Colts GM Chris Ballard and his wife have done God’s work. Zac Keefer of The Athletic:
Seventy-five minutes before his team’s fourth practice of training camp, on a sweltering summer morning in Westfield, Ind., a few steps from a pavilion packed with families hurting and healing, kids scarred but smiling, the Colts’ general manager is hiding tears behind his sunglasses.
Chris Ballard isn’t thinking about that day’s practice, or his looming depth chart decisions, or the calf strain his star quarterback hasn’t been able to shake for three months. He’s standing on the grass outside that pavilion, talking with two young boys who’ve bounced between nine foster homes in seven years.
His wife Kristin is sitting on a picnic table a few feet away. “Sometimes, this gets really emotional for us,” she says.
Inside that pavilion, as the Ballards look on, kids shuffle through a long line, picking up their backpack at the end of it – brand new, all their own, stuffed with dozens of books. The Ballards are giving away around 50 on this morning, all to area foster kids, most of whom have never had a backpack to call their own.
These backpacks, they’re not an accident.
When a foster child is pulled from one home and placed in another, often without warning, often in a matter of minutes, all they’re typically able to take with them are the clothes on their back. It’s brutal, and the memory can haunt them for years.
“The backpacks, they can offer a sense of ownership for these kids,” says Steve Fugate, CFO of Cargo Services Inc., an Indianapolis-based shipping company that, along with the Ballards, sponsor a handful of events like this one each year.
“A lot of times, a backpack is the only thing they can call their own.”
While their five kids pass out those backpacks, the Ballards move from table to table, visiting with the foster parents, hearing their stories. One hour spills into the next, and they keep moving, keep listening. It’s clear: They aren’t here for the photo ops, and they aren’t here for the press. They’re here because in these families they see their own.
The call came nine years ago on a Friday, while Kristin Ballard stood in line at HomeGoods. It was a caseworker from Child Protective Services in Texas. She had four girls – four relatives of an extended family – who needed a home and needed one that afternoon.
Kristin listened, stunned into silence.
The father had bolted. The mother was addicted to drugs. The girls had grown up in filth, neglected, malnourished, crammed into a tiny apartment in Houston that, the oldest daughter would later recount, “consisted of dirty diapers lying on the counters and roaches crawling in the small bed the five of us crowded into every night.”
There were nights, she remembers, where she’d call the police on her mother’s abusive boyfriend, but was too young to remember the address. More nights, she adds, “where I held my petrified sisters as we watched our mother weaken until her body was comprised of bones and bruises.”
Finally – thankfully – the state stepped in. CPS had taken the girls from their mother, and they’d started looking for their new home.
Kristin was the first call. She was a working mother of three, a top sales rep for a pharmaceutical company, the wife to a rising NFL scout. She was in between sales calls that Friday, running a quick errand, getting ready for the weekend when her phone buzzed and her world changed. Three of the four girls were headed to an inner-city shelter unless her family was willing to take them in; the fourth had been temporarily placed with a grandmother.
If Kristin agreed, they’d go from three kids to six in a single afternoon.
“We plan, God laughs,” she says, shaking her head, reliving that moment nine years later. She likes the phrase so much she had it printed on her business cards. It’s become her credo.
So that day, that Friday, she thought about those three girls, underweight and underdeveloped, in need of love and shelter and a shot at a life they’d never had.
She called her priest.
She called her nanny.
Then she called her husband, who was on the road, scouting for the Chicago Bears.
“Can we handle this?” Chris asked her.
“We can handle this,” she told him.
The girls showed up that night, their belongings stuffed into one black trash bag.
When CPS took the girls back two weeks later, Chris and Kristin sat in their car and cried.
Like the first call, this one came with no warning.
“We’re coming to pick them up,” a caseworker told Kristin over the phone. “We’ve placed them in two foster homes.”
“No you’re not,” she snapped back. “You haven’t talked to me yet.”
“It’s done,” she was told.
Kristin Ballard is no pushover. Just ask her husband. He credits this to the competitive fire she played with back at Texas A&M-Kingsville, where the two of them first met, where she’s in the Javelinas’ Hall of Fame and where, 22 years later, she still holds the school record for most points scored in a women’s basketball game (46). Back then, she’d swing by the basketball offices to catch up with a coach, or to watch some film, and she’d end up chatting with the young grad assistant on the football staff whose office was one door over.
“She’s always been the best athlete in the family,” Chris says.
By 2010, they’d settled just outside Houston, a happy, healthy family of five. Kristin was a successful sales rep in her region for Takeda Pharmaceuticals – “the bread-winner the first 13 years of our marriage,” she proudly points out – while Chris was grinding as the Bears’ southwest area scout, waiting for his shot at an NFL front office.
