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096 – The Safe Space That’s Don’s Place

Singer Song writer Jenni Alpert, commonly referred to by her birth name, Cami had a wonderful life supported by her adoptive parents as she pursued the performing arts. After her adoptive father passed away, she learned that her biological mother had too. Her maternal connections went well over time, but her paternal side remained a mystery. Locating her birth father was one thing… doing reconnaissance, ensuring her safety, and tapping into over a decade of her various volunteer experiences with people who’s lives were in the streets was something different. In their story you’ll hear the dedication of a daughter who found her birth father down and out, accepted him as he was , and worked hard to find a pathway for them to reunite and share their love of music. This is Jenni’s journey.


Damon (00:10): [inaudible]

Cami (00:10): [Show you good love in so you know you’re mine. one of these days it wouldn’t be long. all of the shadow you will be gone. Want you to see deep in my heart. Show you the truth from the start? one of these days it wouldn’t be long. (song) ]

Cami-Jenni (01:08): Okay. For all of the times that I worked with those that were in the prison system, it was like everything I had ever done, everything I had ever saw. All of a sudden now it made sense to me. Now I was staring at my birth father who had encompassed all these little details in his own very life, but he was a person and he was a musician and it was just really thrilling.

Damon (01:53): Who am I? Who am I? Who am I? Who am I?

Damon (02:00): Who am I? Who am I? This is who am I really a podcast about adoptees that have located and connected with their biological family members. I’m Damon Davis and on today’s show is singer songwriter Jenni Alpert, commonly referred to by her birth name Cami. The song you just heard is called one of these days. Jenni had a wonderful life supported by her adoptive parents as she pursued the performing arts after her adoptive father passed away. She learned that her biological mother had to locating her birth father was one thing. Ensuring her safety and tapping into over a decade of her various volunteer experiences was something different. You will hear the dedication of a daughter who found her birth father down and out, accepted him as he was, and worked hard to find a pathway for them to reunite and share their love of music. This is Jenni’s journey. I was at home one night when my wife Michele called me to the television to hear an incredible news story of a woman who found her biological father and he was homeless. I was so intrigued. I immediately found Jenni online and invited her to be my guest and she agreed. Jenni’s life started out in foster care and she moved to many different homes and had several different names. Listen here as she describes her beginnings, the protective re-identification she went through and how she’s arrived at her identity today.

Damon (03:33): I was in the foster care system at the time I was born. I was placed there and I was in several different homes until I was almost four. And I ultimately, um, was able to land a forever home around age four and was catapulted from inner city Los Angeles named baby girl Morantz first the first foster home then named me Jennifer. Then I was given away to a second foster home without the state knowing. Then I was found a little after a year and a half later placed into a couple of emergency holdings, moved around so they could figure out what to do with me and ultimately at the same time that was happening, my future adoptive parents had wanted to ensure that they would get a girl and so they had placed a request in with the adoption agency to try to adopt girl about a year previous. And finally they got a phone call when I came available and they said, are you still interested? There’s a girl that you can pick up tomorrow. So my parents got in the car, they got a doll they got, well actually they got a bunny rabbit cause it was around April around Easter. Even though we aren’t observant in any religious context, we happened to be a culturally Jewish family. They still brought a bunny to pick me up. And um, they, they gave me this bunny at which I still have to this day and uh, and I got the name, the last name, Alpert as my final component from baby girl Morantz to Jennifer to then I shortened it to Jenni a little bit later to Alpert, always knowing that none of those names were my intended name, but a name really is reflective of how people identify themselves and build their relationship to you. So I was always a name for someone else, but as it turns out later on in life though, I knew I had some birth name and I couldn’t really remember or no one really told me like what was, I just knew it was something else. Ultimately it turned out with the court papers that I was given later that my name was actually intended to be Cameron. And so later on in life I’ve shortened it to Cami. So I have like a personal birth name that I go by Cami in certain circles and my music name. Also my adoptive name, Jenni Alpert is more like the online. And my adoptive family circles. So it’s kind of neat to have identities connecting to different circles, making a huge community and seeing the value of a name really being important for other people, how they see themselves in relationship. To me,

Damon (06:45): that is absolutely fascinating. Wow. And you know what’s interesting to me as you were talking, I couldn’t help but focus in on the part where you said that you were renamed in the foster homes. I didn’t know that the foster homes one had any sort of legal ability to do that, but two, I’ve, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anybody say that before. Have you heard that before with other people?

Damon (07:09): I don’t know. But I do know that my story has a couple of twists and turns that would explain why a lot of different things happen that were unique to my story. So the first piece is because my birth mother had really wanted to keep me and had intended to name me Cameron, but my birth grandparents were concerned about my wellbeing related to how I was conceived and the connection to my paternal family members at the time. It was very scary. For a lot of people that they erased my name and my birthday and just kind of made it ambiguous so that they couldn’t find me. So pretty much from being born they put me in a safe space and called me baby girl and kind of pushed back the birthday a day cause I was born on the cusp between September 11th and September 12th and I just, I really didn’t have a defined identity until the first foster home.

