For author John Hill, foster care was an answer to a prayer

Stanley O. Williford | 5/18/2011, 5 p.m.

As we celebrate May as National Foster Care Month, OurWeekly takes a moment to reflect on the life of one prominent local citizen whose life was transformed by foster care.

In his book, "Dreamer in the Fields: My Life as a Child Migrant Farm Worker" (c.2010, Vision Publishing, $12.99, 124 pages), John Hill, who served former Los Angeles County Supervisor Yvonne B. Burke for 10 years as her chief of staff, writes of the torturous existence of being a child migrant farm laborer and the literal salvation he found in foster care in Fresno, Calif.

Hill started working in the cotton fields when he was 5 or 6, which he describes as a "tough, bloody, all-day job." By the time he was 7 he had a quota of 100 pounds a day, which he could rarely meet. Although he hated picking cotton, he didn't mind picking cantaloupes, oranges, apples, grapes, string beans, corn, plums, nectarines, or the myriad other types of produce the family traveled to various farms to harvest. A workday usually lasted from dawn to dusk, or about 12 hours, and was brutal, back-breaking labor for any adult, let alone a child.

But if hard work had been the worst part, he and his eight brothers and sisters could have borne it better. What made life hell for the Hill children was the constant drunkenness of their parents, who often consumed all the money in the evening that the family had earned in the fields during the day; arguments and bruising battles almost always followed their drunkenness.

"My parents' battles were thoroughly upsetting to me," Hill writes in "Dreamer in the Fields." "My siblings and I would take bets on who was going to win, but when it was all over we'd go outside to sit and cry. We were all losers, and I think that thought alone may have been the most devastating part of my young life."

After a number of earlier departures, Hill's mother finally abandoned her husband and nine children, and Hill said his dad would leave them for weeks at a time to look for her.

Known for his affairs, when the elder Hill was caught with another man's wife he beat the man so severely that he received a lengthy jail sentence. With their mother gone and their dad in jail, the Hill children were left to raise themselves. Even before that incident, things had gotten so bad that John had prayed and asked God to change his situation. He longed for a stable home and to get an education.

Finally, a highway patrolman came to collect the children as wards of Fresno County and took them to the place where they would meet their foster mother.

"She came over to us and said, 'My name is Mrs. Seals, and all of you are going to live with me, and I am going to be your mother and take care of you. Would all of you like that?'"

Eight of the children said yes, but Thomas, the eldest, then 16, felt he was too old to be parented again, so he left to go live with his grandmother in Fairmead. The Seals house was like a mansion to the youngsters who had lived in tents, cars and filthy farm worker cabins most of their lives.