They didn’t have a choice that day. CPS was taking the girls back, one way or another – the Ballards weren’t yet foster-certified, so they weren’t viewed as a permanent solution. The caseworker was ready to come to the house and pick them up until Kristin refused. She knew it’d be too jarring for the girls to be pulled from a second home in as many weeks.
“Chris and I will bring them to you,” she told them. So they did. And after they dropped them off, they sat in their car, tears streaming their faces, and that’s when they decided. This wasn’t good enough. They had to do more.
“We have to take care of family,” Chris finally said.
They spent the next two years fighting to get them back.
There were visitations, court dates and foster-parent certification classes. There was doubt, uncertainty and anguish. And at the heart of it all, there were four young girls, raised in a crack house, underweight and underdeveloped, scarred but smiling. All they wanted was a shot.
Halane Dunn, a caseworker for the Houston Achievement Place, has spent 30 years working with foster children. “Oh my word,” she says, “some of the things you see are just heartbreaking.”
She sensed the severity of this situation from the start. She knew these girls needed out.
“A lot of times, people will see things like this and just say, ‘Someone needs to do something,’” Dunn says. “Chris and Kristin didn’t say that. They stepped up and they did it themselves.
“Kristin understood right away that if they didn’t, these girls would go back into a situation that would be very harmful to them.”
The intent was never to take the girls from their mother, but as it became clear that a return to that apartment would put them at further risk, Kristin stepped in. She fought. She prayed. She researched the foster care system, she interviewed possible adoption candidates and she weighed taking the girls into her own family on a permanent basis. She found a couple – an aunt and uncle without kids of their own – who were willing to take all four, or just two.
When she considered splitting them up, she worried about how her three kids at home – Kierstyn, Cole and Cash – would handle the change if the girls landed with them for good. Then one night, as she tucked Cole into bed, she heard all she needed to hear.
“The easy thing to do would be for them to go with the other family,” Cole told her. “But the right thing to do is for them to come live with us.”
He was 7 years old.
“I cry every time I think of that moment,” Kristin says now. “Because that’s when I knew.”
Twenty months after the girls showed up at their house, their belongings stuffed into that single black trash bag, Chris and Kristin Ballard sat in a courtroom in Houston, seething over what they were hearing. The judge wasn’t ready to terminate the birth mother’s rights, no matter the state she was in, no matter the damage it would continue to inflict on her four young daughters. If they didn’t land back in that apartment with her, they’d become wards of the state, very likely bouncing from one foster home to the next until they aged out at 18.
That’s when Kristin had enough. She shook her head. She looked at her husband.
“Go do what you gotta do,” Chris told her.
So she did. She pulled the mother into a side room. She begged the lawyers to leave.
“I’ll give you Sunnie and Rainn,” the mother told her. She was willing to part with the two youngest girls – the two most desperate for help.
“No,” Kristin replied. “There are four girls who deserve a chance.”
Finally, the mother relented. She’d sign over rights to all four. She’d promise to get the help she needed.
The oldest two, it was decided, would go with the aunt and uncle, the youngest two, Sunnie and Rainn, to the Ballards.
“I’m so proud of you,” Kristin told the mother. “You’re doing what’s best for your kids.”
The Ballards brought them home, and a family of five became a family of seven.
“People would ask me back then, working full-time, three kids of your own, how in the world are you doing this?” Kristin says now. “I’d always say, ‘How are you not?’ These girls needed taken care of.”
What followed: three promotions and three moves in five years, from Houston to Chicago to Kansas City to Indianapolis, a family finding its way. There were struggles, and there was heartache. Most who’ve never been through the adoption process assume at-risk foster children are happy the minute they arrive, provided with the home and the love they’ve never had.
In reality, it’s never that simple, never that smooth.
The girls were hurting, and they were scared, and at first, they had a hard time trusting. Kristin remembers dropping Sunnie off at daycare one morning and hearing a question that broke her heart. “Are you gonna pick me up?” Sunnie begged. “Are you gonna come get me?”
“I didn’t know what I didn’t know,” Kristin says now.
It took years for the girls to move past the trauma they’d seen and the life they’d left behind. They acted out at school. They went to therapy. They asked questions Chris and Kristin struggled to answer.
“Why aren’t my sisters living with us?”
“Is my old mommy mad that I’m a Ballard?”
“You have to meet them where they’re at,” says Kelly Ciborowski, Kristin’s sister-in-law, who’d drive in from Dallas on the weekends to help out in the early days while Chris was on the road scouting. “They’re hurt. They’re vulnerable. They don’t understand.”
One of the exercises the Ballards went through during their four-day foster-certification course involved closing their eyes and imagining they were 5 years old again.
