How to Build a Foster Family

We sit around a bonfire, roasting hot dogs and s’mores as the daylight starts its slow transition to sleep. Our newest additions, a 10-year-old and her 4-year-old brother, stare longingly at the bag of marshmallows as they await their turn. They’ve been in our care less than 24 hours, and given the brief notice and Friday night arrival, our original plans for the weekend were quickly amended.

When the caseworker’s van pulled in the previous day, the door slid open to reveal red, blotchy eyes and stifled whimpers. Those cries continued off and on throughout the evening and long into that first night. Cries rang out again the next morning when the littlest awoke nestled in sheets that did not smell like home, a bed that felt nothing like his own.

But here, in the fading sunlight of this backyard, there are no tears, no darting eyes in search of the familiar. Here exist only laughing, hungry kiddos jockeying for position around the coals.

Our host is in the barn readying his tractor for wagon rides. A rumble from the John Deere perks little ears and everyone runs to secure a seat. I lag behind, shouting reminders to the six children racing ahead as the tractor rounds the corner. Then I climb aboard, grateful for the bumpy minutes of respite.

Hayrides done, dinner inside bellies, we pack the kids back in the car, tossing thank you’s over our shoulders. Every foster family needs a friend with a tractor and some time. The kids wave frantically as we pull down the driveway. We have made our first memory and stopped the crying for an hour or two. We have survived this most trying day.

The next morning, we wake to find frozen lasagna and pull-ups and kiddie crafts delivered by hands who’ve held their share of displaced children. The super-hero masks included in the loot buy me 30 minutes. I use the time to make one of the hundred calls required in these early days of placement.

That afternoon, a cup of coffee arrives on my doorstep by some force of beautiful magic. A far-away friend has taken mercy on me in this hour of need, Door Dashing caffeine straight to my lips. I slug the first half and walk upstairs to surprise my husband with the rest. It sustains us until dinner.

I return from the pediatrician’s office on Monday to a girlfriend sitting in my driveway. From her vehicle, she retrieves a gift bag loaded with snacks, games, coffee and wine – glorious red wine. Our licensor brings school supplies and hand-picked clothes for the oldest who is able to start class almost immediately; our elementary’s administrative staff is nothing less than miraculous. 

Court gets scheduled for Tuesday via Zoom, and with a house full of kids and a husband chained to conference calls, I phone a friend. She arrives with a hug, then watches the kids so I can escape to a distant corner to learn the scope of this placement, these little people and the people who love them. Before our friend leaves, she relays her schedule should I need help again. We both know that I will.

On Wednesday, another family drops off dinner and words of encouragement. They give me the menu for the following Wednesday, too. Around the table that night as we share our favorite moments of the day, I choose the meal before us, the one I didn’t have to make, as my day’s blessing. “That’s what you always say when people bring food,” our boys laugh. Food has always been my love language.

Texts keeps coming. “What do the kids need?” “How can we help?” “Doing okay?” “You’ve got this!” Toys are on their way for the blonde boy, tights and art supplies for his sister. Bags of coffee continue to arrive on our doorstep without fail. Voicemails are left and cards are sent to remind us who we are lest we forget somewhere inside the sadness and struggle.

When my husband runs into last-minute travel, I hint that my parents could drive hundreds of miles to save me. “Took Mon-Weds off,” dings my mom’s reply. I exhale for the first time since that van door slid open. Reinforcements are coming; we will survive to brave another week.

National Foster Care Month just began, and per usual, we’ve already received far more appreciation than we’re due. Onlookers praise us, the foster family, but we are just one piece of a much larger picture. The people who circle around us – these generous, necessary people – are the only things presently keeping us afloat. These helpers who might not have extra kids in their homes open up room in their hearts and prevent families like ours from drowning during the tumultuous first days of placement. Then, they stand guard, dutifully racing back should we start to sink.

This is how a foster family is built and how it is sustained – with freezer meals and tractor rides, babysitters and tireless social workers, cartons of Goldfish and doorstep surprises and grandparents sacrificing personal days. A foster family is never just one family. It is a chain of often unseen hands reaching out to buoy the most vulnerable among us, fostering love in quiet ways, ways so easily multiplied to better meet the need. This month, take a moment to consider – how might your hands help to build a foster family? How might you extend the reach?

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