Capturing the Past…

As a child, I moved around A LOT. My dad was in the Army and for the first fifteen years of my life we were at the mercy of wherever the military decided we needed to go. Every time we moved, a moving company would come in and pack up all of our possessions and take them to the next destination. It was always a cool day when the moving truck arrived at our new place and we were able to unload all of our stuff. My childhood was filled with He-Man action figures, GI Joe’s, race cars, Ninja Turtles, Lego’s and Micro Machines! At least, those were the go to items I enjoyed playing with the most. It was like Christmas morning each move-in day!

Today, I can still drive to my parents’ house in Yukon, OK, walk into their garage, climb up the rickety latter leading into the attic and pull out box after dusty box while unpacking my childhood. It’s still there, I still have the opportunity to relive my past and bring it into the present. In fact, recently my parents brought a couple of boxes to Amarillo for me to go through. We found every note Staci wrote me in high school tucked away in those boxes. I’m sure one day our children will love reading through those!

Such great memories. But, what if I couldn’t touch, feel, and connect with my past in tangible ways? What if the moving truck never showed up at our new place and I had to start all over, again? What if I couldn’t go look through all the yearbooks from my childhood that still line the bottom row of my book shelf? What if my childhood was just a fragment of memories without any real item to connect the past to the present?

Unfortunately, that is the reality for thousands of foster children every single day. In our home, one of our foster kiddos neatly tucks away new gifts and special items into her suitcase my parents gave her this past Christmas, hoping to hold onto each item. Another of our foster kiddos takes his yearbook from last year, everywhere! At this point, I know his elementary school staff probably better than any other parent, because he constantly quizzes my wife and I on names and faces as he carefully looks through the yearbook over and over and over again. Our other foster kiddo tucks all of her prized possessions away in her special drawer, so that they don’t get lost or damaged. In fact, our three older foster children all have ‘special drawers’ in their rooms. They want to keep everything and I mean everything! But, it makes sense right? What would you do if you were 6, 8, or 10 and the only items you had from your childhood were the items you had gathered since entering foster care? Wouldn’t you want to protect them, hoard them, and keep them safe? Wouldn’t you want to make sure you didn’t lose anything? Now, I’m not saying every item they own goes unfazed. They have lost and broken items in the past twelve months. But, understanding where they are at and where they come from definitely comes to light when you see your ten year old take his yearbook to bed with him. They just want to be kids and remember their childhood. They came into care with just the clothes on their backs. They’ve had a long line of moves in their short lives, but unlike myself, no moving truck showed up to pack up their stuff and then meet them at their next destination with everything they owned. They moved and left stuff behind.

As foster parents it is part of our role to help them rebuild their childhood, not just emotionally, but also through material items and memories. Here are a few ideas that we believe provide meaningful ways children in foster care can ‘capture’ a glimpse of their childhood.

Lifebook’s. These books are intended to be created to capture memories. Such as, report cards, school pictures, birthday pictures, letters, achievements, artwork, and so many more items. We have a close friend who makes 2 picture books for every child in her home. The books are a photo record of their time in her home, complete with cute sayings, milestones and tidbits about what was going on in each picture. She sends one book with the child and keeps one on her coffee table. In fact, if you were to show up at her house today, you would be able to flip through the pages of all the adorable kiddos she has had come through her home in the past few years.

Special Drawer. Encourage the child to have a special place in their room for all their ‘really special’ items, such as, letters from parents, special toys, or clothes. Give them ownership over their space and their room.

Family Pictures. Try to get a picture of the biological family, possibly at a weekly visit. Buy the child a frame or photo board for their room and help them hang up pictures of their biological family. Not only do you validate that child, but you also validate that their biological family is important to you too!

Menu planning. Allow them to help you plan the menu with things they loved eating with their biological family. Too often foster children have to ‘change’ to fit in to the foster home. That is stupid. We should change to fit into their lives as well. Create a ‘recipe book’ of the things they have liked at your house. For example, one of our foster daughters LOVES guacamole! Her brother has already told her she won’t get it at home, because their parents do not know how to make it. So, why not create a ‘recipe book’ for them to take all the recipes of the foods they loved back home?

Clothes shopping. Allow them to help you pick out their new clothes. Believe me, I HATE shopping, but don’t you remember how it felt when your parents took you shopping and let you buy new clothes. I felt like a million bucks in my new Nike’s back in the day!

What other ideas have you tried? What other ways have you helped a child in your home ‘capture’ the memories of their childhood while they were with you?

Parenting Individuality With a Touch of Trauma..

As we pulled up to the amusement park, we heard a sweet voice in the back seat say, “When do I put on my swimsuit?” My wife looked at me and then turned around and asked, “Do you not already have it on? Where is your swimsuit?” “No, it is at the hotel”, came the response, along with a very confused look.