“You’re at home, you’ve got your mom, you’ve got things that are yours, and all of a sudden, somebody you’ve never met comes to your house and takes you away,” Kristin says. “Then, suddenly, you’ve got this new house with these new things and a new family that welcomes you with open arms. But you’re never able to go back to your old house. You’re never able to play with your old toys. And sometimes, you’re never able to see your brothers or sisters ever again.”
“That’s all they knew. And it was just gone.”
It took years. It took patience from Chris and Kristin, sacrifice from Kierstyn, Cole and Cash and faith from Sunnie and Rainn. It took love. Trust. Faith. But slowly, the family began to feel whole. An early blessing arrived two weeks after Sunnie and Rainn first came home with them for good, in the summer of 2012: Chris was promoted to director of pro scouting for the Bears, which meant the entire family was moving to Chicago.
The way they saw it: This was a chance to start fresh. Sunnie and Rainn weren’t moving into Kierstyn, Cole and Cash’s house – they were moving into their new house. And for the first time in their lives, both of them had their own room.
A year later, another promotion. Chris became the director of pro personnel for the Chiefs. “My wife’s been killing herself to keep the family afloat,” he said then. “Now it’s my turn.”
So the Ballards moved once more.
And two years after that, the chance he’d been chasing finally came in Indianapolis. Jim Irsay wanted Ballard to overhaul the Colts. The family landed in Westfield, all seven of them, anxious to plant some roots and stay for a very long time.
Inside the Ballard house these days, Mom has a rule: Instead of birthday presents, they go out to eat as a family. The birthday kid gets to pick the restaurant. And if any of them misbehave, they stay in and settle for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
This past spring, with Sunnie’s 12th birthday inching closer, Kristin asked her daughter which restaurant she had picked out for her big night.
“I wanna do something different,” she told her mom.
No birthday dinner. No gifts.
Sunnie wanted to host a party for foster kids.
She planned it herself. And with a little help, she reached out to the Indiana Department of Child Services, asking for a list of area foster kids who’d be celebrating April birthdays. The night she turned 12, Sunnie hosted five families for pizza and games at Chuck E. Cheese.
When her mom asked why, Sunnie said: “I wanted them to feel special, too.”
She’d seen the work her parents had poured themselves into over the years: the Books for Youth events, the backpacks they’d donated, the families they’d touched. She wanted to do her part. Later that spring, the Ballards hosted another event for area foster kids, a graduation night at the Colts’ complex for those finishing high school. Cargo Services chipped in with money for each of the graduates.
All told, the company has given away roughly 8,000 backpacks to Indianapolis foster children since 2006. The Books for Youth program, specifically, has grown and grown the past few years, touching more families than ever before, and Fugate knows why.
It’s because of the Ballards.
“They bring a perspective that me, or others, simply can’t bring,” Fugate says. “The emotions, the heartache, they’ve seen the pain these kids go through.”
It’s a pain those two boys Chris Ballard was speaking with outside that pavilion that morning know: nine foster homes in seven years. The Colts’ GM stays in touch with some of the foster children he meets at these events, checking in on them every few weeks, even amidst a busy football season. One asked him to subscribe to his YouTube channel; the videos will pop up on Ballard’s phone every once in a while, videos of the boy singing and laughing and holding onto hope when so much of his life has been a struggle. Sometimes, it picks Ballard up. Sometimes, it wrecks him.
“I still have a hard time thinking about those kids,” he says.
While his five kids prepare to hand out backpacks on that sweltering summer morning, the Colts’ GM looks into the eyes of the foster children who’ve crammed into that pavilion.
“To all you kids out there who think there’s no hope, all you have to do is look around,” Ballard tells them. “I promise you that there is hope. There are people that care about you, and love you, and want to guide you.”
Then he speaks to the parents.
“It takes a special, special person to do what you’re doing,” he says. “You’re changing lives – don’t ever forget that. I promise you that God is going to pay you back tenfold for what you’re doing.”
As for the four foster kids his family pulled from the filth, they’re excelling. The oldest daughter, Angel, the one who’d walk to the nearest convenience store to buy the cheapest diapers and food she could find for her younger sisters, recently wrote about the pain she’s overcome in her life for her college entrance essay.
She calls the aunt and uncle who adopted her and her sister “the most amazing people in the world.”
“I felt like I finally had a voice,” she wrote, “and I could finally belong and be loved with the perfect family I never knew I could have. I never saw abuse in the household again.”
She started at the University of Texas at San Antonio this fall.
Her two youngest sisters, the two most in need when Kristin Ballard got that phone call nine years ago, are wearing Colts’ T-shirts, handing out Colts’ backpacks, watching the eyes of Indianapolis-area foster kids light up inside a pavilion on a summer morning.
These days, Sunnie and Rainn are straight-A students.
Their proud mom watches from a picnic table nearby, smiling through a few tears of her own.
“We plan, God laughs, right?” Kristin says.