Damon (08:19): That is fascinating. Wow. When Jenni arrived at her family’s home at the age of four years old, life and their family with other children was well underway. Her adopted parents had each been married before. Her father had two biological boys in their early teens and her mother had adopted a boy around their same age. Jenni showed up to a home with three older brothers, but they’re all family. Her adoptive mother’s mom, her adopted father’s dad and her brothers are just her brothers. Later you’ll hear Jenni make the distinction between her by referring to her maternal and paternal sides respectively. Jenni said that while she grew up with a lot of only child experiences, she still had the protective older brothers who picked on her and taught her to defend herself. So you had some older brothers who were looking out for you as you grew up and by the time you’re four and you come into someone else’s home, you know you’re an adoptee whether they talk about it or not. How, how was adoption portrayed in your home?

Damon (09:26): I don’t really think there was a definitive portrayal. I was definitely old enough to know that I had already been in four different environments and moved around. I can’t really place psychologically at the time if I really knew much detail that because one of the foster homes I had been in stepped forward and tried to get me back when I was first placed with the outbursts. There was actually like a six month court case between that second foster home who never really should have had me in the first place. And the Alpert’s having to go through a whole psychology evaluation and court case evaluation in order for them to actually secure adopting me. And that was an interesting piece that I vaguely remember happening and I remember not really knowing yet where I was going to end up, but I don’t really remember associating like here or a concern. I think by that time I already had the survival skillset to just acclimate to different environments and just was waiting for the outcome like anyone else.

Damon (10:42): That’s really fascinating. Again, I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a foster home fighting to get a child back that has been placed for adoption. That’s really interesting too.

Damon (10:52): Yeah, it’s a very different story. So my birth parents were never married, but they met because my birth mother had some traumatic struggles in her late teens, which catapulted her onto what I call the mental wellness spectrum. And I would say that she was quite low functioning on the mental wellness spectrum for a long time, and her traumas triggered schizophrenic behavior. And back in those days, it was such a issue for families that she was put in a mental hospital quite young and pretty securely and really couldn’t get out. And at that time the one flew over the Cuckoo’s nest storyline really paralleled with a lot of experiences that are noted that she had and so she was drugged. There was a lot of things that were inside the mental hospital that she was in and I don’t think that it was necessarily the most fruitful place for her to transition out of.

Damon (12:01): While her mother was institutionalized, she met a man who had institutionalized himself as part of a separation from his wife and family. Since he checked himself in, he was probably able to check himself in an out of the hospital. So when he connected with Jenni’s birth mother, he took her under his wing and was able to convince her family that he was trustworthy to supervise her leaving the facility. What the family didn’t know was the man wasn’t as stable as he portrayed. He had a past drug history and his mental wellness was also fairly low. Her birth mother ended up meeting a lot of new people through this man, including his family.

Damon (12:40): But my birth mother had really wanted a child and thought it would help her free her from the circumstances that was her life, if she could just have her own family. So over the course of several years in that time frame and in that era where things were a lot more lax, even though legally they aren’t and weren’t, she engaged in lots of different experiences and a lot of those experiences were with underaged people. And I think part of that was her reverting back to ages where she was more comfortable to be herself. And in the product of that having happened, I was conceived, which I call invented. So I was invented, um, when she was spending time with my birth father who happened to be one of the sons of the man who helped free her from the mental hospital in the first place. So it was a very convoluted, very involved, very dynamic, detailed circumstance. And there was many details that were so concerning to so many people that it was very hush, hush. And that really was before she engaged in the drug activity as extreme as it turned out for her. But my birth father, who was significantly younger than her by maybe 15 years actually had already been in and out of juvenile halls and youth authorities already doing drugs at age 16 already stealing to have money coming from a hoarded, impoverished, very lack thereof environment. But there was intimacy there, there was some sense of connection there and at some point I was invented and there were a lot of circumstances thereafter when they figured out paternally what had happened, who it was, how this even took place. Obviously the courts got involved because my birth mother was already a ward of the state with her mental circumstances and my birth father was already a ward of the state with his impoverish and drug use and crime ridden youth background that that it was already red flag. So once this came to fruition, the police instantly and immediately took me away and put me in emergency foster home and my birth father stepped forward and took the complete wrap for having engaged in any sexual experience with my birth mother so that she wouldn’t go to prison for a statutory experiences. And he was already in trouble anyway. And it was nothing to him to get thrown in the hole for a year, you know. But they knew once this was going on, he would never be able to legally have access to me for his own reasons. And in order for Mary Lou to survive, you know, any outcome of her choices, she had to admit that she wasn’t mentally well to take care of me or fit to keep me regardless, regardless of if she had the potential to do that, which we would never know that she had to sign away the rights to protect herself for how I came to be. And that’s why I was in the foster care system immediately. And also why I was in it for so long.

