Answering My Fostering Questions

Foster training provided a wealth of knowledge for us but obviously there are plenty of questions that are left unanswered during that period because the answers require first-hand experience. With this post I’d like to talk through the questions I had going into fostering and how they have been answered so far.

How will my kids take to having a foster child in our home?

I touched on this a little bit with my previous post, but I want to bring it back up again because this was one of the first questions that came up when we decided to start the fostering process. Our boys are awesome kids and generally very friendly. They have the typical moments you’d expect where they don’t get along at times, but over all they are best friends and there’s a brotherhood bond there that brings me great joy. I know part of that stems from the knowledge that they’re part of the same family. So what would their response be to another child in our home, a baby at that, who would require a great deal of focus from both my wife and I? How much would they understand about who this child is and why we’re doing this? Would they be jealous? Would they not treat him or her as equal?

Their response has been one of the biggest answers to prayer for us. From the beginning and to this day they treat baby girl as their sister. They’ve loved on her, never once acted in a jealous manner nor challenged why she’s here at all. In fact they’ve both shown an enthusiasm and desire to have her remain part of our family forever.

At this stage they both have a good understanding of who baby girl is and that there’s a chance she may have to return to her family. We’ve been upfront with them from the beginning that she has another mom and dad and that we’re just taking care of her because she needs a safe place to stay. Sharing with them openly and honestly about what we’re doing (in terms they would understand) has proved to be a wise decision.

How much information will the birth family have about my family?

Fostering thrusts you directly into the lives of strangers. From day one we were provided with a lot of information regarding baby girl’s birth family and her life up until the day we took her into care. While having that information was helpful for us to have context about her, it was uncomfortable to learn certain facts about people we don’t know. Then, going forward with the fostering journey, we knew we would have visitations with her family. We learned that those visitations would take place at a neutral location, CPS’ office, which gave us peace.

We were unsure how meeting her family face-to-face would go, but thankfully everyone behaved in a civil and respectable manner. Conversations were brief as interactions at the visitations were limited basically to dropping her off and picking her back up. Over time we saw these moments as an opportunity to help baby girl’s family, which leads me to share an important mindset we’ve had during this journey.

From day one we’ve understood our role and stuck to it, which is: to provide a safe, loving and nurturing environment for a child in need. This child is not ours and if her parents are able to make great progress and restore their ability to care for her safely, then that is worth celebrating! We did not get into fostering with our end goal being adoption, so our efforts were entirely in service to her and the hope of reunifying with her family. So, we sought opportunities to let her family know that she is safe and cared for, so that they would not worry about her and could focus on getting well. We used the short interactions we had with her mom and dad at visitations to communicate this mindset.

Will I have thoughts of quitting?

The more you learn about fostering the more you realize how hard it is. I often equated it to being on a long journey in which you can only see what is directly in front of your feet and that’s it. You knew you were headed in some sort of direction, but most of the time you had no idea where you were going to end up. Having that many unknowns can be unnerving. Couple that with being up in the middle of every night with feedings and changing diapers of a child who is not your own and you can begin to see how easy the thought of “Hey, is this all worth it? This isn’t even my own kid!” can creep in. But if I’m honest I had similar thoughts with our two boys who ARE our biological kids. :) Caring for an infant is a challenge. Period. It stretches you in ways you just aren’t prepared for. So while times were tough I thankfully never entertained thoughts of throwing in the towel. I allowed hard moments to exist, I acknowledged them, and I moved on.

If I believe a child needs unconditional love from day one will I be able to go that far with one who is not my own?

This is a biggie. Huge. It’s one we often get from other people. I mean, how do you love a child who is not your own and may be out of your life abruptly? Do you go all in with your love? Do you hold back part of yourself for safety sake?

When we had our boys I was amazed at how naturally the idea of “unconditional love” invaded my life. Getting up in the middle of the night to tend to him, to help my wife, to set aside other plans…wasn’t that hard. Over time sure it becomes more challenging because the newness wears off and that degree of love becomes a lifestyle choice, because living sacrificially isn’t natural. But now we were presented with a 3 month old who through no fault of her own was placed in a home of strangers. She needed the same unconditional love. All children do.

