Caledonia High School student finds stability
CALEDONIA — Roy Kerrigan has lived most of his life not knowing where he’d live next.
Or how long he’d be there.
Or what strangers he’d be living with.
His perseverance in the face of that kind of uncertainty has led to hard-won success — and his recognition as Caledonia High School’s Above and Beyond honoree this year.
Since he was about 5, Kerrigan, his older brother and younger sister have been in the foster care system, he said.
"(My parents) just couldn’t care for children," the Caledonia High School senior said, adding that he’d see them only during court hearings.
Since being in the foster care system, Kerrigan — who lived in Caledonia through first grade, then moved back for a year in fifth grade — has moved nine times across Minnesota and Wisconsin and lived with six different families.
His longest stay at a home was about two years. His shortest, a couple of months.
"It was always kind of tough," Kerrigan said in a quiet voice from across a table at the high school. "You always wondered on the car ride there, ‘What would these people be like?’"
Some were nice. One was not. And some he fell in love with right away — only to have the hope of a permanent family ripped away.
"I was supposed to be adopted twice," Kerrigan said with a stoic face.
The first time was when he was in fifth grade. He and his sister had been taken from a home in Caledonia — the city being the closest thing to a hometown Kerrigan has — and moved to a family living in Bloomington. The two were told they were being adopted — a process that takes about a year, Kerrigan said.
But a lot can happen in a year.
Kerrigan’s sister wasn’t adjusting well and after a few months the family decided not to adopt her.
Kerrigan pleaded to stay. He even wrote a letter to a deciding judge that he wanted to stay with the family.
"I was really attached to that family," Kerrigan said.
Then one day in January 2012, after less than a year with them, he was told it wasn’t working out. He wasn’t being adopted.
Kerrigan fell into a spiral of emotions, the strongest of which was anger at himself for any negative behaviors that might have caused the adoption to fall through as well as the deep-seated feeling of rejection.
He started to put up mental walls. He didn’t want to invest in relationships. He didn’t want to get his hopes up that he’d have a permanent home.
"For a part of time I didn’t really want to make new relationships because I figured they’d be out of my life," Kerrigan said. "You never know when (the adoption agents) were going to come and what was going to happen."
In seventh grade, a year after that heartbreak, Kerrigan went through the process again and moved to Chanhassen to be adopted.
Less than two months later he came home from school to see numerous cars parked outside his home, including one driven by his adoption agent.
He knew what was coming.
"I didn’t want to walk home," he said.
But with no other choice — and nowhere else to go — he walked into the home to find what he dreaded was in fact happening. It wouldn’t be his home much longer.
"It was really emotional," he said. "I cried a lot."
He packed up his belongings and left. The rest of his stuff he would be kept in a storage locker for when he found a more stable home.
He moved to French Island — attending his sixth school — with another foster family. Then in ninth grade he was able to connect with his real grandparents in La Crosse, Wis., who had been left in the dark much of his life because of how confidential the foster care system is. He appreciated being around family again, but he missed his hometown. He missed his one friend that he’d known since kindergarten who lived near Caledonia.
Then at 16 years old, Kerrigan had an option present itself that would change his life.
"I had the opportunity to move in with my teacher," Kerrigan said recently as he sat next to his fifth-grade teacher, Mitch Mullins. "I’ve lived with (Mitch and Nancy) for almost two years."
The Mullins were clear that they weren’t adopting Kerrigan, but they just wanted to give him a stable home and prepare him for adulthood — with the added advantage of moving Kerrigan back to his hometown.
"It was a big decision for us to make," Mullins said, adding that they had been approached about the idea and considered it only because they knew Kerrigan as a youngster. "No one should have to go through what he went through."
When Kerrigan moved in with the Mullins, he struggled with grades and holding responsibility — especially around the house.
Kerrigan said no one had ever taught him how to clean, organize and take care of his surroundings. The only thing drilled into him, Kerrigan said, was "just don’t get in trouble."
But with the Mullins, who are both teachers, it was all about the grades, about organization, being active in school and learning life skills.
"He’s come a long ways," Mullins said with a smile.
Slowly, the walls started to come down.
Kerrigan got into football, wrestling and track. He started caring about his grades (with encouragement from the Mullins). He was able to be around his friend from kindergarten.
He started opening up to other relationships.
"I like sports because of the team aspect of it," Kerrigan said. "You work together to make each other better. You’re there to help everybody."
Kerrigan is now on the B Honor Roll and is excited to graduate on time — the first in his family to do so, he said.
"I’m very grateful for what (the Mullins) have done," Kerrigan said. "Without them I wouldn’t have the skills I have."
Although they’re not family, Kerrigan and the Mullins believe in their hearts they’ve started a lifelong relationship they have together.
"I know they’ll be there for me to talk to if I ever need advice," Kerrigan said.
Mullins smiled and nodded as he rested his chin on his cane and gazed out the nearby window, deep in thought.
Now that Kerrigan has some stability, he’s ready to prepare and look to the future as an adult. He’s going to take the good from each place he lived, absorb what he can learn, and move forward — hopefully in the direction of being a park ranger or a police office by either attending Minnesota State College Southeast or a technical college in Ely.
Kerrigan said he used to fear change. It always meant his life was going to be turned upside down — again. But now he’s embracing a different definition.
"I’ve learned that change can be good," Kerrigan said. "I can change myself. I can use those things to make me a better person."