Damon (16:11): Jenny has sifted through legal documentation that have illuminated a lot of what happened in how her own chapter. One story unfolded. There was the case involving her invention and placement into foster care. She knows that it took three years for her birth, mother’s relinquishment to be completed in that time. The first foster home gave her to another family who didn’t qualify to be foster parents, wanted to be parents and may have even known her biological family because she’s seen pictures of herself in that home. That inappropriate placement was a second court case that Jenni examined to piece her story together.

Damon (16:48): And then after I spent how many ever years it was with the outputs before my adoptive father passed away of cancer, my birth mother died before I had a chance to meet her. And then there was a whole court case relating to her death. And so ultimately all of those court cases have documentation of a lot of the storyline. So from what I heard a little from what I experienced, and then ultimately from what I read, I can piece together pretty well. A lot of what happened and how I kind of came to be.

Damon (17:20): I asked for a little clarity on the relationship between Jenni’s birth father and birth mother. She confirmed that her birth grandfather was the man who was checking her birth mother out of the mental facilities. It was a much looser time for love and relationships, so her birth father is the man’s son. It seems that in their community, their sharing of partners wasn’t uncommon. When Jenni was in high school, her adoptive father came down with cancer. She described it as an immense challenge because her older brothers had moved on to college, so it was just her and her mother at home with her dad. Jenny was also preparing to go to college, trying to make the best of her parents’ support, but she;

Damon (18:04): Always felt a little lost and disconnected with my own sense of self and identity.

Damon (18:14): Jenni’s parents had fostered her talent for music theater, dance choir, and encouraged her to take lessons and to get involved with the performing arts in high school. A springboard to expanding upon those in college, but at that time, her adoptive father bill was diagnosed with a malignant melanoma.

Damon (18:34): So my mom and I focused a lot on living in the moment with my dad as long as we would have him and on the side. What I didn’t know was that my birth mother had died right about that same time on the sidewalk from some kind of drug overdose. And the reason that my mom was told that was because we were also a unique court case involved in what’s called a state planning, where before that time most adoptees are severed from their birth families and there was no such way of inheriting anything ever. But for whatever reason, because my birth great grandmother and grandmother have structured a very specifically legal document with the estate plan outline that included me despite the fact that I was adopted out of the family because my birth mother died so suddenly and then lawyers got involved to sort of figure out the legal paperwork. My mother was contacted, told that she had died and that there was a court case pending. That was actually a federal case to help adopted children inherit if they’re written legally in such a certain way. And so because I was still a minor for another year, my mom allowed the court case to take place silently and didn’t really even tell me that my birth mother had passed away because she thought it would be too much for me to deal with my adoptive father having cancer and my birth mother passing away. So by the time I was in college, my first year, that’s when my mom told me and she waited until the court case came to fruition where one;

Damon (20:30): Jenni informed me that her case for inheritance helped structure federal law for all adoptees to be able to inherit from their biological families if the legal ease has been put in place to properly document the family’s wishes. When her case was won, Jenni received a lot of legal documents including the names of her biological family. She learned her birth family had relocated from Colorado to Los Angeles and had some large historical stakes in some Jewish movements in that city. She had a few cousins and extended family still living, so they all got a chance to meet in the years following Mary Lou’s death, the paternal side was still steeped in lingering storylines. So Jenni remained focused on exploring her maternal side for a while. She told me she was always curious about her own identity and ethnicity, even though she was told she was ethnically Jewish. Culturally, the values, ethics and morals, which her maternal side of the family hoped she would continue to receive an adoption did play a big role in her life and in her family. When introducing herself to her maternal family, Jenni;

Damon (21:38): Gave people an option to decide whether they wanted to welcome me. And I was very lucky that most of my maternal side, whom of which I met first or curious about me, didn’t know necessarily about me, wanted to know. And they really welcomed me. I actually, as a musician, I toured around the United States quite extensively many times, um, to perform and and, and play music and to meet birth family scattered about to afford to meet them actually and perform for the*m and see that I look like this person and sound like that person and so the whole maternal story unfolded first I would say.

Damon (22:18): That’s really cool.

Damon (22:20): Interesting. Yeah.

Damon (22:21): That’s fascinating. While Jenni was talking, I had this burning curiosity about something she said that we really hadn’t touched on when she was a teenager. She learned that her birth mother had passed away in the wake of her adopted father’s death. That’s some heavy news to absorb. When I asked her how that news hit her, she took me back to her days at UCLA studying native American literature. She was reading a story about a native American woman who was adopted out of her tribe into an Anglo Saxon home. Then reunited with her tribe. She said she’s always felt a connection with that story, feeling indigenous herself, identifying with cultural connections and being inspired to find her birth mother. When she told her adoptive mother about her deep interest in the class, the story of this native American woman and her desire to search for her own birth mother.