So we jumped. No holding back. You go all in. You have to, because she needs it.

And now, 17 months in, that’s a lot of unconditional love. It feels like we’re still falling from the jump we made, unsure what kind of landing we’ll have. Sometimes people say something like “I don’t know how you can do that. I don’t think I could.” I get that. Honestly it’s hard for me to write out a plan on how I’ve been able to love baby girl fully for 17 months and still know that I’m not promised a future with her. All I can say is God showed up and has expanded my heart to possess the ability to love like this, like He does. I had to jump. He had to do the work of the heart.

What happens if we have to say goodbye?

The lingering question. We have not gone full circle with this placement and so we don’t know if we will have to say goodbye. I don’t like to dwell on it but I know I need to ponder it for myself but mostly for my family. I know the role I’ll have to play in helping us mourn if she has to move on. We’ll mourn for sure. It’ll be incredibly painful. But I have hope. I have hope because God has already shown me a capacity to love that is beyond my ability and while I can’t see the road ahead and I still feel like I’m falling, I know I’m not alone.

James 1:27 says:

“Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”

With the faith I have in God I believe our service to baby girl and her family aligns with His will. I believe the work we’re doing honors Him and I believe He is meeting us where we’re at and providing for us. That explains my capacity to love. That explains why we can risk the thought of saying goodbye. That doesn’t free us from pain. We are not promised that everything will work out exactly like we hope. But, we do have hope that the work we are doing now is helping to repair the trauma she’s already experienced.

There is more to share, especially regarding the really hard realities of fostering. I will continue to share in the days to come. For those of you who are supporting us during this process, thank you! Your words of encouragement, offers to help and prayers are a blessing to me and my family.

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I Am A Foster Parent

About two years ago my wife and I decided to officially commit to the process of becoming licensed foster parents. That wasn’t the first time we considered it. Prior to our second child being born we began the process but were pleasantly surprised by the news that we were expecting, so we put fostering on hold. Two years ago he was 3 and we felt led to begin the discussion again.

As of today we’ve been fostering a little girl for almost 17 months.

I’ve been wanting to write about our journey with fostering for awhile now but have found it difficult to get started. I think I was hesitant at first because it was all so new and I was experiencing a myriad of new emotions that I felt blogging about it that early on would possibly be irresponsible. Then as time passed the shear amount of information that I wanted to share began to overwhelm me, so I shied away from starting. But I haven’t been able to shake the desire to share, so without much of a plan or formal structure I’m launching into a series of posts which will discuss my experience so far.

How did it all start?

At the time my wife and I began discussing the idea of fostering we had one biological child of our own. We discussed the idea of having another kid, but we’re also at peace with the thought of only having one. So the introduction of the idea of fostering from the beginning was never about having more kids or due to a lack of ability for us to have kids, though that is a fairly common reality for some people. For us the idea centered on wanting to help kids who need help. We saw an opportunity to open our home to kids who need a safe place to call “home”, for whatever period of time that may be. The more we learned about the reality foster kids live in every day the more our hearts broke. Even though we were still young parents and figuring it all out, we felt we had a home we could share and more of ourselves we could give.

So we started the process. We knew very little about how to get started, so we contacted CPS and attended an initial informational meeting. It was shortly after this time when we found out we were pregnant with our second son. It was clear to us that we had a passion growing inside us, but God had a different time table for us. In retrospect we are so thankful for how the timing worked out. Not only because we now have two wonderful boys whom we love dearly, but also because of the extra years of parenting we then had under our belt plus better connections and friendships which would help guide us into a better way to begin the licensing process instead of going to CPS directly.

While the timing was better now for practical reasons, the decision to pick back up the fostering conversation for me personally was hard to make. My wife still greatly wanted us to do it and felt prompted by God to pursue it again. I still had the same desires to help kids, but I was getting used to the fact that we had emerged from the newborn fog and that our kids were old enough for us to stretch out our schedules and do things again which are just not easy to do when you have a baby in the house. But in service to the desires of my wife’s heart and personal convictions to help kids I supported us picking back up the process and becoming licensed.

