My heart hurts, and he’s not even mine, I thought. Is it possible that after five years I’ve learned to love a thrown away boy? My husband, David, and I were told a local boy, Andy Hollister, needed a home. He was not in trouble at school, had no history of delinquency, and liked sports. He was 13, the same age as our son Aaron – a companion we thought.
We never considered ourselves foster parent material. The idea of small children coming and going through a continuously revolving door sounded too hard. But this was a young man who just needed someone to care and a place to be safe until he graduated. Five years keeping a teen focused didn’t seem as daunting to us as eighteen years of teaching, training and wondering if the revolving door would scoop a child away. After much prayer and many discussions with our son Aaron, we said yes. We would open our home to a lost boy and an adventure only God could foresee.
Over the years, a number of programs to help older youths in foster care have been developed. Often these programs reflect a belief that it is too late to intervene in adolescent’s lives. As a result, they are often a forgotten population in the child welfare system. Some folks in the Kent office of the Washington State Department of Child and Family Services saw the need for a program that focused not only on clinical and rehabilitation services, but addressed daily activities such as school, recreation, making and keeping friends, health care, work skills, and job experience. And in 1998 the Community Bed Project (CBP) was started.
Children who enter foster care are often traumatized. This traumatization has potentially lasting developmental effects. Andy was no different. David and I were amazed that as a seventh grader, he held a fork with the finesse of a toddler just learning to use a spoon. A table knife was a foreign instrument to him, and his “ice-cream in it” meant “There’s ice cream in the freezer, may I have some?” Instead of getting to know a teenager who would be friends with our son, we began our adventure teaching basic life skills to this stranger. Self-care, including personal hygiene, laundry, and making a peanut butter sandwich were among the first lessons.
In the beginning, Andy spoke disrespectfully to everyone. Children who have had to fend for themselves for a long time tend to resent authority other than their own. Consistent, positive adults in their lives can be crucial influences as these children grow toward independence. One of the first and hardest lessons Andy learned in our home was respect. Each time he spoke to us we had to reestablish the adult–child relationship. We challenged his countless demands until he repeated them as polite requests. Instead of demanding to have the salt when it was in use, he learned to say, “Please pass the salt when you’re finished.” Today his courteous respect sometimes puts me to shame.
Our family cried and prayed continuously during those first years. Andy’s tears were because classmates treated him disrespectfully, and he was sure teachers singled him out for extra hard assignments. Teammates made sport of Andy’s shortcomings, and he was convinced the coaches didn’t like him. And then there were a myriad of hurts and painful memories I could only imagine. David and I prayed for maturity and the healing of his wounded heart. Aaron requested private conferences in our bedroom or flew through the door landing face first on our bed. He had wanted a friend, another brother. Living with Andy was too hard and frustrating. We prayed for compassion. I cried because I wanted to do what was right for both boys. I didn’t want my son to hurt, but we couldn’t send Andy away like a stray dog that had overstayed its welcome. All three of us felt this was a call of God to help a needy boy, and we wanted to be faithful to do our best. We prayed for wisdom and spoke often with the counselors that were available to us through the CBP.
Andy tried out for baseball, football, and track - none of them were very satisfying. Each one was grueling and emotionally painful for him, but he worked hard and gave each sport his best effort. We had never seen a boy work so hard when the situation was so overwhelmingly against him. Then he turned out for the swim team, and his coach was a powerful influence on his life. She did not tolerate a critical spirit on her team and that was the chance Andy needed to find his niche. He was never the best, but he tried hard, worked hard, and learned what respect and teamwork are all about.
Andy never learned to drive because swimming got in the way of a job to pay for gas and insurance, but that did not bother him. He just walked, or rode his bike – as fast as humanly possible. It was a challenge he embraced – get to the library and home again before the rain got too bad. Pacific Northwest weather is known for its scattered sun breaks, so Andy seldom beat the challenge, and the bathroom was seldom without dripping clothes.
The youth group in our church was a great growing place for Andy as well. He could relax and be himself. He learned about God’s love because none of the group criticized him or expected him to be different. It was here he learned to care about other people, to see needs, and help resolve them. Everyone liked Andy and missed him when he was not there.
School work did not come easy for him; maybe it never does for a boy who would rather be playing Nintendo or watching a ballgame. But we had a rule – home work first. There were countless nights when our conversations were less than friendly, but the work was done, and he managed to carry a “C” average – a vast improvement over the failing grades he was getting when he moved in.
Andy said, “When I graduate, I’m going to be a lawyer or a pilot.” He was determined about that. Then he discovered “The World of Outlaws” and he was determined to be a professional race car driver. He took a drafting class and an automotive class and began to draw race cars complete with engines and a description of how they work. The end of his junior year came and that all changed. He got army fever, and early enlistment was his new goal.
Andy’s life seemed to jump into high gear the day he went for his physical. I could see - almost moment by moment - changes in ability, maturity and even height. I’m sure he grew three inches that year.
He graduated from high school and everyone we knew celebrated with him. Three days later, he shipped out to Fort Knox, Kentucky for basic training. It was hard for me to say good bye. All of a sudden all the hard work was over. I was happy for him, but I felt like snarling at the world. I was looking forward to relaxing and enjoying my family, but I was sad. I cried. I was confused.
We barely turned around, and Basic was over. It was good to see him for a few
days. It was good to see more changes, but now he’s gone again, too quickly. The scrawny 13-year old that was severely delayed in his social skills, emotional responses, and everyday living skills has grown up. This child that we were afraid would never be able to function as an independent adult has become a young man, who is traveling to Iraq in a few weeks.
Yes, my heart hurts because it is possible. After five years God has changed me too, and I have learned to love a thrown away boy.
Most of our public assistance programs have received small increases in funding levels over the last two decades. But recently, the needs of families and children have increased. The programs that provide services have been battered by federal, state and local budget cuts. When we took the foster parent training, the Community Bed project was new and was funded by grant money. It was an effort to keep children in their own communities, rather than uproot them completely. We were surrounded by people willing to help at any moment. People in government places cared about Andy. As time passed, people moved to other departments, case workers changed, and when it came time for Andy to graduate out of the legal system, there was no one left who cared about the transformation of his life. The Community Bed Project ended because the grant ran out, but Andy’s life will continue on a healthy course because of the project. His life is a testimony of our legal system, foster parenting, and the power of God in a young life. His is a success story that should be celebrated by many.
Each state sets its own criteria and licensing requirements for foster parents.
Contact your local child welfare agency for information on how you can become a foster parent.
Read more articles by Christine Eide or search for articles on the same topic or others.