Westwood resident Olivia Malcolmson, who is adopted, wondered how she could help others who are like her.
Last summer, as an entering junior at Loomis Chaffee School in Connecticut, she pored over the application for a summer fellowship offered through her school.
The Norton Fellows Program seeks a handful of projects crafted by students that highlight community engagement and what they’ve learned from their studies. Malcolmson recalled times when friends who were adopted found it difficult to talk with their parents about their birth families and other questions.
“I realized that my relationship with my parents was unique,” Malcolmson said. “That conversation has always been encouraged.”
Concerned by studies reporting higher rates of suicide among people who were adopted, Malcolmson set out to construct an online guide for “adoptees” who want to open a dialogue about their origin with their adoptive parents.
“While that is not emphasized directly on the website, by promoting healthy conversations I hope to break down barriers,” she said, referring to the mental health challenges her adopted peers might face.
Her efforts have culminated in a simple, streamlined website: www.RealTalkAdoption.com.
Social worker Stephanie Shelley and Columbia University professor Mark S. Preston offered Malcolmson support as she wrote her posts for teenagers and young adults who are adopted.
“I found a lot of websites for parents, but I didn’t really find anything for adopted teens,” she said. “I think this allows the teen to take the matter into their own hands, and approach their parents.”
Eric LaForest, a director at the Loomis Chaffee School’s Norton Family Center for the Common Good, said Malcolmson’s virtual mission has made her stand out from her peers.
“What a thrill it has been to watch her website take shape and begin to foster community across many different contexts,” LaForest said.
The website lists step-by-step guides, encouraging the adoptee to think about what they want out of the interaction, and how to begin.
“It tries to give ways on how to approach that conversation in a healthy and not confrontational way. One where they and their parents are comfortable,” she said.
Malcolmson offers advice to readers who want to ask questions such as: Why was I adopted? Why did you choose adoption? Can I search for my birth family?
She interviewed numerous adoptees and learned about the variety of experiences they can face.
“When I first starting thinking about this project, I was only thinking about international adoptees,” because she was adopted from China, she said. “Thinking about other adoptee experiences was a little more challenging, but as I got to know people who shared their insights, I was able to learn more about people who are in an open adoption, kinship adoption, and domestic adoption.”
Adoptees can pitch her topics to write about on her website, too.
“If there’s a topic they want covered, or there’s a question that they are not sure to ask their parents — anything of that sort, they can submit it, and my blog posts can address it,” she said.
Malcolmson’s parents have always encouraged discussions and answered her questions as best they could.
“We wanted to convey that whatever questions she might have were valid,” said her mother, Jennifer Malcolmson. “Also, because we are a transracial family, we knew that others might raise questions. Those early conversations provided her, in part, with confidence and tools to use.”
Malcolmson’s mother did not notice the lack of online resources for young adults until her daughter brought it to her attention.
“For a teenager to identify a need and take concrete action to address the need in the community is heartening. She is an engineer at heart,” her mother said.
Malcolmson’s project was partially funded by a $6,500 grant from the IAM Strong Foundation, which supports teenagers with mental health issues by breaking stigmas.
In the future, she said, she might expand the website to host a forum where adoptees can chat with each other.