The Licensing Process

This time around we opted to align with a fostering agency. Through a recommendation we landed with Depelchin here in Austin and have absolutely loved working with them. CFN provides us training and leadership which has given us a great deal of comfort as we have been on this journey. The training we went through opened our eyes a great deal to what we were signing up for. We learned about what the fostering system looks like, how the state involved, CPS’ role, and a lot of information regarding what the kids experience. Everything shared with us regarding the kids was the hardest to take in. Sessions on trauma and abuse broke us. The reasons why kids end up in the foster care system can be horrible enough, but to also hear how being in the system can cause trauma was an eye-opener. Sitting through these sessions and going through the material only solidified our desire to play our part. The licensing process took about seven months (due to our own pacing, it can be done faster) and in September of 2014 we became licensed foster parents.

At the start we decided to begin as certified Respite for foster families so we could take a smaller initial step rather than jumping fully into a placement situation. Respite is essentially babysitting for foster families. When you have a child you are fostering there are limitations as to who can care for that child in your absence, like if you needed to leave town for a wedding or just want to go on a date. We felt this would give us a snapshot as to the world we were about to jump into. We watched two girls for one day, but pretty much right after we were certified we started to get calls for placements. We decided we would welcome a child from birth age to 2 years old. There is a large need for foster families who are willing to take in teenagers or sibling groups, but we didn’t feel qualified for that scenario since our own kids were still so young. The calls we were getting were for infants. It only took the first call for us to realize we needed to jump in rather than wade in gently. We’d come this far, it was time to go all in.

Those weeks when calls would come were nuts. Our house was ready, but there’s no way to emotionally prepare for that experience. You’re on the edge of your seat, knowing the phone will ring at any moment day or night. And when it did, we were told a little about the child and that we might need to be ready to welcome him or her in within a couple of hours. So you’re on constant alert, starting to imagine what was about to happen, but then time would pass and we’d find that the child had gone to another home. This was exhausting, but eventually we got the call that would turn into our first placement.

Welcoming Baby Girl

The call came in saying there was a little girl who needed a home. She was about 3 months old and in the NICU due to a variety of reasons. Our second child spent a month in the NICU, so we already had experience with that (which we found out was a factor into why we were picked). After a weekend of my wife meeting her and spending time with her there at the hospital we welcomed her into our home.

For specific reasons I am unable to share her name or post a photo, so from her on out I will be referring to her as “Baby Girl”. She was so sweet. We all fell in love with her right away. One of the biggest questions I had in my mind since the start is how my boys would take to having another child in the house, especially one who wasn’t ours. I’m going to write a whole post about that and how we handle talking to them about what our family is doing, but I’ll say from day one they were warm, loving, welcoming and just amazing! I was blown away. My wife and I wanted one of the reasons we did this to be so our kids could see a world beyond their own and serve together as a family. We want them to know that life is not just about themselves and a big component to the purpose of their life is to care for others.

We welcomed Baby Girl into our home in October 2014 and she’s been with us ever since. I have so much to share about what that’s been like and I promise to do so. My hope with writing about all of this is to help spread the word about fostering, open eyes & hearts, and for myself so that I can put the past 17 months into words. My goal is not to turn everyone into a foster parent. It’s not for everyone and it’s definitely not something you jump into lightly. But it has been an incredible ride for me and I’m thankful I chose to set aside some of my own comfort and live the life of a foster parent.

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Hope In Ethiopia

I have been aware of Hope in Ethiopia for several years since most of the people involved go to my local church. I’ll admit that I casually listened to the reports from the team but never took action to get involved myself. As I mentioned in my previous post it wasn’t until we opened the door to fostering that I felt led to take a closer look. Hope in Ethiopia was born when the orphan and adoption ministry of my local church, Grace Covenant Church, became aware of a community of orphan-led households in Zeway, Ethiopia and surrounding towns. This was brought to their attention through a relationship they had with Food for the Hungry who were already present in Ethiopia, working to end poverty. These orphans were thrown into caring for each other after the death of their parents. To survive they would find whatever ways they could to make money to buy food, which in turn robbed them of the chance to go to school and gain an education. Many of these children had no other people in their lives to rely on for support. Without intervention these kids essentially have little hope for a future.

