Paige Bramlett knew she wanted to be a positive influence in William's life.
The elementary school behavior specialist in Johnson County had been working with the kindergartener, who'd moved from home-to-home in foster care, for several months.
They formed a bond, and she helped him create structure and develop routines – like a smile each morning and a good-bye with a hug or piece of candy. So when the opportunity came up to foster William, Bramlett, who was 23 at the time, didn’t hesitate.
“It was tunnel vision, and that’s what I did,” she said.
'There is no higher love': After adopting, she found biological son she never knew she had
Roughly two years later, Bramlett and 7-year-old William are mother and son after his adoption in October. Bramlett has shared their journey on social media, but it wasn't until Santa brought William a puppy two weeks before Christmas that her posts went viral.
Videos of William meeting Banks, a Weimaraner puppy, have received widespread attention, including an appearance on Good Morning America and being featured in People Magazine.
Bramlett, now 26, said she was already excited going into the new year, but now their story will reach more people.
“This is just the beginning of a whole new year of traditions for us,” she said.
A conversation in the hallway
Bramlett met William in August 2019. She liked the job she had at a nearby elementary school but felt a pull to accept a job at William’s school to work as his behavior specialist.
“It’s such a God thing how it all happened,” Bramlett said of leaving her previous job for the one with William. “I didn’t want to move jobs, but I felt that push.”
A few months into the school year, William missed a day – something that hadn’t happened before. Bramlett said she “had that feeling that something was wrong” and worried that he moved to a new foster home away from the school.
Born out of love: How the baby they gave up 50 years ago reunited high school sweethearts
But the next day, he came to school alongside his case worker. Bramlett saw her in the hallway, introduced herself and asked what was going on. The case worker told Bramlett that William needed stability and a long-term home.
Bramlett was already thinking about how she could get more involved in helping William and asked about fostering him. The case worker gave her a card and said to call if she was serious.
She texted her parents: ”I’m thinking about pursing being William’s forever home.”
Becoming a family
Bramlett became a foster parent and by the second week of January 2020, William was living with her and her parents.
She left her job to work part-time to allow more time with William as well as the trainings, deadlines and paperwork that came along with foster parenting.
She continued to learn as much as she could about the foster system and the trauma that children experience, including the trauma of being separated from their parents and how that impacts their brains.
Trauma can mean a lot of different things, said Bramlett, who advocates for people to learn more and take a trauma informed approach with others. She hopes to one day work with educators on the topic.
“People go into it thinking that love should be enough,” she said, adding that love alone doesn’t change behaviors or stop the impact of trauma.
Sharing their story
Bramlett regularly posts slices of their life on social media.
There are photos of William fishing and of the pair hiking and going on vacation. Good days, bad days and milestones between. Smiles and hugs. Lessons learned. Pep talks to herself and other foster parents. Videos of Banks the puppy playing with William and snuggled close to Bramlett.
“I like to capture our whole life of what we do,” she said. “And I’ve posted our story from the beginning.”
She’s made videos of TikTok dances but also about fostering, adoption and how much life has changed.
“At first, you want to be guarded because this is William’s story, and it is real,” Bramlett said, adding that by sharing her story, others could learn or not feel alone.
It's added to her community of supporters too. Through Instagram, Bramlett said she’s met more foster moms who are going through similar experiences to hers.
Two of Bramlett's siblings said they've noticed the growth in their sister and William during their time together. Luke Bramlett added that his sister loves to work with kids and help them, so he wasn't surprised when she wanted to foster William.
And he fits in with the entire family.
“Now, I don’t remember our lives before him,” Haley Bramlett said of her nephew.
Paige Bramlett sees the changes, too. Her role as William's advocate has built her confidence and pushed her to speak up more on his behalf.
In William she sees the strides in his schoolwork and his love of math and science. She watches as his coping skills take shape and admires his budding artistic and athletic talents.
“Last year, we found out he’s pretty good on rollerblades and skis,” Bramlett said.
Although Bramlett is no longer with him during the school day, every night after school they work together on his homework.
“I miss that part, that’s what brought us together,” she said.
A puppy for Christmas
The trio of TikTok videos that put Bramlett and William's story in the spotlight have millions views combined as their story has spread over the last few weeks.
The mother and son had recently moved into their own home, and William asked for a puppy for Christmas – repeatedly. Bramlett was hesitant. She thought: “How am I going to do this?”
But after seeing the puppy, she knew she had to add her to the family. She posted a series of videos about the surprise for William.
In the first one, he asks for a puppy for Christmas, and the video changes to one of Bramlett riding in the car with Banks in her arms and Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas is You" playing in the background. It’s followed by part two, where Haley Bramlett picks William up from school.
He likes to check the mail, so when they arrived home, Haley Bramlett told him to check the mail. There, a letter from the North Pole was waiting and William came back to the car to start reading it. Santa informed William he was getting the “best puppy in Indiana” for Christmas.
William’s eyes grew big and he shouted with excitement: “Oh, I really do want a puppy!”
He thought he’d have to wait until Christmas to meet his new dog, but part three shows William walking inside to find his present has already arrived.
“He went in there and saw the puppy and had the biggest smile on his face and was so happy,” Haley Bramlett said. “He had no idea that he was going to get her that day.”
After posting the videos, Bramlett watched the views climb from thousands to more than a million. Then, actress Jamie Lee Curtis commented on her Facebook page, websites in other countries took notice and messages started appearing from media – including Good Morning America and People Magazine.
“It has been awesome to tell our story in hopes that it brings light to foster care and adoption here in our community and around Indianapolis for sure as it is much needed,” Bramlett said.
She hopes their story will inspire others to help children in foster care – whether that’s becoming a foster parent, giving a meal or clothing or learning more about trauma.
“Everybody and anybody can start somewhere,” she said.
To learn more about becoming a foster parent and ways you can help children in foster care, visit to www.indianafostercare.org.
This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: TikTok loves ex-Johnson County school staffer Paige Bramlett and son