“’Dear Katie and Justin, you have no idea how good it feels to be a part of a family that does fun things together, and cares about each other. Thank you for letting me be here.’
My husband and I woke up to find this note on our counter one morning, written by the 12-year-old boy that was living with us. The night before all six of us – Justin and myself, our two biological children, and our two foster sons – had gone out for supper and then to a movie, and afterward drove around looking at Christmas lights. I remember that night clearly, because it was a great one. We were all laughing, and there really was something special about all of it. My heart felt full that night – full of joy, full of gratitude, and full of love. To find this on the counter the next morning was a beautiful, unexpected surprise.
I recently came across that note again after having carried it in my purse for a long time, so I could take it out and re-read it on the hard days. I added it to a box of other things I’ve collected over the years from the various kids whose lives have crossed paths with ours. Most of the items are things that got forgotten when kids moved onto whatever was next in life for them — a paperback Harry Potter book, a broken necklace, a basketball camp t-shirt, a little Thomas the Train figurine, and a stray CD that lost its case. There’s also a letter with ‘Youth Correctional Center’ in the return address spot that holds a tear-stained letter begging us not to give up on its author, who was temporarily incarcerated after an incident with drugs.
Each item reminds me of its owner – some who stayed with us in respite foster care for a very short time, and some for much longer than that. Each item represents a child I was fortunate enough to be entrusted with the care of for some length of time, and have been forever changed by in various ways. I’ve been challenged; I’ve been humbled; I’ve cried over the powerlessness of loving someone who is struggling with addiction. And I’ve shed tears every single time one of them has left, no matter the circumstances. However, I’ve also been rewarded richly in more ways than I can describe, not the least of which is learning the capacity I have to love someone else’s child.
Here’s what I’m getting at: Have you, the person reading these words right now, ever thought about being a foster parent? Maybe you’ve considered it and thought there are others out there better suited for it, or that you aren’t a perfect parent. If that is the case, come hang out at my house between 4-4:30 during what I lovingly would call our ‘transition back home/major meltdowns of epic proportion’ time of day, if you’d like to see my parenting skills tested to the max at a time each day when I clearly don’t have it together. You can then be assured we are not perfect, nor do I have it all figured out. You don’t have to be perfect to do this – seriously, is there such thing anyway?
Or maybe you just don’t feel like you can take on that level of responsibility for what really can be a pretty major commitment. I mean, having a stranger come and live in your home and assume care for all of their needs is kind of a big deal, and I get that. If that is the case, have you ever heard about respite foster care? I would strongly encourage anyone who has even considered becoming a foster parent but for whatever reason isn’t (and I know – there a very legitimate reasons) because it ‘just isn’t really feasible right now,’ consider getting licensed as a respite foster home. In this capacity you are a resource to other foster families. You will get a call from a family who might have to attend training for a weekend, or may have a weekend trip planned away to recharge (and children in foster care can’t just go stay with a relative the way your own kids are able), or might simply just need a break to be able to recharge to stay good at this very important work. You have full control over what respite placements you’re able to accept and can really be clear about age groups, genders, or behaviors you’re able to take on. It is for a limited amount of time (we’ve had kids with us anywhere from one night up to 2 weeks). You get background information on the child before they come to your home, and there are on call workers available for phone calls if anything comes up during the time that they are with you.
We have had such great experiences with respite, and I absolutely recommend this to anyone even considering foster care, or even if you haven’t but might now. It is incredibly rewarding to get to know these kids, even for a short time, and you get the added benefit of knowing that you are providing a hugely beneficial service to other people – both the kids and their foster families. It’s also a great opportunity to find out which kids you connect best with, and maybe at some point you would consider doing full time foster care. We have been in the position where we’ve had things come up (a death in the family, having to leave town for a work conference, etc…) where it has been difficult to find respite, and honestly, that’s hard. That’s how really great people can get burned out as foster parents, because we are all human and we all need breaks.
And here’s the other part where I’m going to be really honest with you — It’s not for everyone. It can be really, really hard sometimes. As you might imagine, a life path that has reached a point of needing foster care isn’t always one that’s been full of all the wonderful things we all want for each child. That stuff impacts who that child is, how they relate to other people, and the way they behave. However, I also know from both my personal and professional experiences how incredibly powerful foster care can be when done well. In a Ted Talk geared toward educators (that I think applies just as much to foster parents) Rita Pierson said, ‘Every child deserves a champion, an adult who will never give up on them, who understands the power of connection, and insists that they become the best they can possibly be.’ Maybe this could be you.
Those of you who know me well have probably heard me say at various times, ‘I think maybe we’ll take a break now,’ only to run into us in Walmart shortly after, plus one member of the family. Here’s what happens: every time I get a phone call with the information about a child who is needing a place to be, either temporary or long term, in my head I’m seeing my son or my daughter in need of someone to take care of them. I’m thinking of them being scared and lonely, away from everything they’ve known their whole lives. I think about what I would want for them if for whatever reason they had to be apart from me for even one night. I think about how I would want them to be received by others, and how if for some reason they weren’t with me, how desperately I would want someone else to love them the way I do. And it is with that mindset I often end up welcoming someone else’s child into my home and into my heart, and despite the challenges, have not yet regretted it.
As we have had our own children and they’ve started to get a bit older and more perceptive, we have been more cautious, and our foster care agency is very supportive of this. People often ask me if doing foster care makes me worry about my own kids and what they might be exposed to. Of course it does. And so do recalls due to Salmonella, school shootings, and the many other things there are to worry about that are completely out of my control. But the idea of children out there without a permanent place to call home, or a family to support them, worries me a lot more.
Truthfully, there are times when my kids have ended up seeing stuff I wish they didn’t – like the way our 12 year old handled his anger. But if anything, it served as the basis for a good conversation about why it’s important to handle our anger differently, and ways that each of us can contribute to a home where we all feel safe and comfortable. At the end of the day, they are learning about what it means to love. They understand there are kids who don’t get to live with their mom and dad and that, for a little while, we get to be their family. I seriously think they are — at ages 5 and 3 — becoming more compassionate little people.
Nicholas Hobbs said, ‘In growing up, a child should know some joy in each day and look forward to some joyous event for the morrow.’ With all in the world that is outside my control as a parent and as a person, I am empowered to know at least this one thing is not. We can’t change the things these children have experienced since that moment they came into the world, perfect and innocent, with their whole lives ahead of them. But each day a child, mine or someone else’s, wakes up in my home, I get the incredible opportunity to make their day great, ensure they know they are cared about, and maybe instill some hope for their tomorrow. If you’re even considering it, I’d encourage you to visit with someone from a local agency to learn more. You might just be the hero in a story that’s still being written.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Katie Krukenberg of Bismarck, North Dakota. Do you have a compelling foster care story? We’d love to hear from you. Submit your story here, and subscribe to our best stories in our free newsletter here.
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