In 2009 the first team visited these kids in their homes, heard their stories, met with leaders in the community and began the work of assembling a supportive program. Money was raised to help fund the relief efforts which include food and water, school supplies, clothing, health care, shelter, vocational training, and emotional and spiritual support through the mentorship of local social workers and church members. What this enables is peace of mind to children who bear adult-sized responsibilities so that they are free to have a childhood and hope for a better future.

The organization is running 5 years strong through the support of donors who give regularly towards these support efforts. Stories of transformation and redemption continue to emerge with updates from Zeway. There is on-going communication between those of us in Austin and the team on the ground in Zeway throughout the year, but one of the best ways of gaining an update is to physically be there in Zeway, talking with the FH team and the kids. This is why I was sent.

I’ve been to Africa a couple times before on safari in Kenya so I knew already that Africa is like no other place in the world. I had some understanding of the environment I would be in, the sights and smells, but this would be my first time to Ethiopia and my first time up close and personal with the people rather than from the perspective of a tourist. We arrived in Addis Ababa and began our 3 hour drive to Zeway, which is located in the Rift Valley. The population of Zeway is around 50,000. When we pulled into the town I saw people and animals walking everywhere. The area is very dusty, but it is located on a large lake, Lake Zeway, so there is some relief from the dust and the dirt. The majority of the buildings are of humble stature but occasionally you would see a home or building similar to what we’re accustom to in the U.S. I was curious about the livestock which again were everywhere, either put to work or slowly meandering through the streets. I asked one of the locals if the animals continue roaming the streets at night and he said no, when the sun is setting they know it’s time to return back to their homes. I had a good laugh at this. This was a going to be a different place.

Despite a long journey of flights and car rides we all settled in fairly well our first day, which was Sunday. Monday would be our first full day of home visits. The schedule for most of the week looked roughly like this:

  1. 7:30am — Breakfast at our hotel, a wonderful place called the Bethlehem Hotel
  2. 8:00am — Meet up with the FH team for a time of worship, devotional, and prayer before we went out on our visits
  3. 9:00am — Break up into two teams and visit 2-3 households
  4. Noon — Lunch
  5. 2:00pm — Visit another 2-3 households
  6. 6:00pm — Dinner

Time in Zeway moves at a pace different from what we’re used to in the States. We knew generally when we needed to be at a place but rarely did we hold hard and fast to the schedule. It was a wonderful break from the neck-break speed at which we like to run our days. I enjoyed not always looking at the clock, letting moments move and flow as they wished, and allowing the day to carry me through rather than trying to bend it to my will.

House visits are worthy of their own post, which I plan to focus on with my next one. But I’ll share with you a general summary of what they were like. We typically spent an hour with each family, sitting in their one room house and talking to them (with the help of a translator) about a variety of topics. We were aware that it could be intimidating for a group of white people to show up and start asking questions, so we handled these times with great care. These kids are already familiar with who we are and they obviously know the local social workers who were with us. Some kids had met a couple of the people on our team when they visited Zeway for the first time two years ago. These reunions were priceless: hugs, smiles, joy. We asked them about their schooling, health, hopes & dreams, if they’d be willing to share their story of how they became involved in the FH program, etc. Again I’ll go into more detail in the next post, but to say these visits were impactful would be an understatement. It was truly an honor for me to be there with them in their homes. Life-changing.

