Story By Bella Said
Photography By Genie Leigh Photography
Once upon a time there was a girl. She was 11, brown haired, hazel eyed. She loved her dolls and school. She loved music and reading.
She was just like the children you see every day. Just like your own children.
Except she was bruised. She was scarred. And she was neglected.
The girl was removed from her home. She clung to a pillowcase full of Cabbage Patch dolls and watched her mother get smaller and smaller in the rear window as she was driven away.
She flew the country alone. To her father’s home. Only to be told she was unwanted.
That girl was thrown into the foster care system from that day. Bounced from home to home, back to her biological parents, to well-meaning family members and then back to strangers.
From Vegas to Omaha to Texas and back she traveled. With every new home she had hope. She only wanted to be safe and to be loved.
The weight of the unknown crushed her, until she ‘became’ smaller than what she could have and should have been.
She graduated when she was 17, emancipated from the state from that moment.
She carries the weight of those seven years to this very day. The feeling of loneliness never entirely fades. The feeling of waiting for the inevitable — the bottom to fall out, the back to be turned, the home to be shattered. It never goes away.
But what also never goes away? The feelings she has for those that took her in — their unending kindness with her. Their ability to love the unlovable, to give of themselves. Their willingness to share their home and their hearts with a child who truly needed them.
Their ability to reach out and save.
Those kindnesses shaped her just as much as the uncertainty did.
This girl grew and learned what generosity is. How to give and how to receive. And that love and families come in many forms.
Why do I tell you these things?
Because that girl was me.
And because there are currently 140 children just like I was waiting for foster parents in our county. Waiting to be loved. Waiting for stability and kindness. Waiting for compassion and care.
Waiting for somebody to teach them of their worth and of their value.
There are currently only 16 active foster families in our area. Sixteen. With 140 children waiting.
This is a crisis. But it doesn’t have to remain so. We as a community can do something.
This is a chance to give of ourselves and of our bounty to those who go without. It’s a chance for a child to find everything they need — light in a world that can seem very dark when you are little and helpless.
The terror of being pulled from the only home you know, the only life you know, into an unknown environment is overpowering.
These children need help. They need homes and open hearts to love them.
You may be wondering how you could possibly do such a thing. How somebody ordinary such as yourself could do the extraordinary. How your family can give more, stretch more? These are hard times, after all. So many are struggling.
I understand. I truly do. But in the scheme of things, this isn’t about us, is it? It’s about the children God has placed near us. Children who have needs we can meet.
Here are the stories of two such families, ordinary people just like you and me who have opened their homes to children in need.
Building a Family through Fostering
Lori and Steven Michell had two beautiful children when they attended church one Sunday two years ago. They had always longed for more children but couldn’t conceive again without medical intervention.
Their pastor began speaking, and something moved in their hearts.
“He asked what we were doing to help our community,” says Lori. “In that moment, my husband and I both felt that we wanted to foster children and possibly adopt. It was a fluid motion. It hit us both at once.”
Lori and Steven attended classes and became certified foster parents.
Their house was soon filled with the sounds of more children. They were hoping for babies, just like most people who are fostering to adopt.
“It just never worked out for us to foster babies,” says Lori. “The children we have had have all been older.”
In the past two years, the Michells have taken in eight children. Sharing the parenting with the children’s biological parents has sometimes been a challenge, but Lori felt ready.
“DSS (Social Services) prepares you for working with the child’s parents,” says Lori. “The case managers set up the contact guidelines. I go to the case manager first with any big issues — behavior troubles and such. But I can also speak to the parents about it, and they talk to the child as well. We all work together.”
Lori is also clear about her responsibilities as a foster parent.
“Initially it is just stabilizing the child in the home,” she says. “It’s a big experience to be placed. I make sure they are as comfortable as possible. Anything I would do for my own children, I do for my foster children.”
Of course, the primary goal of fostering is reuniting the family with their child.
“As tough as that is for me, it must be a lot harder for the child,” Lori says. “My job is to make sure they are supported through it.”
Encouraging others to foster in Brunswick County comes naturally to Lori.
