I had lots of siblings as a child. Only, they weren’t my own.
My parents were well-acquainted with kids who had problems, needs and issues and they loved them well; they invited them into our home nestled above the restaurant my family owned. Lots of kids coming and going was just a natural part of my life. It was so commonplace that I never considered it, but now I realize what an impact that had on my life.
The legacy my mother passed on to me paved the way for me to eventually nurture 350 foster children over the course of 18 years.
I grew up in a Christian home, and giving generously was just one of the many traits my parents instilled in me. I did not know as a child, or even as a young woman, just what being a giver would look like for me later as a mother. I also did not know that God would also use my experience of being molested as a child to specifically care for foster children who have been sexually abused.
My story of motherhood really starts with my role as a Sunday school teacher for three and four year olds. I was going through a painful divorce and really struggled with feelings of rejection and “unlovableness”. But every Sunday, I felt God’s arms wrapped around me in the soft embrace of those preschoolers.
Around the same time that I worked with the little ones at church, I remember attending an event at a friend’s home and a relative was there with a baby. He was clearly dirty, somewhat unattended to and basically unwanted. The baby’s mother had dropped off the child with my relatives and simply never returned. My friends were struggling to care for a child they never anticipated having, and were finding this unexpected transition to parenthood difficult.
I remember asking if I could help bathe the little boy, change his diaper and tend to his needs while they took some time to go to the store and buy necessary supplies for raising a new baby. As I bathed that little boy, I bent down to breathe in the scent of freshly shampooed baby hair. As I smelled his head, I sensed God.
As strange as it seems, in that moment I could tell that God was using this small child to reach me.
I knew I needed to pray and seek what God was trying to break through to me with this little guy, and I knew I was not ready yet to hand him back, so I asked if I could take the baby home that night and give my friends a little time to themselves.
I wish I could say that some watershed moment happened that night as I rocked this little boy to sleep, but God did not reach down and write on the wall exactly the message he was trying to convey to me about children, motherhood and my own story of loss and pain. Instead, over time I gradually became more aware of the reality that there were foster children in need of care all over my community.
Even though my parents operated in many ways like a foster mom and dad, I had little to no knowledge of the foster care system.
When I began to seriously consider fostering children I was a single mother. I had two daughters and a pretty steady job in my baking career. I knew if I took on the role of foster mother, I would need to prepare to do so full time. I began to look at my options, and tried to prepare for the road it looked like God was sending me down. This included leaving my job and taking on side work that would allow me to essentially be a stay at home mom.
A House of Prayer
When my home began to fill with the pitter-patter of little (and not so little) feet, I had three goals for my role as a mother: I wanted to lead my children to God, I wanted to teach them how to pray and I wanted to show them that church was a good place, so that they would want to go back later. God told me, “You may be the only Jesus these kids see. Let them see. It’s not about you. It’s about me in you. Let the kids see me.” God was so good to allow me to see ways in which He used me to be Jesus’ hands and feet and arms and words to these little ones.
I remember one very special little boy in my home. He was about two years old, and I knew he came from a mother who really, truly loved him, but was just unable to care for him at the time. I knew this because he cried for her in ways the other children did not cry for their parents. When he came to me, he was depressed. I could not get him to eat, to talk or to sleep. And so, I would rock him, and as I would attempt to soothe his forlorn cries, I prayed over him, and I invoked Jesus’ name over him. Over and over and over I just kept saying “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus,” to him.
I guess the message really seemed to take. One day, he started shouting, “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus!” I looked to see what he was shouting for because it was unusual for him to speak so much. It was a picture of me. He had found a picture of me, and associated it with Jesus.
He wanted Jesus, and I was the only Jesus he could see.
Orphans in the Moment
Over the course of mothering 350 children over eighteen years, my kids were all what I would call “orphans in the moment.” Something was broken in their home, like it is in all of ours to a certain degree, and it needed to be repaired. I provided a refuge for these children while their biological home was being fixed. In fact, I would even tell their parents: “I’m taking care of your kids so you can do what you need to do to get them back.”
Many people assume that fostering children is hard, especially when it comes to giving them back once their family is able to take them again. And it is, but God really spared me the heartbreak that is often experienced by foster mothers. I prayed with every single child while they were with me, and when the kids I had went back to their families, I could see so much transformative change in their homes. While their families were certainly not perfect, they were light years from where they started.
I didn’t cry when I said goodbye to my kids; instead I got to celebrate the power of prayer at work.
Sometimes, I’d be eavesdropping on my older children, just like any good mom does, and I would hear them say to a young newcomer to the home, “You’re gonna love it here. She prays for you every night and she puts her hands on your head while she prays for you.”
God impressed on me to teach children the importance of prayer, and it delighted my heart to know that they saw prayer as an important and beautiful thing.
Purpose from Pain
God even used my past hurt as a childhood victim of sexual abuse to help other little girls heal. Praying with kids when they came in was so crucial. One day a little six-year-old girl arrived at my house and after prayer, she told me that she had been molested. This little girl hadn’t told her mother about the abuse because she didn’t want her mom to be mad at her.
In being able to share a bit of my own experience with her, I was able to give this precious little girl her own voice, and help her process what happened. I began to see God redeem my own pain.
Nothing will ever make what happened to me right or fair, but knowing that I could help other little girls gave it a purpose in my life.
From Orphan to Adopted
Many people have the idea that foster care means long term care, or leads to adoption, but the vast majority of the children I fostered went back to their biological families after a short time in my care. However, when I remarried, my husband and I made the choice to adopt three children who had been our foster kids. I also knew I wanted to share my experiences in foster motherhood with other families, so from this point forward we decided to focus on our adopted children and on mentoring foster families instead of being one ourselves.
Today, I mentor foster youth and I am a ministry leader for Abundant Love, a program at Sandals Church that provides services for foster youth and families. We put on special events that are aimed at helping them to feel loved and celebrated, which is what I want most for each of these children.
I know that there is real pain in this world; and real beauty. Motherhood is one of those gifts that God gave me in which I got to see a healthy dose of both.
I am so thankful to serve a God who allows us to be his vehicle to show real love to those who are hurting.
Sometimes, I step back, and I think, 350 kids. 350. Did God really give me the opportunity to be his vehicle of love to 350 children? It still seems unreal.
In my role as a mom, I always knew that it was all about the kids. But, really, as I told my two year old on those sleepless nights, it was always about Jesus. “Jesus. Jesus. Jesus.”