Finding or creating a community of support looks different for every foster family based on your needs and schedule and the kids in your home. Support may look like a text of encouragement, a friend joining you at court, or even a family bringing you dinner when you’ve accepted a new placement.
Today, Ashlyn, from the Refresh Conference – Upstate team is going to share with us on #FosterFridayLive about her experiences with community, the importance of a support team for foster parents, and offer some tips for those outside of foster care on how to support foster families in your life.
Ashlyn has been fostering for five years. As a single foster parent, doing it as a single parent makes her experience look a little different. She says, “not harder or easier, just different.” Her first placement was a four-month old little boy that she ended up adopting last year after fostering him for four years. She never imagined that she would adopt, but here she is. She has had 13 other children that she has had the “privilege and joy” of having in her home for whatever span of time. Right now, she also has 16-month-old twins she got from the NICU.
The most rewarding thing about fostering is the idea of restoration which looks different for each child. Every child’s story is unique. One of my favorite fostering moments was seeing a child and her siblings being reunited with their mom after nine months in foster care. I pulled into the DSS parking lot and I was sitting there and I got her out. Her mom starts walking towards her and she is probably 18 months old at this point. She just runs towards her mom with her arms outstretched. That moment of seeing them run towards each other is this beautiful mental picture of why I foster. You may not always see a family restored, but you may see a child’s story restored through adoption. Sometimes you see a child’s story restored through reunification. Not always the same ending, but the same beautiful theme of restoration. This little girl just running towards her mom and calling “Mama” and seeing that moment makes all the hard days worth it.
I think what can be hard is feeling alone or misunderstood. Even before I started fostering, I had so many misconceptions of what fostering was. It was seeing other people close to me walk through this journey that opened my eyes to foster care- what it actually is, what the needs are. It’s not what it looks like on TV or in the movies or in the news. You live it out very differently. Staring my foster care journey, I had so many friends that thought what I was doing was great but they didn’t really understand what I was actually doing. So I just really invited them into our story and said, “I don’t really know what I’m doing either, but come be a part of this.” I feel called to this and I feel very passionate about foster care so I want my friends do life with us- come to our house, come to the park with us. So I’ve invited people into our stories so that other people’s eyes can be opened to what foster care is. It’s been full circle starting off watching people I knew who fostered and acting as their support system and now inviting others to participate in our story as a support system.
It can be hard to articulate what you need as a foster parent. I don’t know what I need. Just come show up! As a person, it is very challenging for me to ask for help. Fostering has forced me to grow in that and in so many positive ways. One of the most discouraging things has been when you ask for help and people still don’t really understand how to help with that need. I’ve had to learn to better communicate what I need so they can respond. Maybe I wasn’t very clear. It’s very hard for me to just directly say, “we need a meal” or “I need someone to come watch the kids so I can have one hour of quiet.” As a single parent, too, it’s even more important that you’re taking care of yourself because no one else is going to. You have to have a strong sense of self-awareness. To take care of the children in your home well, you have to take care of yourself. Especially children from trauma, they need me to be at my best. It is impossible for me to be at my best without leaning into the people around me. So I have to learn to take people up on their offer to help despite the house being a mess.
When I first started fostering, everything about foster care was overwhelming and confusing. Taking care of a kid, I’ve got. I’m from a family of 10 kids. No big. But understanding legal terms, what to expect from case workers, that was all new. So having some key foster parents that have gone down this road before me, that I could just pick up the phone at any time and call to ask what something means, all the lingo, was crucial. I needed people who I didn’t have to explain things to, but they just get it. They know what it’s like; they’ve walked this road. You know what each other needs without having to articulate it.
My community group from church is great, but I have to be very specific with them about what I need. They don’t know how to fill in the blanks like foster parents do. Having those people that just get it (foster and adopt moms) and just show up with what you need is great. But my close friends that aren’t fostering often have more bandwidth to come alongside me and our family and kind of step into our story more in that way because they don’t have three placements to navigate and caseworker visits. One time when we moved to have more room for fostering, our church just showed up and sent people in waves to paint, move, send food. They just showed up! In fostering, the biggest thing I need is just to have people show up. And I have to show up. Show up for the kids in my home because they have not had people consistently in their life that just show up for them. I am being that for those children, and I have to allow people to show up for me.
If you don’t have that, I’ve found an amazing online community. On Instagram there are several other single foster moms that share their story. Sometimes people think I’m crazy to foster and adopt as a single foster mom, but seeing others do it even though we haven’t met in real life has been a very affirming and authentic experience. We’re able to message each other when we’re going through something.
Find the groups in your area and get plugged in. It’s hard because you already feel so busy with caseworker visits and managing everything else already. It can be overwhelming to add one more thing, but you have to be intentional about it and see the value in having community. I can be a part of the Foster Parent Association, or a support group. Get connected in the ways you know how to expand your network. Just put it out there, people will help you make connections.
There are small ways that people outside of foster care can support foster parents:
One thing for me as a single parent, I really want my son to have positive male role models in his life. So our friends that say, “hey, we’re going fishing. Can he come?” or “Hey! I’m gonna go play basketball with my son, can he come?” Those things mean so much to me. And that’s the most difficult thing for me to ask for, asking someone to speak into our family by spending time with my son. That’s really difficult. Representation matters. Having people with diverse experiences, backgrounds, and perspectives that can speak into our kids lives matters.
Refresh Conference is a big resource. I’ve been going for four years and it’s an amazing weekend for women from all over the state and surrounding states to come together. There’s a lot of practical sessions, boots on the ground. I found the attorney that I used for our adoption through Adoption 101; she’s an amazing resource for our family. There’s so many great resources there. But the biggest mission is to create community among foster and adopt moms. Sometimes you don’t know how to find them. We want to create a space for people to come together and develop friendships, be community for each other. No one should feel like an island. There are people who have been through what you’re going through.
The conference is February 14-15, 2020. Licensed foster parents can get some training credits through this conference. But if you are considering foster care or adoption, this is a place for you too. There are so many vendors that can talk about how to get involved, how to get started. And there are people that you can make connections with. You can link arms with moms that are doing it.
Even if you don’t have an interest in fostering or adopting yourself, but want to support people who are, this is a place for you too. If you have a passion for children in hard places, you can come alongside the foster and adopt moms and support them. While Care2Foster is not a religious organization, Refresh Conference is faith based, but there is something there for everyone. You can find the conference at Refresh Upstate online and on social media.