Let It Go

We have adjusted to life with kids. There is some experience under our belts. Our home has had a turnover of kids a few times now. So, we feel like we’re getting the hang of how things are supposed to work. We’ve learned to welcome children, and to say goodbye, even if only a few times. We know what more to expect of each new child. We know warning signs for specific behavior. We have a routine and a system. Reality has found us, and we have squelched any idealistic notions about this job. But parenting isn’t something you can really be too comfortable in. Each child has a unique personality, temperment, preference, and opinion. If there’s one lesson we have learned consistently, it’s that you can’t ‘make’ a child do anything.As much as we are feeling more confident in our parenting skills and as practitioners of the Teaching Family Model, there is always an unknown element to our home. There is a constant potential for change.

We’ve seen around 20 kids enter our home, and we see the value of the assessment home, allowing kids to stay for a short period of time. But our current group of kids presents a problem for me. They are not ready to leave my care. Yes, this is a bold statement to make, and it is not entirely true. But, it is my current reality so let me explain:

Just like a biological parent, I know how to handle my kids. These specific kids have some high needs because of trauma. They are all young, none of them older than the third grade. It takes a lot for them to understand what is happening. But I know what works. I see myself as their mom, so as their mother I have figured out what helps their anxieties and what hurts it. I know what voice tone is best to deliver information. I know how they like to be tucked in and sang to. But their time with me is almost up. I don’t actually know that, but I know that it only takes a few months. I know that soon we will make a decision about the best place for them. Or, for some, they will return to the home they came from. This causes pressure for me, albeit self induced. I have seen sadness, confusion, and hopelessness in our current crew, and I know how to make it better. I know that there aren’t many people in my kids’ lives before foster care that will take the time, give the grace, and show the love that is needed to help them succeed. This hurts my heart. This makes me more resistant than I’ve ever been to releasing these kiddos. It makes me want to bring them all into my home for good. It makes me doubt the judicial system that wants to send them back. It makes me cry. I know how to attend to their needs and get them help. I hug them, tease them, cook their food, and pray with them. I cannot be assured that this will happen outside of Thornwell, and that scares me.

On Sunday, we sang the song “One Thing Remains”. Most of the time our boys aren’t into singing during worship. Some of them can’t even read, but for this song only they all sang. I looked around as I heard their soft voices and their lips move to the words of the song. They were singing “Your love never fails, never gives up, never runs out on me”. (Insert tears here) The time frame I have with them, the lessons I teach, the love that we show. . .I wonder if what we do for a month or two will really stick with them for the rest of their lives. I think about what will happen to them, who they will interact with, who else God will put in their lives to care for them. And as I watched them sing those words, I prayed so very hard that those words would never leave them. I am confident that God has a plan for them. I fully believe that He will provide what they need. That is the hope I have as we care for them and send them on. But my fear is that they wouldn’t know that. That their circumstances would overwhelm them. That their live would continue on the rough road it’s began with. And that they wouldn’t feel loved through that. I know a God who carries my pain, hears my thoughts, calms my anxieties, but do they? In the South, everybody knows Jesus. A lot of our kids have knowledge of God and the cross, but it’s not common for them to see the relationship with Jesus that brings peace. But I want these kids, my kids, to know without a doubt that God’s love never fails – never ever, that He never gives up on them – whether they make bad choices or good ones, and that God will never, never, ever run out and leave them.

We teach and preach that in our home. We pray with them, and we try our best to live that out. But in the middle of their storms, in the loneliness, in the dirty home, and in the unsafe places, will they remember that? I can only pray they do. This unconventional life we’re living shows me how much more I need to trust in an all-wise King.

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Foster Care vs. EMS

As I get more accustomed to life as a Family Teacher, I can’t help but think about how much my previous job as a paramedic set me up to be successful at Thornwell, specifically in an assessment cottage. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that there are a lot of of similarities between Emergency Medical Services and  Foster Care.

A little background: I’ve worked in EMS for 5 years in 2 different states. I worked and volunteered as a Basic EMT in Western New York for 3 years, and I spent the 2 years prior to moving to South Carolina as a full time Paramedic in Port Huron, Michigan. Prehospital Emergency Medicine is something I have a strong passion for, and even though I am not currently involved in EMS, I still care about it very much, and it’s a calling I hope to return to at some point in my life.

It’s a weird feeling to have 2 callings. I feel very strongly called to EMS, and I miss it tremendously, but I also feel an equally strong calling to help out kids who can’t help themselves. I know there are a lot of people who struggle to find any type of calling in their life, so I’m not trying to gloat or sound self important, but the struggle is real. Every time I hear sirens or have an ambulance fly past me I miss it, and on the days that I’m struggling with my current job, I wish I had never left EMS. At the same time, I know that if I went back to full time EMS, I would miss spending my time with kids, and doing my best to provide with them with what what they’ve had stolen from them: a normal childhood experience.