Cami (23:16): That was when she kind of just blurted out, well she died. And I remember how she told me we were in the car on our way back to UCLA, um, after either a Thanksgiving break or something like that. Yeah. And I just got quiet and sort of froze and I think that less about the loss of opportunity to ever get to meet her, but more about the reality. It was real. Like I was a kid who was in the foster care system and I had been adopted into the outbursts and they were my then and now family. And I had a birth mother who was someone else. And it was a real story and it was my story. And then she died. And that’s real. And I think that that was really the just, I don’t know, silent thing moment where I was like, Oh wow. And yet I’ve never harbored any resentment or any upset or any sadness, so to speak about her life and choices except maybe an empathetic sadness for her own life. And I think a lot of what I do in my life now, in some ways I get excited, Oh, I can paint a painting. I never knew I could paint. Well, she was a painter, we’ll all just paint this painting and finish what she never got to start, you know? Or somehow in certain random circumstances there’ll be a natural talent to maybe design or interior decorate. Something that I wouldn’t think of ever doing on my own. And then I feel almost spiritually guided by maybe one of her talents. And I think, well, I’m going to do this in lieu of the fact that she never had a chance to do it herself. And later I found that she had a scholarship to UCLA and she never finished. And she was also there. And I just find that in other things, serendipitous and very interesting and very genetically inspiring. And I think for the nature versus nurture conversation, a lot of what I do, I hold real steadfast in my heart. I want to do these things to live out the choices that maybe she never got to do as an extension of what she created on this planet. And I think that that’s what motivates me internally a lot. And so, you know, the fact that I didn’t get a chance to meet her in the real life person, um, yeah, maybe that was just sort of a meant to be thing. And I don’t know that I ever really, I dunno, I don’t think I ever really felt a loss about it because I’ve always sort of felt an energy of her presence guiding me in some sort of spiritual way anyway. So it just wasn’t the right lifetime, I think for the two of us to meet in person.

Damon (26:11): Turning to her birth father, Jenni said she was examining her own desire to start a family. She started the journey to find him because she felt there was a missing link that could help her with the next stages of her life. To that point. She only knew his criminal history and the circumstances leading to her invention as she called it. So about three years ago in 2016, Jenni hired a private investigator to find out whatever they could about her birth father. Within hours the PI figured out where his social security number had been learned. His criminal history was able to list the social services he was receiving and where he was utilizing the food stamps program. She learned he was in and out of the criminal justice system since he was nine years old, living life in and out of 15 prisons in the state of California for various repeated drug related offenses. Apparently he was a known character in the prison system and around the area of the long beach dwelling where his food stamps would go when he wasn’t in prison or homeless by his own choice. Jenni described that space where he lived as less than a house and more of a dwelling with no roof and makeshift walls. It was a drug scene where they were manufactured and sold. So I asked how she was feeling about meeting this guy who had a known criminal history. Jenni told me that she’d actually had 15 years of experience building up to meeting her birth father. She had been volunteering in LA in every way with homeless demographics, working with foster youth and child prostitutes through the children of the night, helping them transition back into society. She was a special needs educator for those on the autistic and learning challenged spectrum. And she had written a rehab program for men transitioning back into society through the arts.

Cami (28:01): So what’s really interesting about even the nature of your question is I think I might be a very different uniquely wired person than what seems to be the norm in society. Because never once did I feel fear or upset or a projected concept of what was versus just figuring out what is. And I also really stayed away from assumptions or judgments. I had an open heart and curiosity and interest and just the fact that I found out he was still living was exciting to me and I didn’t have a projected vision of any sort of future. Everything was very present moment for me and I operated very much in the moment for every decision and every choice that I made. But I did a lot of reconnaissance before doing anything every step of the way

Damon (28:57): With all of that training, experience and street knowledge. She learned a lot and gained a lot of tools that equipped her to get acquainted with her birth father. So when it came time to reading what we would maybe call a profile or you know, Don’s file, that’s my birth father’s name, Don. I, you know, I just found it interesting, almost like a story. Like wow, this is super interesting and super fascinating and you know, who is this person and what makes them tick? And Oh my gosh, they’re still living. Wow. And I think I was just excited. Like who do I look like and who do I sound like? And you know, are there personality traits? And you know, I think that was really the, just the, it was just a natural curious, driven feeling that I had.

Damon (29:43): Jenni shared that she’s recently been invited into a variety of adoptee circles and she’s heard a lot of stories of sadness, loss, abandonment and more. She’s worked very hard with therapists to find her place of self realization and confidence battling those common adoptee feelings within herself, which all prepared her to meet her birth father Don with no judgment. She researched and used her street smarts in preparation for their meeting.

