I am an advocate for foster care. No, seriously. It is so beautiful to me how many of my friends have gotten their foster license probably just so I'd quit hassling them about it. I believe so strongly in getting involved in caring for the needs of hurting children and I'm not sure how everybody else doesn't just have this same passion. I will talk to people in the library, strangers at the mall, your local church- I will talk to anybody, anywhere about foster care.
A lot of the people I talk to these days are young couples. I have kind of my standard spiel I give that's designed to help families think about foster parenting in ways that will not burn them out, protect the family they already have, and meet the needs that are out there. I advise families to only take kids younger than their youngest child. So if I'm talking to young families, this means I do a lot of advocating for the babies of the foster care system. Our two little ones came to us as infants not even able to sit up or crawl and my love for them makes me a bulldog about finding other families who will help the helpless. I also talk about babies because I think they reach into our hearts past our stereotypes of "foster children". We can see them as innocent victims more easily than when we look at teenagers. I also do a lot of talking to stay-at-home moms and I think there is a unique need for those women to take on the needs of babies too young or sick or insecurely attached to be sent off to daycare.
But all the while I'm talking about the babies, I'm thinking about My Boys. Not my sons, My Boys. Before becoming foster parents my husband and I spent five years as houseparents in a group home setting. The house could hold eight boys, but we usually had six or seven at a time. Let me be sure and clarify- these kids were not technically foster children, but were boys placed in a residential group home setting by their parents (who retained all parental rights) to keep them from entering foster care. During those five years we had a hand in helping to raise 17 boys. These kids were between the ages of six and eighteen during their years with us. We were responsible for not just their home life, but also their schooling because this place worked on a homeschool model where the houseparents functioned as the primary teachers. So right now I spend my time telling people that not every foster child is a fifteen year-old boy, but I am very VERY aware that some precious kids ARE fifteen year-old boys. And they are every bit as valuable and in need of love as the little ones.
So there are some things I'd like you to know about the big boys who are in need of a safe place to sleep tonight. This is one of those moments I'm glad I'm writing and not public speaking because there are tears in my eyes right now thinking about the faces of these boys I have loved.
Big boys need love, too. I will never forget watching a segment on a local tv show where a reporter was talking to a seventeen year-old who was available for adoption. The kid said he liked to hunt and fish and the reporter said he must really want a dad he could do that stuff with. The boy looked down and said pretty quietly, "And I want a mom, too." It still makes me weepy. Older kids know they've been neglected or abused. They know their families have chosen drugs or the bad relationship over being parents. And they know they need a mom. I had one student who lived with us who could be tough to connect with. I found myself sometimes avoiding interactions with him. One day I had a realization that I can only credit to the Holy Spirit. I remember thinking- if I don't tell him I love him today, that means he went an entire day without being told he was loved. That was a terrible thought to me, but it's the reality for a lot of kids right now. Kids have gone to bed tonight without anybody telling them they are worth loving. You know what? You could fix that.
Big boys want to protect you. When we first took our job as houseparents I was just 22 years-old. Did I mention our oldest student was 18? We could have been in high school at the same time. So I was worried that maybe I was putting myself at risk of physical harm to be living with these older kids from troubled backgrounds. A couple months into houseparenting I was walking in front of an outdoor mall with six of My Boys. I was concentrating on keeping them all together and under control, so I was totally oblivious to what was going on around me. The boys were really quiet for a couple minutes and then one turned to me and said, "See those guys over there? They were looking at you. But we starred them down." What a reversal from what I was expecting! Not only were these boys not intent on harming me (or anybody!), but they were protective of me. I also found this was true with the parents of My Boys. They may have troubled pasts or run-ins with the law, but when they appreciate what you are doing to keep their child safe, you can have no better advocate. They want to protect and defend you because you are loving their child. The majority of them became my friends and are women (and one dad) I am still in contact with to this day. (Of course there are exceptions and kids may cause physical harm to their foster families or families may be hostile. I just want to say that that is not always the case.)
Big boys will steal your heart. I once had a 13 year-old boy run by me and slap a post-it-note on the textbook I was reading with another student. On it he had written, "I wish you were my mom." I don't care what drama that boy caused during our houseparenting time (and boy did he cause a lot!), I loved him. I love him today. And he's still causing drama! You may think the babies are so cute or the toddlers are so funny, but these teenage boys can be as endearing as anybody. There were several boys (and one precious girl from the girls' house next door) over the years that if their parents had consented we would have adopted immediately.
Big boys are helpful and interesting. Seriously! They are at a great stage of development where you can help shape their ideas on love, marriage, work ethic, faith, EVERYTHING! I had one boy who would consistently get in trouble each week just so he could "suffer" the consequence of having to spend what should have been his free time cooking and cleaning with me. I'm sure there were better ways to handle that situation, but I had a lot of fun making banana bread with him every Saturday and he learned a lot about how to keep a house of twelve people running. He lived to please even when self-control was hard to come by.
Big boys are wise. We had a lot of kids come and go over the years and it seemed like we were often having the same conversations with them about how to handle the disappointments of having parents who struggled. One day when three of our younger boys were weeding a garden together I overheard our newest boy saying how his mom was going to buy him a dirt bike. Before I stepped in to clarify things for him, the two "veterans" (they were probably 9 and 10 at the time) started to talk to him about how their moms had made promises, too. They gave him the most kind and loving talk about how moms love you and want you to be happy, but they can't always do the things they say they can. It's amazing the depth to these boys who have struggled to understand their situations. That wisdom comes at a great price.
I miss My Boys. I'm thankful for the wonders of Facebook because I'm able to have contact with most of them. There are a couple I'm not longer in contact with- some because I can't find them, and some because they don't want to be in contact with me. I assume they feel ashamed of the decisions they're currently making and they don't want me to find out. It breaks my heart that they don't understand I will ALWAYS love them. This point was brought home to me in May when we got news that one of our first students had committed suicide. His brief life was complicated, but he had always kept in contact with us and we considered him family. His loss was felt greatly in our home.
This experience loving these boys has helped me to understand God's love in a deeper way. Even when I make decisions I'm not proud of, God continues to offer love. The space I put between us because of my shame is so unnecessary because He longs to draw me closer. And to think the love, the compassion, the forgiveness, the joy I feel for My Boys is just a fraction of how God feels towards them and towards me!
So when you think about what kind of child might be just the right fit for your family, don't dismiss the thought of an older boy! You might just miss a great blessing God wants you to experience.