Peter Mutabazi, a single father from Charlotte, NC, knows firsthand what it's like to have a challenging childhood. After growing up in Uganda with limited resources and running away from home as a teen, he was taken in by a compassionate stranger. Eventually, he moved to the US and began paying it forward by fostering 12 children over a three-year span.
"I grew up among the poor of the poorest on the planet," Peter told POPSUGAR. "I wasn't sure of a meal everyday. I wasn't sure of the future. It's hard for a mom if they cannot feed you. I didn't have shoes until when I was 16. I only had one set of clothes. I went to fetch water that was three miles away, I made the three-mile walk to school - if there was any school; there wasn't really a hope for me in some way."
Peter's experience drastically changed after he ran away from home as a teenager. He began trading labor for meals and eventually met a kind man from the nearby city of Kampala who put him on a new path. Although there's no official foster care system in Uganda, the man acted as Peter's sponsor and helped him enroll in college programs in Uganda, the UK, and eventually the United States.
"My sponsor and I didn't know each other at first," explained Peter. "I think he saw a kid who was not in the best shape. He saw some potential that I didn't see in myself. I was doing work for him, and then he gave me something to eat. That's how I got to know him, because he was kind."
After immigrating to the US, Peter was overcome by the amount of affluence he was surrounded by. Although Peter admits he wasn't particularly well-off at the time, he felt an overwhelming need to give what he could back to the community by fostering kids.
"I couldn't have a home with three extra bedrooms knowing there are [WERE] kids in the community who needed a place to stay."
"I struggled living in affluence," he explained. "In Africa, it took a village to raise one another; we depended on each other more so than you might in the US. When I came to United States, I couldn't understand how people can be so wealthy but have no clue about the neighbor who lives across the street. I couldn't have a home with three extra bedrooms knowing there were kids in the community who needed a place to stay. I could not turn a blind eye, I could not use the excuse that I didn't have resources. I wanted to do for others like my sponsor did for me."
In 2017, Peter enrolled in classes to become a foster parent. Although he was determined to help children in need because he knew he could relate to the kids who would eventually walk through his door, he was nervous he wouldn't be selected as a foster parent because he was single. However, four months later, he had his first placement, and, as predicted, found it easy to find common ground with the kids.
"I understood the trauma that the children went through," said Peter. "I truly thought if I didn't help, I would be putting the person who helped me to shame."
In order to be the best foster parent he could be, Peter left a demanding job that required extensive travel for a local real estate position in order to be more present for the children he fostered. Now, he's involved in real estate and has been able to devote more time to the kids who stay in his home. "I had always made sure if they misbehaved at school, I could run there and deal with the issue or be present if they needed to go to the hospital," he said. "I had to do all that."
For the most part, Peter took in children who needed short-term placements. "In the beginning, it was a bit easier for me knowing I had them for three or six months," he shared. "Of course, no one prepares you for what the experience will entail because each child is different. There's no preparation. You just open your door and figure it out as you go."
Peter was satisfied with simply fostering kids, but that all changed when received a call from a social worker in Jan. 2018 about an 11-year-old named Anthony who needed a temporary home after his adoptive parents left him at a hospital.
"I had just returned two children to their biological parents," said Peter. "It's really hard to say goodbye. It's emotionally draining, and it's mentally and physically taxing. Four days after the kids left, I got a phone call asking if I'd take in Anthony for the weekend. The social worker said, 'We have a kid at the hospital that needs a place to be.' I was like: 'No, I'm not ready. I don't feel it. I wasn't ready after the hurt I had gone through. But the social worker insisted that I bring him home for two days.'"
"If you had two parents who loved you and cared for you, could you do the same for someone else?"
Peter agreed to the temporary arrangement. But the boy who walked into his home was different than other children he had met. "I was shocked when he came in," he explained. "I told him to call me Peter, and he asked if he could call me dad. I was like, 'Wait, no, you can't.'"
When Monday came, Peter learned that Anthony's previous parents' parental rights had been terminated, meaning that Anthony was in need of a forever home. Despite his initial hesitations, Peter jumped at this chance. "I couldn't imagine someone giving up on me," he said. "My sponsor saw that I had a potential, he wasn't deterred from helping me. Some people say all teenagers or older kids are hard to foster. They're not. Anthony is a kind, sweet kid who was easy to get to know. He wanted to be in my home."
On Nov. 12, 2019, Peter and Anthony officially became father and son. And two weeks later, Peter became a US citizen. Now, Peter is encouraging other adults to consider fostering and adopting kids, regardless of the type of upbringing they themselves may have had.
"If you had two parents who loved you and cared for you, could you do the same for someone else?" he said. "It goes back to the concept of looking back to what you've been given and asking, 'Hey, what can I do for someone else?' Each child comes in a different way, treat them as they come."