’s already adopted.”