That being said, here are some of the commonalities between my last 2 jobs:

24/7/365:

Bad things don’t always happen between 9 and 5 Monday-Friday. People don’t stop making bad decisions on major holidays. Kids don’t have issues when it’s convenient.

Unpredictable:

When most people wake up in the morning, they have a pretty good idea of what’s going to happen that day. You have a good idea of what’s going to happen at work, you have a set schedule for school, you have dinner plans and tv shows you’re going to watch. Working in Foster Care and EMS (and other jobs), you never know what your day is going to look like. You could go from sleeping to doing CPR in a span of 5 minutes. You could have to handle 3 separate tantrums with just the 2 of you. We never know how bedtimes are going to go, or how kids are going to react to correction, so we need to be ready to handle a multitude of situations. It gets a little easier once kids are with you for a few weeks because you start to learn their habits and reactions, but they can always surprise you.

Dependent on people being hurt:

The worst parts about EMS and Foster Care is that in order for you to do your job, something bad has to happen to someone else. The sad fact is: Thornwell wouldn’t be open if parents didn’t abuse and neglect their kids. If people didn’t misuse drugs and alcohol, we would need a lot fewer foster parents and paramedics.

Trauma:

All throughout EMT school, Paramedic school, and countless CE classes, I learned about trauma. I’ve been learning about trauma for a long time, and I still am. I deal with more trauma as a family teacher than I ever did as a paramedic. Every child that comes into our home has experienced trauma. It’s a very different kind of trauma, and requires a very different approach. There’s no golden hour for a kid whose mom likes meth more than them. There’s no splint for a broken family. There are a lot of differences between physical and emotional trauma, but the goals are ultimately the same: Pain management and as much of a return to normalcy as possible.

Secondary Trauma:

Since we deal with trauma on a daily basis, in EMS as well as in foster care, it’s easy for us to be affected by it. Heidi and I are blessed to work at a place that retains their employees 4 times longer than the average residential foster care group home. There is a strong support system and a community of believers here that we know has dealt with or is dealing with the same things we are. That makes it very easy to talk openly about how we’re feeling and what we’re struggling with. There is a huge push right now for improved mental health and open conversations among public safety folks due to an alarmingly high rates of suicide and PTSD among fire, police, and EMS personnel. Thankfully, there are not similar trends in foster care, but burnout is just as real and just as possible. It is easy for Heidi and I to see how the average tenure for our line of work is only 9 months. There were a number of times during our first few months where we felt overwhelmed and asked ourselves how much longer we could keep this up. Thankfully, we serve a God who is strongest when we are weakest, and we are surrounded by encouraging friends and coworkers.

Protocols:

Just like in EMS, we have protocols. The Teaching Family Association provides us with a set of guidelines as to how to handle different situations with different kids, and we have a basic outline of how each interaction should go. We are given the freedom to work within the guidelines, and are trusted to analyze a situation and respond with the appropriate intervention. One of my favorite things about EMS was the freedom to choose my own adventure. I was given a set of skills and guidelines for when to use those skills, but I was free to use or not use whatever I felt was appropriate for a certain situation. The same is true for Family Teaching. We are given skills and guidelines, but due to the inherent unpredictability, especially in an assessment cottage, we have the autonomy to make the decisions that we feel is most appropriate. Most often that occurs after consultation with our supervisor (or med control), but we feel like we are trusted and supported in the majority of the decisions we make for our kids.

Rewarding:

These can be very heavy and depressing jobs. You’ve probably read some our other posts about how we struggle and cry our way through shifts, and you might wonder how anybody could do what we do and survive. The first answer is laughter. In both EMS and Foster Care, if you can’t laugh, it will be very difficult to survive in that line off work. Laughter is definitely the best medicine. But moreso, we do what we do because we know it works. We know that (most of the time) if we do what we are trained to do, people will get better. It makes all of the stress and craziness worth it when we see a kid who has grown more in the 7 months you’ve been working with him than the last 4 years that he lived with his parents. It’s really nice when someone who was trying to wrestle and fight with you 10 minutes ago can shake your hand and say thanks after a simple shot of sugar. They’re not all success stories, and for every diabetic that thanks you, theres a drunk who will cuss you out. For every kid who tells you they feel safer here than they ever did at home, there’s one who will smash barstools and yells that he hates it here. But through it all I firmly believe that good always beats evil. In the darkest room, one small light can illuminate the whole place. Cheesy, I know, but it’s true. On our most stressful and darkest days, one hug or one sweet comment can make it all okay.

