Nikki Grey
February 04, 2016 8:13 am

As I traveled on the Hogwarts Express, headed to Diagon Alley in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, I remembered riding in a social services car, listening to my caseworker tell me about the latest foster home she was taking me to and how it would be fine if I just gave it a chance. It was difficult finding foster homes and I better make this work, she said. I remember feeling alone, unwanted and powerless. But I knew someone else who might have felt that way. Well, I didn’t know him exactly, but I felt like I did. If anyone could understand how I felt in that moment, it was Harry Potter.

When I first started reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, I was 11, just like Harry. I devoured the first book. I wanted to escape from the abuse and neglect I experienced under my father’s roof, and I did when I traveled to Hogwarts with Harry and his friends. Reading about Harry’s adventures, I wished I could get an envelope that would change my entire world. A letter from Hogwarts never came, but about a year later my life was turned upside down. I went into foster care.

I spent the next six months in an emergency shelter, where I lived with 10 other foster kids and was supervised by staff around the clock. During the next year — and a couple of foster homes later — my mother, who was in and out of my life mainly due to her drug abuse and time she spent in jail, died from colon cancer. And my father voluntarily gave up his parental rights to me. I was officially an orphan, just like Harry.

Each time I was taken from one home and brought to the next — whether it was because my foster parents were unfit, abusive or because they didn’t want me anymore — I brought my Harry Potter books with me. More than just an escape into a magical world, the books helped me figure out what kind of person I wanted to be. Harry, Ron and Hermione became my role models. I wanted to be brave like Harry, so I tried to face the challenges in my life, rather than hide from them. I spoke up for myself to social workers, foster parents and judges in court. I wanted to be smart like Hermione, so I took studying seriously. I wanted to make others laugh, like Ron did, so I tried to make light of and joke about my circumstances, rather than let them consume me. I desperately tried to not let the many tragedies in my life define me. When I felt hopeless, I often returned to a Harry Potter book. And as I read, I felt less alone.

I identified with Harry’s story. No, I was not a famous wizard, no one had tried to kill me and I had never been expected to save the world, but growing up in foster care the odds were always against me. My parents abused and abandoned me. Many people thought I would turn out just like they did. Even though many foster parents are wonderful, several of the foster parents I had weren’t kind to me. I didn’t have a lot of self-esteem, but when teachers and others believed in me, it helped me believe in myself.

There were people who had faith in Harry, too, and it made a huge difference for him. Teachers and faculty at Hogwarts, including Dumbledore, Hagrid and Professor McGonagall, showed Harry that they thought highly of him and encouraged him to apply himself in school and be the best he could be in life. Harry wasn’t just an orphan who had a terrible history and upbringing. They saw that he had potential, and he rose to the occasion.

Like Harry, I valued friendships deeply because friends were the closest thing to a loving family I had. During my first day of freshman year in high school, I introduced myself to the new girl in class named Erin. I remembered being new the year before when I moved into my foster home, and Erin’s family had just relocated to the small town I lived in. Erin was one of eight kids. I became friends with Erin and her sisters and, like the Weasleys, her family quickly embraced me. During the next few years I would move a handful of times to different foster homes, but there was always a place for me at their dinner table. This family was a constant for me in a time of great upheaval and turmoil, and I liken them to what the Weasley family was for Harry.

After I got off the Hogwarts Express and entered Diagon Alley, I looked around at the shops and buildings that so closely resembled what I imagined from the books and saw in the movies. It brought me back to that sense of wonder I felt years before. The pain and adult issues I grappled with as a child left me with few opportunities to feel like a kid, but just about every happy memory I have from that time involved Harry Potter somehow. Waiting for the books to come out — sometimes at midnight premiere parties (if I could get a ride) — talking to my friends about the books and watching the movies were some of the best times I had growing up.

When I visited Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando, I had a chance to be a kid again. I bought candy from Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes and went into every other store in Diagon Alley before going to Platform 9 ¾ to catch the Hogwarts Express to Hogsmeade. I felt like I was actually in Hogwarts as I walked the dark passageways filled with paintings of moving witches and wizards. It was incredible to feel like I was a part of the world I love so much.

The Harry Potter books brought me comfort in the darkest period of my life. They helped me escape my reality and allowed me precious opportunities to experience wonder. The story of an orphan who beat the odds against him gave me hope that maybe I could do the same thing. Although making it through foster care without losing hope was no easy feat, I was not even close to as brave as Harry Potter. But when J.K. Rowling wrote about a little boy who went from living underneath a staircase to becoming the most significant wizard of his time, she gave me someone to believe in. Harry saved the world, and in doing so he helped me save myself.

(Image via Universal Pictures)

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