Cami (30:11): And it led me to the day where I finally approached the dwelling after having kind of scouted it out for a couple months and one thing led to another and the day finally came where I was walked to the alley where he would stay when he was in that area and he was high and sleeping and just everything was disheveled. And there was this like makeshift sort of tent pulled around the sky setting of this little alley and you know, I was sat on a crate and then all of a sudden they were just like, well there’s your birth father. And he like woke up and put on his broken glasses and like dust it off his face. And he was like, God damn, you’re beautiful. And I was like, hi, I’m Cami. And that was the beginning of three years ago today.

Damon (31:01): That’s amazing. Who escorted you into the alley?

Cami (31:05): When I first got the address of the dwelling, I learned that there were several different people living in different areas of it. In the front part, my birth grandmother who passed away right before I got there, my half cousin and my half aunt were in the front little area. My uncle who was still living out of the many of them was living in a different sort of area that was marked off by drapes. And then there was the garage area that one of the Spanish gangs had sort of taken over to operate their drug world there. And then there was the outside area where my birth father would come and go because for him, anything outside was better than being stuck inside. So he already had that homeless nature. So when I first arrived, actually the first day, the person I met first was my uncle. And I approached him, you know, kind of looking like, Oh, is this, who is this? And I sort of said like, is, are you, uh, you’re not Donn, are you? And he was like, who wants to know? And I was like, then I said, Oh wait, that must mean you must be Jimmy. And you know, I was just sort of just talking at first. And then he stopped and he looked at me and he goes, yeah, well who wants to know? And then when he asked that, it occurred to me, I was just about to enter into someone else’s world and I really should find a way, make sure that was welcome. Because having to think about someone else and their world and their life and everything that was going on with them, maybe they wouldn’t want to meet me, you know? And so I sort of stopped and I looked at him and I said, well, and I had to figure out real quick how to present this without, I don’t know, being too direct. So I said, how would Don or you feel about meeting a family member? You know, I just tried to dance around it and then he goes, we know all of our family and you know, he’s like, we already know all of our family, you know? And then he kind of stopped and looked at me again. And then I looked at him and we had this like eye gaze and it was like a thousand words in the silence between us. And he goes, Oh my gosh, you’re Mary Lou’s kid. Oh my God. Yeah. And so it, cause he knew Mary Lou, they all knew each other. That very dwelling was actually the place that she died. So they knew her, you know, they knew her always. They were all sort of like in it, around it together. So there he was knowing everything he’s ever known, having his whole storyline, knowing Don’s whole storyline, you know, knowing that I existed. And all of a sudden there I am standing there in front of him and like all of these worlds in histories and futures, everything just sort of came together and he was just like, wow.

Damon (34:09): Jimmy had given up on the crime and drugs by this time and he wasn’t really talking to many people at all. So for him to welcome Jenni in was an important move. She went to this dwelling three separate times before she met Don. The first two times she went to their spot, eight hours each in duration. Jimmy told Jenni stories about Don. She looked at pictures and she read letters Don had written from prison the language of which reminded her of someone who might be on the spectrum based on how he spelled and wrote her years of training. We’re starting to pay off very personally still. It was not a great area of long beach to be in. So Jenni did extensive research about that area in order to navigate as safely as possible. She consulted maps of gang activity, reviewed police reports of where it was safest to be and she dressed way down with off-brand clothing. To keep from attracting attention. Jenni tried to blend in as much as possible,

Cami (35:09): But I decided after thinking about it that drug addicts, no drug addicts, criminals, no criminals, they also know symbols and they can recognize things. And so I just kind of know a lot about epilepsy and sort of the fact that they have needles on them. And a lot of times drug addicts are interested in the needles, but they would also know how to recognize an epileptic backpack and it’s a double felony to hurt somebody who has, you know, epilepsy or who has the disability. I mean there’s like all these different little loophole law things. So I grabbed an epileptic backpack out of a thirst shop when I saw it and I thought, you know what, this’ll be smart because it will almost be like my little cape. And when I would go down there, the only thing I had was this backpack. And that way if any criminals or drug addicts or anyone would see me, they would see the backpack. They would know that it was an epileptic backpack, but it would be like a protective way so that they wouldn’t approach me.

Damon (36:09): Jenni called her trips to the dwelling going into the field. She logged in a journal, how long she was there, who she met with, where the gang activity was and more. It all gave her a good inventory for day three when she didn’t know it yet, but she would meet Don. So she’s walking into this dark layer. She doesn’t know the occupants and she doesn’t know what to expect and it was impossible to predict what was about to happen

Cami (36:35): And I just sort of took a deep breath and I said, you’ve come this far and this is super intriguing and you know what? If you don’t come out alive, it was your time to go and just take a breath and go.