So have you wondered yet why there’s a photo of an origami bird at the top of this post? Let me talk about that. We brought with us a bag full of these origami birds, made by the 5th grade class of one of the sons of our team leaders. As we visited with the kids we handed each of them a bird and we shared a biblical truth with them which comes from the book of Matthew Chapter 6:25-26 which states:

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? (NIV)

How often do you worry? I worry daily, about big things and little things. And I’m 37 living in Austin, TX with a house, two cars, a steady job, retirement accounts, stocked refrigerator, etc. My worries are not limited to material possessions, though I know I care too much about them, but I worry about my family, my friends, my safety. Now imagine a 12 yr old boy who just lost his mother to illness, his father shortly after from abandonment, and now he’s responsible for himself and his four younger siblings. Can you imagine the weight of that? Can you fathom what that boy must’ve thought. Oh, and he’s living in one of the poorest countries in the world. I’ve never lived in shoes like his a day of my life. My first home visit was with this family where I got to meet him in person. When it came time for us to hand out the birds this truth, that God does not want us to worry because He loves and cares for us more than any other creature He created, slammed into me like a ton of bricks. How does a kid with little to no possessions or support system bear that burden? Does he possess the strength and ability to shoulder that on his own? Survive he might, through the shear effort of his young body which has been thrown into an unimaginable reality. But the human spirit is not capable of thriving under such circumstances. In fact we heard stories from and even witnessed an attempt of suicide by a child while we were there. It’s not hard to connect the dots to that kind of decision when someone lives in a reality that is seemingly hopeless. So it’s with the power of this truth from Matthew 6 and our reliance on the gospel that we shared the hope and joy we have in Jesus with these kids. The paper bird is a reminder that they are not alone nor forgotten. They are loved deeply by people on this earth and by God in heaven. He knows their needs and will meet them. And we have the privilege of being used by God to help accomplish that.

I saw hope in Ethiopia. This program is working. That 12 yr old boy is now 16. He and his brothers and sisters still have very little, but they wear smiles which reveal the hope they have inside. They shared their story, dreams and needs with us. We were their guests and now we are their ambassadors. In a way we are family now. Their story is but one of many incredible stories we heard on our home visits. My next post will dive deeper into those moments. Stay tuned!

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Here I Am Lord, Send Me

This is the first of a collection of posts regarding my involvement with a little community of kids in Zeway and a partnership called Hope in Ethiopia. Subsequent posts will explain in better detail who the kids are, what the partnership is about, and my experiences serving alongside them. But I want to start first by sharing how I got involved.

I am a creature of comfort. I’m at my happiest when everything around me is calm and if it’s not, then I often find myself fighting to create the calm. When I have calm moments, I hold on tight and try to soak in as much as possible. Don’t rock the boat. That’s me.

I also cherish memories; recalling and reliving past experiences: “Remember that time when…”, “Didn’t we have so much fun when…” There’s nothing inherently wrong with doing this. The past can be something we treasure.

But too often these things become my idols. When I fight for calm it’s often at the expense of my relationship with my kids, my family. The irony is I tend to resort to a hard-handed means of creating calm, which is so backwards. When I reminisce it’s often because I don’t want to look into the future. I fear the unknown and I’m also trying to protect and maintain my safe little hamlet. Basically I’m a hobbit.

This is destructive behavior. I am not called to a life of ease. Pursuing a trouble-free, “safe” life is a fruitless endeavor. Happiness is a fleeting emotion and nothing compared to true joy. I’m not against happiness. I’d just rather pursue a life of joy, because joy can sustain you through the ups and downs, something happiness cannot do. And living in the past stunts your future. Continually looking back brings regret and regret beats me up and down. When the present is uncomfortable, the past shows easier times and provides a false means of escape. This is no way to live.

It’s in light of these ugly truths about myself that I am forever thankful for one of God’s greatest gifts to me, my wife Cynthia. Ever since I’ve known her she’s dreamt big dreams for me, for us, and for our family. She lovingly nudges me along towards a life lived on mission by faith. I naturally struggle with selfishness and without her I shudder to think how self-absorbed I’d be. She won’t take the credit for where we are because it’s ultimately God who is steering our path, but I am thankful for her sensitivity to the Spirit and inherit desire to never sit still and grow stale.