The simple instruction to our five oldest children prior to getting dressed earlier that morning was, “kiddos, be sure to put your swimsuits on under your clothes.” This child heard the direction, but had failed to do so. So, what were we to do? Is this a life lesson moment? Perhaps a logical consequence of, “Well then, no swimming for you!”?

We headed down that path, but then, we stopped. My wife and I looked at each other and asked, “What was our role in reminding her?” It sounds simple, it really does. But, the deeper discussion we were having was not about swimsuits, but more so, about where our 6 year old was functioning due to the trauma she had experienced in her life.

We’ve been to the trainings and even read a few books, but for it to come to life, we had to own it, understand it, and respond properly to it.

What did we have to own? We had to own the fact that trauma almost always stunts development. So, while we were hearing our 6 year old say, “she forgot”, in reality, it was the 3-4 yr. old child in her speaking. This was in contrast to our own biological children. They’ve grown up with limited trauma, they have developed properly (whatever that really means) and have an understanding of our expectations and we have an understanding of their capabilities.

We both agreed that due to where she is at, we probably should have given her a reminder and followed up to make sure it was done. We even purchased her a swimsuit at the amusement park, so that she could enjoy the time with all the other children. If you know us, then you know this action is contrary to who we are as parents, but that is what foster care has done for us. It has taught us to be different, much better parents. It challenges us to get out of what we think is right and really invest in what is right for ‘this child’.

Here is what we know, trauma almost always stunts development. It messes up boundaries, it alters brain development, and it wrecks trust.

We also know, that when we parent with a clear understanding of ‘WHO’ each child is, we are able to be more effective, more caring, more attentive and the headaches that follow statements like, “no, it’s at the hotel…” begin to come less and less, because our expectations and understanding evolve to meet that specific child’s needs. The expectation of “you’re six, so you should act six” will lead to a lot of frustration for both the parent and the child. The action of, “I’m your parent and will meet you where you are.” will always be a game changer in dealing with children from backgrounds of abuse and trauma.

So, what are your thoughts? Have you seen how trauma has effected the development of a child and have you catered your parenting style around that?

Messy Redemption

Redemption is messy.  Being a part of the redemptive story hurts.

We knew this going into foster care.  Even so, somehow, we convinced ourselves there would be times where we would be able to compartmentalize the brokenness, pain, and heartache.  Yet, being an effective foster parent, does not allow for one to compartmentalize, it means we willingly take on the pain, heartache and brokenness.  Trying our best to carry the burdens of the children in our home.  To be their protectors, caregivers, keepers, and defenders.  Much like Christ has done for each of us.

It doesn’t get easier.  No, in fact, it only get’s harder as we go deeper with the children and hear more about their story.  It only hurts worse as we see their biological parent fail them week in and week out.  Even if the children just blow it off as, “dad must of just been tricking us”, when they don’t get the much anticipated present they were promised last visit.  We get mad at dad, but then we remember,  he is broken and lost.  We are too.  He needs redemption.  We do too.  We remember, redemption is messy.

Yet, it is worth it.  Because we know redemption is in the works.  We know the story being written is greater and more unimaginable than we could ever imagine.

Redemption is messy.  But, the new story being written is beautiful.  We do not know what the next chapter holds, but we know we are ready: pain, heartache and all.

After all, this journey is not about us, but about them and Him, and redemption.

This Is Your Home

“Home wasn’t a set house, or a single town on a map. It was wherever the people who loved you were, whenever you were together. Not a place, but a moment, and then another, building on each other like bricks to create a solid shelter that you take with you for your entire life, wherever you may go.”  – Sarah Dessen

Since the first day our children were placed with us we’ve tried to make them feel at home, and not just at any home, but their home.  When they arrived we had their names and pictures up in their rooms.  We had new sheets and comforters on their beds.  We wanted to create an environment where they not only felt accepted, but an environment where they felt comfortable.

Over the first ninety days we feel like we have had some success.  And yet, even with some success we still see uncertainty in their lives.  We were reminded of that tonight as our 9-year-old foster son came around the corner from the kitchen and said, “Mr. Keith, I fixed your trash bag.”  He was referring to fixing the bag in the trash can.  He started to walk away and then I called his name and said, “hey buddy, you didn’t fix my trash bag, you fixed your trash bag, because this is your home too.”

It sounds so simple, but we think it is impactful.  It reminds him and his siblings that for this season they are a part of our family and this is their home. They may not readily accept it.  In fact, they may never accept it, but we are not responsible for their response.  We are responsible for being proactive to help them feel at ease and at home.