Damon (36:46): Jenni said it was like walking into another world. The place was dark and dusty. There were Gothic heavy metal music images on the walls. As her eyes adjusted, she could see the rats and cockroaches scurrying about and hoarded piles of collected items. Jimmy escorted her to the outside area where Don could be found.

Cami (37:07): Honestly, it was just like connection at first sight. When I saw Don and Don saw me, I think like there was this karmic connection and it was just so thrilling and so interesting for all of the people that I had worked with who either were experiencing homelessness or choosing homelessness or in that path for all of the moments of the addicts that I came across for all of the times that I worked with, those that were in the prison system, it was like everything I had ever done, everything I had ever saw, all of a sudden now it made sense to me. Now I was staring at my birth father who had encompassed all these little details in his own very life, but he was a person and he was a musician and it was just really thrilling to have that moment to go, Oh my gosh, he’s alive. He’s real. There he is. He’s so cute and neat looking and just different and wow. And it was sort of the beginning of a whole new chapter.

Damon (38:12): Let me, wow, that’s incredible. What an incredible investment that was for you to get to the point of this third day being the charm. And if I heard you correctly, did you say the first time that you met Don? He was high, is that correct?

Cami (38:29): Yeah, so at the first time I met him, he was still using crystal meth. He no longer was using heroin, but heroin was a big part of his life for a really long time. And later on when we chatted about that, he told me that our story today probably would have been quite different if he had still been using heroin because heroin was a hell of a drug. But he was at the moment that I met him, he was running from the law. He was basically a fugitive because he wasn’t following the probation steps that someone of his nature was supposed to, which he never did. So it was just an everyday average for him. He was living homeless in different bushes, doing different things, and he was shooting up crystal meth and taking a plethora of street drugs that he could get his hands on. And he was really being pressured by the local gangs to be a seller. And I think that and to be a buyer, and I think that he was in a real spiral for all of the other stories that he told me later. Looking back, there were definitely low points, lots of low points in his life, but I really do think somehow spiritually, the moment that I showed up was maybe one of the lowest and probably if it hadn’t turned out the way it did, it probably would not have turned out positive at all. Like it would have been really towards the end for him. So it was sort of like this wild light and option and a new way that he never had before.

Damon (40:07): For three full weeks, Jenni went back every single day, spending a few hours with Don logging their daily activities. She brought children’s books and asked him to read to her so she could assess him. She took Don to the public library to see how he behaved in social situations. They went out for barbecue, took in a music show and a variety of other things.

Cami (40:30): So all this was happening while he was still high and he was still running from the law and we would just do, I called them family fun field trips and it was a way for me to take inventory of who he was and what his experience was in life already and what his relationship would be to new things if that was something he would be interested in. And also I was logging his drug use and his calm down time and learning what he knew and what he didn’t. And for example, he had no, he didn’t know a lot. Like, I mean he knew a lot of things but he also hadn’t had exposure to a lot of things from things very simple to frozen yogurt. He never had had that or a bed of his own outside of prison beds or group home beds or he never really had uh, he, the way he washed his clothes was through toilets or through buckets for example or maybe he would make his food on burners or get food from the trash. And that was fine for him. Like all of these things were great him cause it worked out for him and he was always excited about things working out. And so I took log of this and also of his drug use and come down. And then what I would do is I would introduce him to craft espresso and craft coffee of the highest caffeinated degree, right when he would be coming down to introduce him to a different kind of high. And when I realized he had never had craft express or coffee and he was super interested in it, I actually went to a home Depot and got a car battery and some kind of burner and went back down there with a little wagon and basically set up from my little backpack, all of these espresso beans and coffee beans from drug countries, sugar and little packets that looks like cocaine. And I made the entire backpack look like paraphernalia but a legal version. And we just touched the beans and grinded the beans and tasted the beans. And I basically built like a memory with him of discovering all the apparatuses of really high crafted coffee and bonded that way as he would come down off of the crystal meth.

Damon (42:44): Jenni went during the days she went to the dwelling at night. She did her best to make sure she was safe, telling the gangs that she was Don’s daughter. There were times when they didn’t believe her thinking she was either a high priced prostitute or an undercover cop. All of it had the potential to go South. Jenni highlighted that she had to ensure her own safety in that environment while making sure that Don didn’t feel like she was unsafe and didn’t feel like he needed to defend her, putting himself in danger. She accepted him as he was with the lifestyle he was in. But no matter what your life circumstance is, sometimes it’s hard to believe that another person will just accept you as you are.

