They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, if that’s true then Karen LeVan Carroll is a diamond. You may know Karen as Sales Manager at VUE magazine, and even seen her taking photos, covering events, or meeting with partners, but you probably don’t know her story.
Karen Carroll’s early years could best be described as unstable. Some of Karen’s earliest memories of her biological father were of him spending many weekends in jail because he was inebriated. She said, “He’d be gone, and as a child I didn’t know why, but when he would come back he would always bring me a lollipop.” She had recollections of him fighting, choking and throwing her mother across the room, “as a dad, with what little he knew about parenting, he did the best he could,” she reflected, thinking how she was one of five children growing up in a financially poor family. The last memory she has of her family together was while living in Forest Hills, “My Dad was drunk and he tossed me down the hallway which accidentally ended up breaking my arm.” At the time, Karen was more concerned about not getting to play in the water with other children because of her cast than she was that her dad had thrown her.
Karen’s home life was tough to say the least, with her biological parents divorcing when she was only three. While living in Dudley Court, her mom would bartend during the evening in order to put food on the table. Therefore, her eldest brother (age 9) was largely responsible for watching the five children. Because of this and the fact that their apartment caught fire while the children’s mother was at work, Social Services was forced to intervene. Karen’s biological mother’s situation didn’t stem from a lack of love for her children but lack of means. As a small child she saw no difference between her life and other children’s lives, which made adapting to her challenging circumstances easier.
The court would inevitably demand Karen’s biological mother to relinquish her parental rights in hopes the children could be adopted and wouldn’t age out in foster care. Karen spoke of the love her mom had for them all saying, “My mother would have visits and she tried to keep us, but she never got her rights back in spite of her best attempts.” Karen’s first-hand experience in foster care and transitioning from family-to-family and school-to-school has impacted her greatly, “I’ve never been a fearful person and wasn’t scared for some reason. I seemed to adjust well to change. Some experiences were good and some were bad, but it all felt like a big adventure to me. I felt like I was traveling the world, even though I was just traveling the county.” Initially, all five siblings were placed together but were ultimately separated. Karen reiterated, “I was the only one left of the five of us at the first foster home. I really don’t know where they all specifically went, but my three younger siblings ended up with one family. We were all eventually adopted, but I was the last to go.”
While living in her first foster home, she attended Sharpe Elementary School for 1st and 2nd grade where she met a teacher named “Mrs.LeVan”. She remembered, “swinging on the playground – swinging and loving Mrs. LeVan – wishing she could be her new mom.” At this point, a bond was created with Mrs. LeVan because the state allowed her to keep Karen occasionally on weekends. Unfortunately, for the next 3 years while living in various foster care homes, Karen had no contact with the LeVans. Karen did not know that the LeVan’s were still keeping up with her as she moved.
Even though Karen didn’t see them, she still had hopes of being part of their family one day. Unbeknownst to Karen, Mrs. LeVan and her husband “T.F.” went to great lengths to adopt her even though they weren’t in the system to be foster parents or adopt. Amazingly, after five years in foster care, Karen went to live with her new adoptive parents, the LeVan’s and their son Jeff in Benton. Finally, Karen’s story had turned and she now had, “a home to call my own, someone to call Mom and Dad, and a cool new older brother, but the greatest gift wasn’t a home but the knowledge of God and His word.”
The LeVan’s were very devout Christians and Karen was able to find her first real church family through living with them. Through an amazing orchestration by God, her younger siblings even ended up attending the same church she did. Karen said, “I think there was a church up the road before I was adopted and even though I didn’t know anything about it I can remember wanting to go. I just felt like I should go even though I didn’t really know why.” Karen would be raised with her new family going to Church every time the doors were open. Benton Church of Christ had many youth the same age as Karen and they would go to summer youth series where she would meet kids from others counties. Church became an integral part of her life socially and spiritually.
Karen’s triumph’s coming out of the foster care system and being part of a new family would be followed with tough decisions and tragedy over the course of her life. During a teenage relationship Karen became pregnant and was pressured to get an abortion in order to keep the pregnancy a secret, but God intervened through her aunt and cousin. Karen instead took her first son, “Clark” and placed him for adoption through a Christian agency in Nashville called “Agape”. In this impossible, painful process Karen didn’t know what to do, she said, “I had to turn it over to God”. Karen recognized she wasn’t in a position to care for a child and couldn’t imagine her baby going through the same process she experienced. She then made the best decision she could make giving her baby boy to a family she hand selected. His new parents were such a blessing to Karen and continued to keep her updated over the years. They sent letters, photos, even hair from his first haircut. His mom and Karen continue to stay in touch.