With so much uncertainty in a foster child’s life, it is up to the foster parent to create an environment that allows the child to feel safe, comfortable, and accepted.  Here are a few ideas we have come up with;

  • Create a space that is their own.  Easiest place is probably their bedroom.  Allow them to hang up pictures, pick out paint colors, etc.
  • Hang up pictures of your foster children around the home.  (Our extended family (grandparents) even chose to do this too!)
  • Hang up their art work, report cards, and other items that might be important to them.  Refrigerator recognition makes most children feel valued.
  • Help them unpack and hang up their clothes (if they will let you.)
  • Plan meals around food items they like.
  • Have them help you shop and cook.
  • Take them on ALL family trips that your own children would go on.
  • Ask them how they want you to refer to them in public.
  • Make sure they have their own things and that they understand those items will always be their items.
  • Give them chores around the home, so that they feel a part of the family.
  • Allow them to pick out family activities.  Empower them to have a voice, just like all family members should.
  • Allow them to decide what they will call you.  It empowers them and allows them a comfort level with you.  Three of the four foster children in our home now prefer mom and dad.  The fourth one is still comfortable with Mr. Keith and Mrs. Staci.  Both are okay with us!

As we do this, we hope the things we do will be, “but a moment, and then another, building on each other like bricks to create a solid shelter that they can take with them for their entire lives, wherever they may go.”

We would love to hear from other foster parents about different ideas they have tried to create a ‘home’ environment for children who may only be around for short season.  Feel free to share in the comment section below.

Chosen, A Mother of Six

“From Paul, God Himself chose me to be an apostle and He gave me the promised life that Jesus Christ makes possible.”  2 Timothy 1:1

Being a mom of six isn’t always easy.  There is always laundry to be folded, dishes to be washed, messes to be cleaned up, hugs to be given, stories to be heard, hurts to be fixed, snacks to be made, and love to be given.  But, this is the promised life that Jesus has made possible for me.  He has fought for me to be given this life of endless laundry and dishes, because I have been chosen (for now) to be the mom of an additional four children who are all beautiful inside and out.

This life of endless hugs and ‘I love you’s’.

This life of pouring myself out into others, but getting so much more back in return.

This life of continual blessings.

A life that can be hard at times, but then I’m reminded that I have been chosen, and, for me, that makes all the difference in the world!

Storybook Endings

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For most teen girls, the opportunity to attend a prom is seen as a magical time when they have the opportunity to dress up, fix their hair, and be a princess for the night.  But what happens to the girls who can’t afford to purchase a nice dress and enjoy the magical evening?  One young lady asked this very question and decided to do something about it.  Rachel Smith, a senior at Canyon High, had been a part of service projects in the past and had always wanted to lead one herself, but had never had the opportunity until this past May.  That is when her parents attended an event hosted by Arrow Child and Family Ministries, and learned about the need for the Amarillo community to wrap their arms around young people in the foster care system.  Her parents came home that evening and shared everything they had learned with her.  She knew then she had to do something for these young people.

But what could she, a senior in high school, do to help these children?  That is when the idea of “Storybook Endings” came to her and she began to put in motion a plan to assist teen girls who found themselves in the foster care system during prom season.  As she began her senior year in high school, Rachel began organizing, publicizing, and advocating for other teenage girls to donate their old prom dresses so that girls in foster care would have an assortment of dresses to choose from for their prom in the spring of 2013. Rachel was blown away by the incredible responses by other girls and teachers in her school.  Over the span of a few months she was able to collect over 60 prom dresses and recently she delivered the dresses to Arrow Child and Family Ministries, a local non-profit organization that serves foster children in local foster homes, adoptive homes, and in an Emergency Children’s Shelter.

Wanting to change the world is not a new thing for Rachel, in fact, she hopes to major in Social Entrepreneurship in college and her ultimate goal is to use her skill-set and the skill-sets of those around her to better the world.  Organizing “Storybook Endings” would give her the opportunity to make an impact in the here-and-now, and serve teenagers in foster care, a group who are often forgotten by the rest of society.  Rachel stated that her idea for “Storybook Endings” came from the thought process that for every young girl, prom-time should be a time when they can wear a dress that will make them feel special.  In addition to gathering dresses, Rachel is working on collecting books for children and teenagers in foster care, creating for them a complete storybook ending.

Rachel Smith is proof that everyone can do something to serve others. Her story reminds us that we are never too young to begin changing the world around us, even if it begins with one dress or one book at a time. Everyone deserves a storybook ending, especially children who have already faced so many hardships in life.

To learn more about Arrow Child and Family Ministries and how you might be able to serve children in Foster Care, log on to Facebook at www.facebook.com/arrowamarillo or contact Keith Howard at 1-806-335-9138 or keith.howard@arrow.org

The Gospel Alive

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One thing we love about being foster parents is the fact that the Gospel regularly comes alive in front of us.  Since the first day we took children into our home we have continually expressed our love to them and reinforced how important they are to our family.  The three youngest were pretty quick to reciprocate love back, although never encouraged nor expected.  The oldest child, the boy, has been the most guarded with his words of affection.  And then, sometime around Christmas he began writing us little notes.  Each note simply said, “I love you” or “I love you so much”.

