Fri | Sep 29, 2023

Camelia’s journey

Hope has taken the young girl through a series of heartbreaks to solace

Published:Sunday | December 25, 2022 | 1:25 AMLivern Barrett - Senior Staff Reporter
22-year-old Camelia Miller: "Hope keeps me going".
22-year-old Camelia Miller: "Hope keeps me going".
Camelia Miller and her new foster mother Maxine Williamson
Camelia Miller and her new foster mother Maxine Williamson
Camelia Miller and her new foster mother Maxine Williamson
Camelia Miller and her new foster mother Maxine Williamson
CPFSA awards to Camelia Miller and her new foster mother Maxine Williamson.
CPFSA awards to Camelia Miller and her new foster mother Maxine Williamson.

The best Christmas Camelia Miller enjoyed as a child was in 2015.

Four months before that, the then 14-year-old with a turbulent childhood was among 40 children housed at a government-run facility.

That’s when Leonie McLean, a caregiver at the children’s home, and her elderly husband, Hugh, agreed to become Camelia’s foster parents and moved her into their Kingston home.

Two other children from the home were also placed in the care of the McLeans, who had already raised four adult children.

That four-month period between August and December brought more fun and excitement than Camelia had ever experienced in her short lifespan, and a respite from the turmoil she has had to navigate almost since birth.

“We did stuff that I never did before. I went to the beach for the first time at 14 years old and it was a crazy experience,” Camelia, now 22, told The Sunday Gleaner last week, before bursting out into laughter.

But it was what “mom and dad” did on Christmas Eve that year, in 2015, that remains etched in her memory and brought another outburst of laughter.

The McLeans gave each of their foster children an envelope with a card that expressed their love and $5,000 cash.

Camelia was in shock and disbelief.

“That was the first time getting so much money for myself. Like, I get to spend all of this. You are giving $5,000 to a 15-year-old (her birthday was September) who has never held so much money for herself,” she recounted.

“That night we dressed up in new clothes that they had bought and they allowed us to go to Grand Market by ourselves.”


Camelia’s new life with the McLeans was far removed from the gritty streets of Thompson Pen, St Catherine, where she was born to married parents.

By age four, she was dealing with her first tragedy – the death of her biological mother. And almost immediately, her father vanished from her life.

An aunt, who became her guardian, struggled to find a stable job that would allow them to strive or send Camelia to school, she recounted.

“I could probably write my name, but I couldn’t read,” she admitted, recalling the period up to her ninth birthday.

And it would be a toss-up at Christmas time whether they would have a meal.

“The one time I can remember having a decent Christmas dinner was when she (her aunt) went to a lady’s house to work on Christmas Day, and I went with her, and the lady said we could stay and have dinner,” she shared.

Over time, the pressure became too much for her aunt, forcing her to make the difficult decision to place 10-year-old Camelia in the children’s home.

Camelia found out she was being placed in the custody of the State during a visit to the Spanish Town offices of the then Child Development Agency (CDA).

The CDA has since been subsumed under the Child Protection and Family Services Agency (CPFSA).

“My aunt came up to me and said she was leaving, that she would see me soon, and that I should be brave. That was it before she left me at the office,” Camelia said.

“I was very scared because I didn’t know what was gonna happen after that.”

Over 800 children are currently living with a similar number of families under Jamaica’s foster care system, Rosalee Gage-Grey, chief executive officer of the CPFSA, disclosed during a Sunday Gleaner interview on Thursday.

Children with “severe behavioural” issues and the number of families offering to open up their homes to foster kids are among the main challenges facing the system, the CPFSA boss disclosed.

“Those people who are willing and able to take the children are usually the older population; very willing, good heart, but can’t treat with the behaviours,” she explained, citing the “generational gap”.


Though complaining that she was bullied and found it difficult to socialise, entering the foster care system turned out to be a major turning point for Camelia.

She was enrolled in school for the first time at the age of 10, and three years later she aced the Grade Six Achievement Test (GSAT) exam, earning a place at Jonathan Grant High School, also in St Catherine, as well as the admiration of her caregivers and peers.

“That was a proud moment, because I was coming from not knowing how to read at 10 years old,” she said.

It was around the same time, too, that the shy teen from Thompson Pen learnt of the foster-parent arrangement with the McLeans, something she thought was “just for the [summer] holidays”.

“I get to live here now? Like, not go back to being with all those kids and being in that situation?” Camelia remembers asking herself when the McLeans confirmed that she would reside with them permanently.

But amid the euphoria, tragedy again lurked for the young girl.

By 2016, her foster mom started feeling sick and was later diagnosed with cancer.

“It all happened so fast. Like, one minute she was fine and we were up and down, and then all of that stopped, and she was just in bed in pain,” she recalled with sorrow, sharing that she got to meet the McLeans’ biological children.

Leonie McLean died in August 2016.

“Hey mom, it’s Camelia. I love you,” were the last words she remembers uttering.

Again, economic hardship loomed. Hugh McLean, who was in his 80s, did his best to steady the ship, but it was too much, Camelia shared.

Months after his wife’s death, Hugh began developing medical complications, manifested by two strokes he suffered hours apart in December 2016.

Hugh McLean died in August 2017, sending Camelia into an angry tailspin.

“We were still trying to get over mom, and then dad just died. At that point, in my mind I’m like, me probably cursed or something because me don’t understand what’s going on,” she expressed to The Sunday Gleaner.

“Maybe I’m not supposed to have parents.”


But there was still one more silver lining behind Camelia’s dark cloud.

Maxine Williamson, one of the four children the McLeans shared, wanted to be a guardian for the teen.

Williamson, a business owner who lived in Canada for over 30 years, relocated to Jamaica to be close to Camelia and the other children her mother fostered.

She has now completed the process to take over as Camelia’s foster mother.

“It was important for me to continue loving them the way my mother did, and to make sure they have everything they needed, just as my mom would have done,” Williamson told The Sunday Gleaner.

“It also filled a void. I had somewhere else to put my love. So, it was quite easy.”

22-year-old Camelia is now close to completing a degree in business management, marketing and human resources at the University of Technology, Jamaica. She can’t help but wonder sometimes how she overcame the odds.

“Sometimes when I look back, I question why did I have to go through all of this. Why couldn’t I have been born to a decent, middle-class family, so that I could have a better childhood?” she said, before catching herself.

She then declared, “I feel like it was meant to be this way for me. I believe that everything that I went through was worth it, in a sense, to get to the point I’m at now.”

“Life hasn’t been easy for me, but I wouldn’t change it. I’m grateful.”

Camelia hopes to either have children of her own or to become a foster mother to other kids one day.

“God helped me to go through everything that happened. I still have faith and I’m still positive, and I’m looking forward to the other parts of life. That hope keeps me going,” the young lady expressed.