Cami (43:28): For whatever reason. One night he was sneaking about to shoot up and didn’t want to tell me and I saw it cause I followed him to make sure I knew what was going on. And then I just told him, I was like, don’t hide it, shoot up if you want, just go ahead, do your thing, like be yourself. And then he did. And it was like totally crazy. I never see, I don’t even do drugs really. I probably should, but I don’t. I’m not on meds. I don’t do anything. I do coffee and so I mean, you know, I, I’m just like, I just know it was really crazy to see this. And I think though that because I just said, be yourself, do it. Just shoot up, like whatever. It wasn’t fun for him. Like I think that, and also there was another time when I came there, I impulsively had to show up at midnight. I felt really weird and I showed up when he was overdosing and helped him through that. And I think that those two experiences made him feel maybe shame or not necessarily shame, but just deciding that that wasn’t really the kind of thing he wanted because he didn’t know I was a musician either until I showed him. And in fact the two weeks that I was there, I never even said my legal and music name is Jenni Alpert how didn’t even talk about me and my music at all. It wasn’t until later on in our family fun field adventures, I brought a guitar and let him play first. And then I played in saying, and he was like, Whoa, you know, and then there was a piano at this, uh, retirement home around the corner from where he was that we went into. And I played him on the piano, his song I had written and he cried. And I mean, it was really a profound and powerful to have music sort of be this pivotal like bonding thing for him. He’s the one who chose to stop doing drugs. He’s the one who chose to turn himself in. And I think from having met him on the 26th of July in 2016 I think it was August 21st that same summer he walked into the police station. There I was with him and it was a Saturday. I remember, and he turned himself in so that he could legally spend more time with me later.

Damon (45:29): That day, they went to the police precinct together. They were astonished that the officers wouldn’t take Don surrender at that moment. The police asked them to come back because they were too busy, but Jenni said she also didn’t realize in the moment all that was at stake. When Don surrendered, he was a repeat runner and he knew that he might have to serve longer than just the 90 days minimum. As they waited for Don to be processed. Jenni sat on the floor with him and watched a movie on her phone, Goodwill hunting. The tenor of the movie is about transitions and recognizing that life can have more to offer. It was serendipitous to the moment they were in Jenni said, fortunately Don got the lowest sentence, 90 days in jail, borrowing the return address of a local theater company so that Don wouldn’t have her home address just in case things didn’t work out. Jenni wrote him letters every day, sometimes three letters a day

Cami (46:29): And for the 90 days you wrote back and forth until October 5th when he served his time. There were other details that would make this like a million years too long. But basically I went and picked him up at like six in the morning I was there and then he saw the car and he came in and I’ve had him in my care ever since.

Damon (46:48): Wow, so he lives with you now.

Cami (46:52): So how we define it is there is a safe space called Don’s place under my care and he has been choosing that safe space for the last three years and he’s still registered as homeless and over this time there’s a lot that has happened. He’s gotten a doctor for the first time, a doctor patient relationship for the first time, his own inhaler for the first time, legally, his own PO box. So he can have his mail sent there, his own, um, food stamps, his own gr general relief. And he is technically and still is registered homeless because in a way that is the truth. He doesn’t have a home of his own, but he has a safe space called Don’s place. And every single day he continues to choose where that is, which is with me in the care sort of caregiving or I would call it the shadowing phase. So I shadow him as like a special needs or a spectrum shadow would shadow a spectrum person creating parameters rather than boundaries, opening doors rather than closing in with walls. And he constantly has options to choose and experiences to have and everyday he continues to choose the safe space that’s Don’s place. And in the meantime, the registered homeless part, which is also true, is always going to be there for him in case for whatever reason, there’s a day that comes where he wants to change his identity and path and go back to sleeping in the bushes somewhere else. But as far as it’s laid out, he has a safe space called Don’s place. And I am the advocate and shadow for that and he has options and experiences every day.

Damon (48:48):That’s incredible. That is really, really fascinating because I can’t help with, go back to what you said about all of the experiences that you had before you met him with folks who are forgive my language, who are in the system in some form or fashion,

Cami (49:11): That’s the right language actually.

Damon (49:13): And for you to be there, well trained and openly receptive and to know enough to make everything his choice so that he has to want to do it in order for it to get done, be it, you know, they’ve eat properly, see the doctor or just stay clean, not go to some of the places where he probably went where the temptation lies, you know an end. It get to a place where I’d love to hear you talk more about playing music with you. I mean all of these things are amazing.

Cami (49:51): Well, I will add that there is a special piece to the dynamic that is Don and I that a lot of people probably don’t fathom and they surely can’t see if anyone is familiar at all with spectrum mentality. It’s based on routines and familiarity. Once I changed the familiarity and altered the routine and kept it very stable, there was no other where to go. He doesn’t just come and go freely there spaces he has every single day there is meals he has every day. There are places specifically that he goes but for the most part he’s not very far from where I am ever. I have my own life. There’s no codependency there which is beautiful. There is a structure there and there’s a dynamic there but there is also a very clear set of parameters so that is probably part of why and he chooses to abide by that. For whatever reason that the there really hasn’t been an issue and when we say the words clean, I would rephrase that because we’re not absolutest and we’re not AA goers. Basically what we are. We are everything in moderation measured out as it’s given.