Calling:

Nobody gets into EMS or residential foster care for the money. Both jobs could easily be considered ones that are overworked and underpaid. But to those who are called to these careers, we’d do it for free if we didn’t have bills to pay. It’s about the people, not the money. We can’t imagine doing anything else, because we’re sure that we are doing what we are called to do.

The world is always in need of people who are willing to help other people. EMS and Foster Care are just what I chose, there are a lot other great ways to help people. It doesn’t have to be a full time commitment, and you don’t have to move across the country. Look around you, and see what is needed. Foster care is something that’s dear to Heidi and I, so we would love it if you would research ways you can help kids in your area, or contact us to find out more.

I feel very blessed that I absolutely love the 2 careers I have chosen. I love the adrenaline rush and quick thinking required by a job in EMS. I love the time spent with kids and the chance to provide a happy and safe environment that I have as a family teacher.

And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (‭Colossians‬ ‭3‬:‭17‬ NIV)

–Mr. Jon

The Joys

It’s easy to have a heavy heart in this job. Some days we feel trapped in sadness and despair when we look at the outcome of these children and families. But one of the strengths we share is humor. Jonathon and I both love to laugh and joke and tease. It was the basis for our friendship, and now it gets us through our crazy life. I may cry most days, but I also laugh my head off. Kids are funny. Their innocence, awkwardness, clumsiness, and ingenuity create hilarity. We know for a fact that it wouldn’t take long to get burnt out of this job without the ability to see joy in every day. So, you may not laugh as hard as we do about these stories, but we hope you can see the joys of living our unconventional life.

To start, here’s a list of things we never thought we’d say:

‘You cannot dip your shoes in your juice.’

‘Get your head out of the freezer.’

‘Stop biting the couch.’

‘It’s not safe to tie those shoelaces around your body.’

‘Why did you color in the hymnal?’

‘You can’t take a shower in the sink.’

‘Why did you color on your pants?’

‘Please give me all the nails in your bed.’

We learn so much as parents everyday, but mostly about how not to laugh in their face at some of these statements.

‘You’re lucky I’m not old enough to show you my middle finger.’

‘Is asking a girl out hard? I hear it’s pretty hard to do.’

A child asking me a “private question”: ‘Are my armpits supposed to smell when I take my shirt off?’

Brothers: ‘Can we sleep in the drawers under the bed?’

A picky eater: ‘What brand of pizza is that? I only eat certain brands.’

Mr Jon saw the child’s school picture with trees as the background: ‘You went out into the woods to get your pictures?!’ Child: ‘Ummmmm . . I don’t remember. It was in the gym??’ Mr Jon: ‘Well, in this picture you’re in the woods. Did they bring trees into the school??’ Child: ‘Ummmm. . I don’t even know, Mr Jon!’

3 Year old whining, Mr Jon: ‘What happened, buddy? There’s a bunch of hair in your mouth.’ Child: ‘I licked Phoebe all the way to her tail’

Elementary boy: ‘I called a girl Squidward from Spongebob and my teacher said I liked her.’

3 year old: ‘Miss Heidi, these are my NIPPLESSSSSS!’ (lifts shirts)

‘Miss Heidi, close your eyes! It’s a zombieeeee!!’

3 year old: (in timeout) ‘Imma take my pants off!’

Mr Jon doing morning routine while Miss Heidi gets ready for the day. Once I come out, the 5 year old says: ‘Miss Heidi, you like to sleep? You always want to sleep.’

At church: ‘Are they drinking blood? Miss Heidi, is that wine?’

‘Miss Heidi, there’s these things. They’re sheets, but not normal ones. You have to get them in the corners just right. But once they’re on there, you don’t even think the corners are there. It’s pretty complicated.’

7 year old girl: (with a mouth full of food) ‘all I want to do is just eat garlic bread’

‘Our teacher said a bad word today in class. It was really bad.’ (gets his textbook to show us the word “asexual”)

Middle school boy slams: ‘I don’t make sense. I make dollars’

(lots of stuttering) ‘Don’t even laugh. I can’t fix all that. I even forgot what I’m supposed to say.’

‘Miss Heidi, your dog is freaking me out. Every time she looks at me, her eyes are brown’

‘Miss Heidi, the thing I want to be most is a nut cooker. The guy who cracks peanuts with his hands and throws ’em in a pot and cooks ’em. Like a nut cooker.’

‘Miss Heidi, I would never smoke the cigarettes. It’s a gateway drug.

From middle school boys singing Oklahoma in the shower to 2 year old’s picking their nose at the table, we think our life is pretty comical. We thank God for the ability to see humor. He makes good things come out of bad situations. I thought of that as a long term plan, but in this role, we see it daily. It’s in the small things. It’s a bit unconventional, but God uses dance parties and farting and middle school awkwardness to help our whole house see something good in all the chaos.