Because God never gives up on me and neither does my loving wife, I am taking steps to live a life beyond selfishness, one that focuses on the here, now and into the future, and a life open to unknowns. One such step we took together last year was to foster children who need a safe and loving home and since October we’ve had the honor of caring for a sweet little girl with a smile of gold. Fully opening my heart to a child who is not my own and living in the reality that she could leave our home at any moment has taught me enough things to warrant it’s own blog post. But taking this step showed me a new facet of God’s heart and the love He has for His children and I found myself wanting to open my life up more to children in need. Through a serious of seemingly random thoughts and decisions, not long after we began fostering, I found myself applying to be part of a team bound for Zeway, Ethiopia, the next step in my living beyond myself.

I say “seemingly random” because as I look back on that time now it’s clear to me that nothing was random or by chance, though in those moments I didn’t have answers for all of the “whys”. God grants us free will and desires for us to choose Him even if we don’t have all of the answers (which we don’t). If you’re a parent then it’s the same thing with the relationship you have with your children. You don’t want to control and coerce them into obedience. You want them to choose to obey, follow your guidance and remain in relationship with you because they love you and you love them. You want to see your son or daughter process the decision in front of them and, even though they may not understand the situation it in it’s entirety, place their faith in you and trust that you love them and want what’s best for them.

I saw the announcement for the annual trip to Zeway and immediately felt stirred to consider it. I’ve seen these announcements before, but hadn’t had this kind of reaction until now. I didn’t know why I was going and I didn’t know what I would be doing there. All I knew is I felt called to go (Cynthia sensed the same thing on her own before I even mentioned it to her) and I was again opening my life up to the unknown. I couldn’t imagine what set of skills I had to offer to the people in Zeway and the team chosen to go. We weren’t there to build a building or accomplish a project. All I had was my time and open hands to offer, to be used to help these kids and the organizations involved in whichever ways they were needed. Here I am Lord, send me.

Our culture loves a project, a set of goals, a to-do list. Sometimes life calls for XYZ to be checked off, but to prescribe that plan of attack to every endeavor we take can sometimes cause more harm than good (“plan of attack” is probably not the right choice of words when talking orphan care, but we also love our war and sports analogies). This trip would be different. Indeed the purpose of Hope in Ethiopia is to transform communities in Zeway (and here in Austin, TX) through caring for and meeting the needs of orphans. That manifests itself in many different ways, but one of the primary ones is through building and maintaining relationships with the orphans in the program. We visit them in their homes, we learn about their lives, hopes, dreams, struggles, and needs. Yes we support them directly through financial support which empowers them to attend school, maintain a roof over their heads, and food in their stomach. But given the heartache and degree of trauma many of these children have suffered, one of the greatest ways we can help them is relationally through encouragement, opening up our lives to them, putting our arms around them as we bear their burdens and celebrate their victories. This, I learned, was what I had to offer. My open hands and surrendered heart.

With inoculations coursing through my veins, bags packed, and kisses and hugs to my family, I joined up with my team (a total of 9 of us) in Austin’s airport and began the long trek to Ethiopia. I was pumped! I was on my way to Africa.

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Battle of the Blog

I have a love/hate relationship with blogging. I’ve shared about this before on previous blogs, but I used to be a more disciplined writer and thoroughly enjoyed blogging when I was in a publishing rhythm. I had an RSS reader churning through hundreds of feeds which was for all intents and purposes my daily newspaper. Fast-forward a few social network launches and the death of Google Reader and today I get most of my news from Twitter and a handful of sites I visit manually on a regular basis. Plus I’ve lost the discipline of blogging myself, mostly because in 2009 Twitter became my broadcasting medium.

Since then I’ve flirted with the idea of getting back into a blogging habit. I’ve made declarations of being “back in the game” before only to have things fizzle out. I’m fully aware that might happen again, but the only way I know how to aim for progress is to put one step forward and try to repeat that again and again. So here we are, another blog birthed and another initial post full of hope.

I’ve made a few key adjustments this time which I hope will aid in my discipline to blog regularly:

So there you have it, another first post in the books. I have more already planned, some written, so there’s at least hope of a blog with at least two pages of posts. :) Onward.