Damon (51:16): She went on to say that Don is allowed to have measured indulgences like a glass of wine, for example. They measure and moderate and appreciate their life. They have together when the time and place are right. Jenni reports that Don has said himself that he’s tired and he doesn’t want to do drugs anymore. I can only imagine. It seems like a rough life to live and he’s probably very lucky to be alive or as functional as he is to be able to engage with her and accept her loving support. Jenni is realistic that their story is atypical unlike most adoptee reunions.

Cami (51:51): I will say I’m very clear that we have a very unique situation. Not everyone will have this experience. Adoptees will not always be welcomed by their birth families and vice versa. There is a lot of harbored upset, resentment, confusion, loss and pain and there’s a lot of times what they would call rejection where it doesn’t work out and our story’s so unique that we’re not really the voice of all adoptees and reunions. We actually a very unique piece that is to say whatever your story is, welcome it the best you can and realize that it’s not a rejection of who you are and it’s not an abandonment of what you have to offer. But I would say that it’s just reflective of what the other person is not able to do.

Damon (52:44): mmhm that is fascinating. Wow. Jenni, this has been an amazing story. I, I, it’s hard to fathom, you know, all that you invested in creating a space for a relationship to grow, but also for him to recognize an opportunity that was presented to him and from the depths of where he was at the moment and to be able to step forward and say, you know, this is, I’ve, I’ve probably had some chances before, but this one feels like the one and he really sounds like he grasped it and has taken hold and you’ve, you know, given him slack but also held firm and ensured that this, for lack of better words, lifeline that you’ve got between you is something that he can hold tight to. That’s really amazing.

Cami (53:38): Thanks.

Damon (53:39): Jenni made it clear that bill, the man who adopted, raised and loved her earned the title of father. Don is her birth father. Thankfully her adopted mother has also welcomed Don and has learned to accept him for who he is and how he likes to live. Jenni appreciates that her mother has come to accept the creative approaches to life that work best for Don and it’s made her appreciate her mother more. All in all, Jenni recognizes how special her story is and is thankful for everyone involved, appreciating the humanity in one another.

Cami (54:14): Seeing the evolution of my adoptive mom sort of really take on this whole new acceptance of me is so beautiful and so loving and it’s really helped me be so much more empathetic and compassionate towards my mom’s life and upbringing and curious more about her as a person and as a woman less than this mother that I had or this guardian if you will. You know, now there’s like we’re just people. And it’s so interesting to see all of these different things unfold. And I don’t know, I just really feel grateful. But the thing is, is that it’s a story and it’s a real story and it’s everyone’s story and everyone has their own relationship to the story. And as long as we can be sensitive and thoughtful and welcoming as best we can to everyone’s experience, then you know, I mean, why not be a part of everyone’s life the way we can. I mean, Don gave me life. Why not support his?

Damon (55:14): I love that. That’s really amazing. Wow. That’s a perfect way to end it Jenni or Cami, right? Unbelievable. Wow. You have done some amazing work. It sounds like both for yourself and for Don and I’m, I’m totally in awe right now, and you’ve said some amazing things about what other adoptees can take away from your reunion story. So I thank you so much for taking time to share with me. I really appreciate it.

Cami (55:42): Sure.

Damon (55:42): All right. All the best to you. Take care.

Cami (55:44): Okay.

Damon (55:45): Take care then. Bye bye.

Cami (55:47): Take care. Bye. Bye.

Damon (55:52): Hey, it’s me. Jenni’s story or Cami as she’s also known is just fascinating to me. I think most of us would be reluctant to put ourselves in a position of entering a drug den to seek out a birth parent. I mean, I think I would have hoped my birth father would come out rather than me going inside, but it sounds like that’s just the kind of person Jenni is and has worked hard through therapy to be. You heard me tell her that I couldn’t even fathom the amount of energy she invested in ensuring her own safety while familiarizing herself with the community she was entering in order to build trust and be welcomed into Don’s world. Sharing their love of music. These days, Cami and Don perform music together. She performs the outro today, a song called all the nothings, which she says is about adoption on her website, you’ll also find links to their documentary “homeless”, the soundtrack. I’m Damon Davis, and I hope you’ll find something in Jenny’s otherwise known as Cami’s journey that inspires you, validates your feelings about wanting to search or motivates you to have the strength along your journey to learn. Who am I really? You can find the show and wh amIreally? where you can sign up for emails to learn firsthand about some of the new things I’m brainstorming to support the show. You can do so at or Venmo at Damon L Davis. I hope you’ll leave a rating for who am I really? Where ever you get your podcasts so that others can find the podcast too. Now let’s listen to the rest of all of the nothings.

Cami (57:40): [music (all the nothings) Jenni Alpert]

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