Later, Karen would lose her dad (T.F.) to a heart attack in December of 2008 and all of her younger siblings within a span of ten years. As an adult Karen was extremely close to her sister and father, the abruptness of their deaths created a greater sense of devastation. Afterwards the man Karen thought she’d spend the rest of her life with, Brett Medley, without warning, shockingly committed suicide. Although Karen’s loss of Brett was life altering, it enabled her to build a strong relationship with Brett’s family; whereas they metaphorically adopted Karen into their family.
In the midst of heartbreak Karen received strength from the joy of her two children (Zack and Sydney). Karen spoke of their vast accomplishments and shared her deep love for the two saying, “I probably tell my children I love them more than I need to.” Karen recalled driving Zack to school one day when he was young and when they got in the car, Karen told Zack, “I love you.” Zack responded with, “Mom, please don’t tell me you love me again until we get to school.” Karen laughed lightheartedly saying, “I know they don’t realize the importance of it fully, but one day they will.”
As a single parent Karen faces various struggles, many of them financial. This reality has created a sense of determination in Zack and Sydney from how they choose to live; not getting everything they wanted has shaped their perspective on what’s important. Karen said, “I think the things moms really struggle with in general as a single parent is that a lot of dad’s don’t step up to the plate during the divorce, you have to overcompensate in a lot of areas for your children.” Karen said, “I don’t ever want Zack or Sydney to think they don’t have my unconditional love.” She strives to make sure her children feel completely loved. Karen values consistency in their lives, which hopefully creates security, a reality much different from her own early childhood.
After Karen’s divorce, while working in radio sales, Karen went back to college to obtain her Bachelors degree in Business Management. After a company re-alignment while Karen was in medical sales, she was about to lose her job and spoke to Carolyn Raney on the phone telling her the bad news. Karen shared Carolyn’s response, “Great! Give me a week and I will talk to you.” Carolyn then began sharing the vision about VUE and brought Karen in while they were still building the rate card. Karen said, “It’s amazing how God works things out. If I hadn’t been about to lose my other job I wouldn’t have stopped working to come on board and help start this magazine with Maggie and Carolyn.” Karen has a passion for helping others, “After being in sales for over fifteen years, I could never sell something I don’t believe in, and I feel like VUE really makes a difference in people’s lives. We have all of these resources that we never knew about before, and it’s given me connections to others where I can help mentor.”
Now Karen volunteers through DHFS (Department of Child and Family Services) parent-mentoring program, which seeks to advocate for parents who may have lost their children or are about to lose them in foster care. Additionally, Karen serves on the Salvation Army’s advisory board. Karen said, “As a child living with my biological parents, I can remember the Salvation Army providing our only brand new Christmas gift. All of our other toys were used, it’s been my motivation to help.” Karen serves various organizations saying, “I feel like I have full backing on my own personal missions to continue to assist people. VUE stands behind me and allows me to spend time helping others where I’m not just selling ads but working to change lives; that’s unheard of”.
Even though Karen has had different struggles and admittedly made many mistakes in her life, she knows that God has forgiven her of everything she has done or ever will do. In fact, forgiveness is key for Karen. “There isn’t anyone in my life who I feel has caused me pain that I haven’t forgiven – whether they want it or not; it’s given me a huge sense of peace. I don’t have the room or the energy to harbor hate. When you just let it go and truly forgive someone, it stops the pain of what they have done. The biggest obstacle I’ve faced isn’t the forgiveness of others but forgiving myself.” Karen has long carried guilt, put over time has realized that God’s plan is to live life in freedom and to have an unburdened heart. Karen said, “It sounds silly, but sometimes you forget who’s really in charge.” Karen doesn’t believe in luck, but holds to the fact that every event in her life has been for a purpose and has accepted the realization that she cannot fix everything.
While Karen has experienced tragic loss of those she has loved deeply, she also rejoices daily in her children who bring her much joy and remains focused on moving forward. You won’t catch Karen Carroll ever wallowing in self-pity over the things that have happened in her life; her circumstances don’t define her they’ve simply refined her. Karen said, “Even though it’s been rough in my life, I’ve made the choice to not let it bring me down.” The truth is Karen makes the choice to persevere and a lot of people don’t.
Karen’s life reminds me of what Joseph said to his brothers who sold him into slavery, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good…” – Genesis 50:20 (ESV) Karen is typical of a diamond being made. When you put pressure on the right rock, it results in a diamond. In fact, the reason jewelers stack them on a black backdrop, is because it prompts the light to shine bringing out its sparkle; it’s actually the darkness that triggers the stone to shimmer. This is why even though Karen’s life has been surrounded with adversity and terrible hardship in retrospect it has really just created an opportunity for her to shine a fierce light.
So I pray you take your black backdrops, not boasting in their darkness, but letting God’s strength shine in your weakness as well, “In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” –
Matthew 5:16 (ESV) Amen.
Because He Lives, Pastor AB
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