Mrs. Universe Tori Hope Petersen, a former foster child who defied the odds set against her at an early age, is a Christian foster youth advocate known for offering hope to children and encouraging adults to answer the call to provide a loving home to children in desperate need of stability.
Petersen wrote about her experiences in foster care in a memoir, titled Fostered: One Woman’s Powerful Story of Finding Faith and Family through Foster Care that is now available for pre-order and will be released on Oct. 15.
In the memoir, Petersen recounts her experiences in foster care, what it's like being a survivor of abuse, her journey to becoming a track and field All-American and then winning Mrs. Universe 2022. Along with her many achievements, Petersen's past as a child in foster care led her to not only devote many hours of her life to being a foster care system reform advocate, but she's also a foster parent herself and implores other Christians to open their hearts and homes to youth seeking a stable and loving family.
Despite having a challenging childhood, Petersen became a four-time state champion in track and field in high school where she was also the first female minority student to achieve that record. Petersen also was the 50th female athlete in Ohio's history to win four state titles in one track meet.
In an interview with The Christian Post, Petersen said it was a miracle she was able to excel and achieve so much in her youth.
In those moments when she was at the top of her game, Petersen said she "realized that I wasn't going to be a statistic and that God did have something different for me.
She added, "I just wanted to keep that promise to God, saying [publicly] that 'God did this.' But also looking at the miracle that it truly was, in what God had done in my life."
The beauty queen said she set out to write her memoir to give hope to children in the foster care system as well as adults who grew up in foster care.
"I wanted them to know that even if no one wanted them in their home, that God made a room for them in a Kingdom — and that trumps people kicking you out. And even though no one wants to claim you as a son or daughter here on Earth, God says, 'You are my son, you are my daughter,' I wanted that message to be really clear,” Petersen stressed.
As a child in foster care, Petersen was moved to 12 different homes. Although some people had predicted the worst outcomes for her life, telling her she'd just become a statistic or grow up to suffer from mental illness like her mother, she broke through the negative projections with the help of a track coach who changed the trajectory of her life. He spoke “words of life” over the athlete and trained and mentored her. During that time, she was also attending church and learning about Jesus.
In church, Petersen was told she was “anointed” and “appointed,” and soon began sharing her testimony.
Much like her coach took action by encouraging her to aim for greatness, Petersen said one of her goals in writing the book was to “propel people” and help them envision more for themselves.
"There are people in society that we all just instantly have prejudices against. That we just say, 'Oh, that person comes from this background. Well, that means they're X, Y and Z.' And I really wanted to propel people to think differently about those who are on the outskirts, people who are on the margins. Because there were people who saw me as a statistic and then there were people who saw me as God saw me,” Petersen said.
"Because of those people, I saw myself as God saw me, and that's encouraged me to see people as God sees them.”
“Ordinary people,” she said, like her track coach or a factory worker or anyone from any background can help change the lives of children in the foster care system.
"He [the track coach] was the most ordinary man, but he changed my life because he chose to see me as God sees me,” Petersen said.
According to statistics from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, in 2020, some 213,964 children younger than 18 were in the U.S. foster care system.
Feeling stuck in the trauma of being an orphan is a common experience among children who dream of having a forever home, she said.
"I think so many times we walk through anxiety and depression and fear and no one tells us that it's normal, and we get shamed for it, and we get blamed for it. So, I first want to tell them that's OK," Petersen noted.
"A lot of things that I do, I do anxiously. A lot of the things I do, I do scared; it's just that I don't look scared. There is still fear in me, there is still anxiety in me, but I just keep doing it. So, I would say, 'Yeah, you can be stuck in your feelings. There have been times when I was stuck in my feelings but keep going, continued on," she said, encouraging others to "do that thing that is in the back of your head that is deep in your heart that God has called you to that you feel like is your calling. Just step into it. Just do it scared!'"
Petersen regularly travels across the nation to share her story. She also works with several ministries and nonprofits as a foster youth consultant to give people the perspective of former foster youth who didn't know Jesus.
"There are so many amazing Christian nonprofits who are like, 'Let's just tell them about the Lord; that is going to fix them.' I don't know if we should start there. The Lord can do anything He wants to. But also, that would make it really easy for us if we just had to tell people about Jesus. Jesus wants to do something in us, too,” she added.
Peterson is now married and has a biological son and daughter and an adopted son.
"He [God] doesn't just want when people are like, 'Oh, we're going to bring Jesus to the poor.' No! The poor are going to bring Jesus to you; you just got to show up there,” Petersen maintained. “So, I'm just really trying to be a resource to these organizations so that we don't do more harm to marginalized communities and that we're really going into the foster care system, into the outskirts and we are loving them in the way that they interpret love.”
In her interview with CP, Petersen recalled being greatly impacted by a woman named Tanya, one of her foster parents, who took her and her sister into her home for the holidays.
"She took us in for Christmas and she got us all these presents. And I opened all of them. Me and my sister had more presents than her kids did combined,” Petersen said. “We opened so many, and that day, I said, 'I want to go to Walmart tomorrow and I want to exchange all my Christmas presents.' And she said, 'OK, we can do that.' She takes me the next day and we sit in this long line, the day after Christmas at Walmart, and I exchange all my presents for different colors or for gift cards.
"I got older, and I looked at Tanya, I was like, 'Why did you let me do that? That was so ungrateful. I was so entitled. You were taking us into your home; you got us all these presents literally two days before Christmas.' And she said, 'That's not what would have communicated love to you at that moment.' That has spoken volumes to me. It is the way I want to walk in my ministry."
The former athlete said that she doesn't just want to teach people principles and lessons. Rather, she “aims to love people in the moment.”
"I want to love them how they can interpret love in a way that draws them toward the heart of Jesus,” Peterson added.
In her book Fostered, she also encourages the Church to be radically hospitable.
"We've heard in the media, we've seen it on Twitter and on Instagram when Roe v. Wade was overturned, some Christians were saying, 'OK, now we get to work.' That is very frustrating to me because we should have been doing the work. A law, a policy, should not impact what we are called to do as believers and as disciples of Jesus. We are called to walk out the call whether a policy or whether a law is passed or not,” she asserted.
“I'm sorry to the people who are hurt by that language of now we're doing something, and it's so true that we should have been doing something all along.”
In contrast, however, Petersen also noted that Christians make up 70% of foster parents today, adding: "So I think that the Church really is picking up the mantle, becoming radically hospitable and welcoming people in."
Petersen concluded her interview with CP by saying that radical hospitality is not just the foster care system. It is for the next-door neighbor, the birth mom, the person at church who always sits alone or “anyone in our vicinity that God places in front of us.”
"If we look at what my track coach did, he used what he had right where he was, he just kept going to track practice, kept being the track coach, and loved me, the person that was in front of him, and it changed the trajectory of my life."
“We don't always have to go get certified. Those are great things to do. I encourage people to do them if they feel that calling on their lives. But really, what we should do is we should say, 'Okay, where am I? What do I have? And how can I use it to build the Kingdom of Heaven?'”
Fostered: One Woman’s Powerful Story of Finding Faith and Family through Foster Careis now available for preorder everywhere books are sold.
Jeannie Ortega Law is a reporter for The Christian Post. Reach her at: firstname.lastname@example.org She's also the author of the book, What Is Happening to Me? How to Defeat Your Unseen Enemy Follow her on Twitter: @jlawcp Facebook: JeannieOMusic