Billy Maddalon and Brooks Shelley with their son Jed Maddalon
There are cases of hellish abuse – and then there was Jed.
Born to severely mentally ill parents, he was found in rural Robeson County, N.C., at age 3, emaciated and chained to a bed, eating from a dog bowl on the floor. Child protective services tried to place him in foster homes – some good and others troubled – but the traumatized youngster stole, attacked his foster parents and ran away.
"One time Jed came to my office, crying and said, 'Won't I ever have a family? Won't anybody ever love me?' " says Denise Little, a social worker, who worked with Jed for years.
By the time he was 13, Jed had cycled through 29 families, including four who had initially wanted to adopt him. After his 14th birthday, therapists at the Alexander Youth Network
(AYN), the Charlotte, N.C., treatment center where Jed had stayed on and off since he was 8, reluctantly concluded there was no more they could do for him and he was transferred to a mental institution.
When AYN volunteers Billy Maddalon, 46, a businessman who had himself spent two years at the facility during his own troubled youth, and his partner, Brooks Shelley, 46, heard Jed was being sent away, they knew they had to try to help him.
"It just felt like somebody had to save him," says Maddalon. "I said, 'We're the right people.' Even if 29 families thought the same thing, we're naive and optimistic. We believe in happy endings."
In October of 2008, after they were certified as foster parents, Jed came to live with Maddalon and Shelley.
"That first night we made spaghetti," Maddalon recalls. "He sat underneath the table and ate with his fingers. He didn't know how to bathe, couldn't write his name."
Despite finally living in a stable home, Jed often ran away.
"I was nervous. I didn't trust anyone," he says. "I didn’t think anyone would ever want me. Everybody had been saying I was a lost cause and I believed it."
But his parents didn't give up, formally adopting him two years after he came to live with them.
"One time he jumped on a train," says Shelley, "and we tracked him on the computer using the GPS on his phone. But when he ran away he would call around dinnertime and ask to come home."
Today, a high school junior at 19, Jed hopes to attend North Carolina State, Maddalon's alma mater.
"No matter how much I acted up, they said I wasn’t going anywhere," says Jed. "They gave me my first birthday party. It’s pretty straightforward. They care about me. I’m not going anywhere. This is my forever home."
For more on this story, as well as pictures and documents from Jed's life, pick up PEOPLE on newsstands now