“I would absolutely tell others to do it,” she says. “DSS is so supportive. They listen to your needs, come out to visit. Anything you need.”
But Lori and Steven recently turned in their fostering license. Because, you see, their home is full.
Lori explains: “Our caseworker said, ‘Let me tell you about these twins. They are great students, athletes. Good kids.’ I looked at their picture and said, ‘How can we say no?’”
When Lori met the children, she knew God had planned all along to fill their home. Just not in the way they imagined.
“I knew these were my children. It was instant love,” she says.
The adoption of the twins was final just eight short months later.
Lori has been permanently touched by her experiences in the foster-care system.
“It’s the most rewarding thing you can do for a child and for your community,” she says.
Work a Little While, Pray a Little While
Shirley Lee was working as a supervisor in an assisted-living home when she became interested in fostering children.
“I kept my girls’ (employees’) kids,” Shirley says. “I brought them home on the weekends so their mamas could work. It got me interested in caring for kids.”
Shirley contacted Brunswick County and began the process to become certified to foster. Over the course of the past 12 years, she has fostered 15 children.
When I ask her what her responsibilities are as a foster parent she laughs.
“Oh my gosh!” she says. “Well, everything. Right now it’s basketball and running to games. To the doctor’s office. I have three different schools I run to each day. I’m trying to put them into the work force as well.”
Shirley does all of this as a single mom.
“I work at St. James,” she says. “They have helped me with my hours, supported me a lot. They make it so I can get the kids off the school bus.”
Shirley has support not only from her work, but also from her church.
“My pastor and his first lady support me a lot,” she says. “They give me a pat on the back when I need it. They listen when I get frustrated.”
Right now Shirley’s home is full with five boys.
“Oh, it’s tough sometimes,” she says. “But I work a little while, then pray a little while. That’s how I do it. This is my path. I do it because I am supposed to.”
Fostering has brought unexpected blessings to this remarkable woman.
“When I first started, I just wanted to foster,” she says. “I wanted to give them a loving caring home until they could reunite with their family. But it didn’t end up that way!”
Shirley adopted some of her foster children.
“I had them long term,” she says. “I built up a foundation with them and didn’t want to tear it down. I didn’t want to let go. At that point, I was all they had. I felt like they were mine.”
She says letting children go is never easy.
“It’s hard,” she says. “But that’s the goal of fostering. Reuniting them with their families.”
When I ask Shirley about her most rewarding experience as a foster parent, her voice gets very soft.
“Well, I had one that was five,” she says. “He didn’t know how to hold a pencil. Couldn’t read or write. I was determined to change that. And I did. I taught him to read. ”
She knows that becoming a foster parent is difficult, but she says it is truly worth the effort.
“Fostering helps me make a difference in the world,” she says. “At the end of the day, I feel like I have done my duty.”
Is Fostering for You?
To become certified as a foster parent you must be 21, pass a criminal background check, be financially stable, and have a personal space and bed for the child. You also must attend 30 hours of classes, called the Model Approach to Parenting.
“One hundred and forty children need homes,” says Tamela Jones, a social worker with Brunswick County. “When we can’t find them homes here we must rely on private agencies in other counties to take them.”
This can be extremely difficult on the child, who has already been removed from their home. To also be removed from their school, friends and community is traumatizing.
“We make an effort to do visitation with their families,” says Tamela. “But transportation is hard. It’s very hard for the child most of all.”
The need in our county cannot be overstated. Only 16 active foster families are able to take in children as of right now. These children will continue to be placed in other counties unless more foster families are found.
“We need family homes,” Jones says. “We need people to open their hearts and homes when these children need help.”
Life is hard. Families are torn apart by circumstance, by life choices, by abuse. And, unfortunately, children often are caught in the crossfire. They are helpless to help themselves and unable to have a say in where they go and who cares for them.
We cannot help the turmoil that life creates. But we can help the children affected by this chaos. We can offer shelter, care and love. We can give safety.
I cannot promise you that it will be easy. But I can promise that you will change a child’s life forever with your care.
And I can also promise that they will remember you and your kindness forever.
If you are interested in fostering, please contact Tamela Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org