These notes are his way of sharing his heart.

Reading these notes and watching all of this unfold we are reminded of our own lives and the spiritual conflict we have had with accepting God’s love for us.  And yet, regardless of our response, God has always affirmed His love and affection to us.  Gradually, over time we came to a place where we began to affirm our love back to Him.  It wasn’t overnight, but it took time, trust, and experiencing God’s pursuit.  Similar to the process it has taken this young man to understand we love him with no strings attached.

In our opinion, the beauty of foster care is the opportunity we have to love deeply, regardless of any return of affection.  To put ourselves out there day after day to love these children and affirm their importance not only to us, but to the world as a whole.  Much like God has always done for both of us.

Simply, the Gospel has come alive within our home and for that we are humbled and thankful.

***The note above is his most recent one.  I walked in from work this afternoon and he was very excited to give me the note he had painted earlier in the day.

Are We Enough?

In a few short days we will welcome a sibling group of four into our home.  As we talked tonight, the fear, the anxiety, and the excitement began to sink in…..

Will we be good enough?

Will we love enough?

Will we trust enough?

Will we offer enough?

Will we BE enough for all six children in our home?

The journey that began in college over 12 years ago is coming to fruition.  We can see the path…Youth Pastor, Special Education Teacher, CPS Investigator, friends who have fostered, Adoption Coordinator, State Director, friends who have adopted, Mother’s Day Out teacher, biological children–each step taking us one step closer and preparing us furthermore for the journey that lies ahead.  No step unplanned nor unnecessary.  And yet, the question lingers, are we enough?  The answer–no.

The truth; He never called us to be enough, only to follow Him, as He is enough.

Father,

May you be enough for us and the children, both biological and foster, that you have called us to love, serve, protect, and care for.  We are inadequate, but you are always more than enough.  Thank you for the call, but even more for the journey.  Amen.

As Those Who Are Called…

This field will jade you. It will chew you up, spit you out and leave you sitting on the curb, spent. As a result, we attempt to poorly insulate ourselves, we learn to cope, we learn to deal with the evil and abuse around us, trying somewhat to disconnect just enough so we can find peace in the midst of the continual storm. And then, a child comes along and her story penetrates and smashes through every attempt of self insulation. Her hurt reawakens the primal and spiritual anger we should feel every time we hear about a child touched, a child abused. A holy indignation arises from our soul, an indignation that is aligned with the heart of the Creator…..and, in that moment we feel, we hurt, we mourn, we ask questions, we scream, we feel hopeless, we feel angry, and we should because every time a child is hurt or touched in a harmful way, I’m positive the Creator feels it too. I’m positive the Creator weeps, mourns, screams, yells, and is filled with anger. And, every time this happens, we are reminded of the evil and brokenness that is so prevalent in our society….the evil and brokenness that even wages war against our own souls — trying to steal, kill and destroy everything the Creator has worked so hard to create in me, in you, in this world. It is good to feel this way, it is good to be reawakened, it is good to feel the blood rapidly course through our veins as we grapple with such hurt and brokenness.

It is also good to be reminded, that for some reason, you and I were called into this place, into this field, into this brokenness. It is not by chance we find ourselves here; the Creator knew. He knew you and I would align with His heart and His emotion for these children. He knew we would get it. He knew amidst our grandest attempts to insulate ourselves that our core, our DNA, our soul would be awakened time and time again to feel, touch, sense, and hear our children’s stories. But, it wouldn’t just stop with hearing and seeing; He knew we would act. So, we find ourselves daily standing in the storm with evil and brokenness swirling around us, and we are given the task to move, respond, love, and create hope. We are given the task to climb up to the highest point and scream out, “Evil will never have the last word! NEVER!!” So, that is what we do, when evil and brokenness arise, we arise to answer them, not armed with answers, but with Hope, Faith, Love, and Belief that the Creator will redeem and restore. While the rest of the world zooms by, trying to turn their face away, we stop and answer the call, because it is who we are.

This field will jade you. It will chew you up, spit you out and leave you sitting on the curb, spent….and yet, the Creator, the children, the brokenness are all calling out for you. May we stand as individuals awakened and united to charge into the storm as those who are called and created to meet evil with hope, knowing the Creator goes with us, so that evil will never have the last word. Never!!

**These are some brief thoughts I wrote down while wrestling through some emotions/anger, etc. I was having regarding the story of a child we recently took into our emergency children’s shelter. May we all be reminded of the call, in the midst of complete brokenness….stay the course and be encouraged; Love wins, Hope wins, the Creator wins!