Wood urges orphans and adopters like them to remember they are ‘not alone’
When Illinois made it possible for adult adopters in the state to apply for their original birth certificate in 2010, Joseph Wood hoped to find answers to questions that had been plaguing him for 45 years.
Wood, a Chicago native who now serves as county judge In Washington County, Arkansas, instead, he discovered that his earliest record was a founding certificate, which listed March 20, 1965—which he thought was his birthday—the day he was forced into an apartment building. The front was left in a shoe box.
To recall in an interview with Granthshala News Digital this November National Adoption Month, Wood describes the journey that took him from an orphanage in Chicago until the next year’s run in Arkansas lieutenant governor race,
‘The struggle was real’
When he disclosed his founding credentials, Wood learned that he had been traced by a man named Caesar Johnson, whom he later tracked down and found. Wood learned he was only two weeks old when Johnson found him and took him to the town’s orphanage.
Wood spent most of his childhood in foster homes before being adopted at the age of 10.
“They loved me, they wanted kids in the worst possible way,” he said of his adoptive parents, who would raise children of their own. Still, Wood wrestled with a profound identity crisis.
“I always struggled trying to identify who I am,” Wood said. “Why was I given up for adoption? What did I do?”
Wood recalled that, as a teenager, he constantly pondered possible explanations for why he had to be adopted. He wondered whether his mother was a prostitute or whether his parents were involved in any forbidden interracial or incestuous relationship. She feared that she might have been pregnant through rape.
Wood’s internal conflict takes place against the backdrop of Jeffrey Manor, a neighborhood on Chicago’s south side that was rife with gangs, drugs, and crime.
“The struggle, as they say, was real, growing in difficult areas of Chicago,” he said.
Wood pointed to 1988 as the beginning of his political career, when his parents were getting divorced, and his mother asked him to look after his younger brothers and sisters.
“I started a youth service group, a youth teen organization,” he remembered. “And it was a way for me to keep my brothers and sisters together.” After a local church gave him the keys to his building so that his group could find it, an increasing number of youth appeared in the community to take part in the productive work he had done.
“I didn’t know how many parents were really looking for something, a safe haven, a safe place for their kids to stay away from drugs and gangs on the south side of Chicago,” he said.
The lessons Wood learned in Chicago would last for the rest of his life. After earning a degree in business administration from Iowa State University in 1987, he returned to the city and became involved in local politics, serving as a member of the school council and serving with the Board of Elections.
“No matter where you live, you need to be engaged and involved, because that’s where you live,” she remembered as her mom told her.
Wood broke away from Chicago’s prevailing Democratic Party in 1988, a decision he said was reinforced in 1991 when he experienced a religious conversion while attending a church service in Wintergreen, Virginia.
Recalling how he would pray and write many questions to God, Wood said he was wrestling with passages from the Book of Proverbs about wisdom, knowledge, and understanding at the time.
The verses and subjects he was praying about were depicted during the day’s service. Wood was convinced that God was communicating to him that he was not alone.
Amidst his adversity, Wood said that God “told me right then and there that ‘I’ve laid my hand on you and am walking with you.'”
Despite having grown up in the church, Wood said it was not until that moment that his faith became a relationship with God.
Referring to when he switched parties in 1988, Wood quoted someone who told him, “You vote against what you believe. You’re in the church, you’re a believer.” You believe in smart and small government, you believe in pro-life, and yet on Tuesdays you go to vote against everything you stand for.
“It just became a watershed moment,” Wood said.
Wood eventually moved to Washington County, Arkansas in 1997, where he served as chief of international recruiting and staffing for Walmart.
“Next thing you know, I was being asked to run for offices,” he said. “And so I became the vice president of Republicans here in Arkansas.”
Wood became the state treasurer for the state Republican Party, an office he held for three terms. He was also the presidential candidate of the Republican Party of Arkansas.
When former Arkansas Secretary of State Mark Martin asked her to serve as Deputy Secretary of State, Wood told her, “You guys will pay me for this job? I’ve been volunteering my whole life. My Mother never told me you get paid for doing this.”
Years later, Wood was elected Arkansas’ first black county judge in Washington County, serving as the county government’s chief executive officer. In addition to budget cuts, he is proud that his county boasts the first self-proclaimed “pro-life city” in Arkansas.
He also points out that he has made sure he has a heart for children in Washington County who are adopted or in foster care.
In May, Wood announced His candidacy for lieutenant governor of Arkansas.
Despite how far he’s come since his days at a Chicago orphanage, Wood said, “I still struggle. It ain’t easy.”
Saying that he still longs to know the identity of his birth parents and why they left him, the feelings remain fresh when he talks about him.
“I’m still thinking what could have been so terrible that I would be left in a box over the winter,” he said. But he noted that Caesar Johnson had told him that his mother must have loved him because she had put him where he could be found.
He said of his parents, “I can be astonished talking about this, because whatever happened, they gave me a chance.”
What she has endured has given her a heart for other orphans and adopters who have wrestled with identity and belonging. Recognizing that abstaining from drugs or other self-destructive behavior can sometimes be especially appealing to her, Wood said her biggest piece of advice for her is that they matter.
“Tell them that they matter, that they really matter, that they are here,” he said. “And just because that was your beginning, doesn’t mean it has to be your end. There are people out there who won’t have influence and influence if they choose to tap out.
“And so I would encourage them to stay in the fight,” he said. “Tell them that they are not alone and that they matter. They really do matter. And there are people like me who are happy to walk that journey with them.”