A place of welcome: transitional foster care as an extension of biblical hospitality
Interview by Grace Richardson and Victoria MacDonald, Evangelical Immigration Table
This interview was first published by Evangelical Immigration Table on April 4, 2021. It is reprinted with permission.
When children arrive at the U.S. border without any parents or guardian, they are detained for a period of time by U.S. border patrol while they are processed by the Department of Homeland Security. Unaccompanied minors are then referred to the Office of Refugee Resettlement. From there, the ORR works to find a place for each child while they wait to be reunited with their sponsor in the U.S. One way for these children to find a temporary home during this time is through transitional foster care. Bethany Christian Services is one organization who helps place unaccompanied migrant children in temporary foster homes until they can be reunited with their families or sponsors in the States. We interviewed a current foster mom from Michigan about her experience with caring for unaccompanied children through transitional fostering. Her story is a beautiful testament to the joys and challenges that come from the home becoming a place of welcome.
Why did you start fostering children, and in particular unaccompanied children? How has your faith played a role in deciding to foster?
I’ve always had a heart for foster care. I was in two abusive marriages and fostering was never something either of my husbands were interested in. In 2015 I started praying and asking God to break my heart for what breaks his. That is when I began noticing the homeless population in my own community and started to sense a deepening burden for vulnerable groups of people. When my personal circumstances changed and I became a single mom in 2017, I decided to pursue a foster care license. At the same time, I began hearing about the needs of those seeking refuge in our country, especially from Central America. I personally grew up for a season in Costa Rica, where my parents were on the mission field. I got to travel to a few of the countries there and learn the language, and I fell in love with the people and the culture. So, I think that’s been a big piece of it for me. And just kind of a natural segue into fostering unaccompanied children once I got my foster license.
Years ago, I was part of a Bible study that had focused on the manna in the wilderness, and how God’s instruction to the Israelites had been: Go out each morning and gather enough manna for that day. The Bible then says no matter how much or how little they gathered, if what they were gathering was what they believed they needed for that day, it was enough. But if they gathered something for tomorrow it would go bad. I think whatever God calls us to, he gives us exactly what we need to do it. For me and my story it’s been abuse, single parenting, and a lot of challenges along the way … but every time God just gives me everything I need for whatever he calls me to do. I know that he extends the call to other people too, whatever you think your challenges may be. I think when you say yes to God and say, “Here I am. Everything I have is yours to do with as you please. I’m just the vessel,” it’s amazing to see what he can do through that. We started off with wanting to foster one boy around the age of my son, but the Lord has changed our plans. Now we foster a teen mom with her baby and two others as well. Along the way I had thought: “I don’t know if I can do more than one child.” Now I’ve got four children and I think it works so well.
Can you describe a moment where it seemed like a child felt safe for the first time?
We have had one child who sat in her room for the first few days, and we would have to coax her out. She slept in her clothes, but her getting to the point where she was choosing to sit in the living room with us was huge. Her reading a book or learning to knit and just kind of hanging out with us, was big. We had another child that slept in a recliner right by the door in her clothes. Watching her be okay with going to bed in her pajamas was a big thing.
With all these kids, there’s this sense of realizing like we have such little data on them when they walk through our door, we just know their name, age, and gender. It’s really rewarding getting to the place where you really know these kids … like you know what they’re going to pick to eat, what’s going to make them mad, or what kind of an outing they might enjoy. It is a big thing to realize you’re the only person here in this country who knows these things about them. That’s been very rewarding.
What would you want to tell a family who wants to get involved?
I have people stop me all the time and say, “I don’t know how you do that. I could never do that. You’re a better person than I am.” And I just say, “It has been so rewarding, and so not as hard as I thought it would be.” Some of that is Bethany’s staff really makes a lot of it easy. They pick them up for doctor’s appointments, they’re in school with them during the day, they make arrangements like paperwork, and everything is handled by them. So that makes it very easy for me. My thoughts as a mom are: “I got to parent my own kids anyway, and then having a few more under my roof. I’m cooking anyway, I might as well make, you know, make a few servings more.”
I would just encourage people to get involved in some way. Whether that’s through being licensed as foster parents, or even getting a background check to be a caregiver so you can help others who are full foster parents. In this particular program, the kids can only ever be left with people who are approved caregivers. So, it’s different from domestic foster care. You can’t just send them to daycare or to a playdate. So having people step up to be just background checked and fingerprinted is so needed to be able to provide respite care for foster parents. Also, when they arrive we like to give the girls a necklace. Usually, we hear stories of anything they brought across the border getting thrown into a trash can in front of them. Everything’s taken away. So being able to give them something pretty, it has meant a lot. It’s been really fun to see a lot of Facebook friends step up and say they want to help.
What is the relationship that forms between your kids and the foster kids?
My 19-year-old daughter is now getting her foster care license. She does a lot of baby care and a lot of the laundry and housekeeping and helping with technology or schooling things for the older girls. Just the other day I asked my 10-year-old, “What’s the best part of doing foster care?” And he said, “I get lots of siblings.” We frequently have these kids contacting us after they leave. We’re getting texts and photos and phone calls almost every day from different kids from around the country. He loves going outside and playing soccer with the teens toting around the little ones. It’s been a lot of fun.
What is one way that you make kids feel welcome in your home upon their first arrival?
Well, a huge one for us is speaking Spanish with the kids. I had a background in Spanish, but it had been a really long time since I had used it. But I’ve had the opportunity to go to the hospital a couple of times, including when the baby of one of the girls was born, and do all the translating for that. My daughter has now also become quite proficient in Spanish, because that is pretty much the only thing we speak with the kids. I’d say that has been a really big thing for us in making them feel welcome. I feel like they’ve had enough trauma, enough change, enough uncertainty that at least we can level the playing field a bit by speaking Spanish so they can understand what is happening.
We also just try to have fun with them. We live just a few miles from Lake Michigan, which for most of them is the biggest body of water they’ve seen. And so being able to expose them to that and hiking and just kind of doing family type things. For a lot of them, they’ve had a very stressful time getting to the border, crossing the border, waiting to get to a family, so allowing them to be kids and to do fun family things has been really special.
Could you talk about whether or not you see fostering unaccompanied children as a political issue?
I guess my feeling is it doesn’t really matter what side of politics you’re on. These are kids. They are a very vulnerable population, and they need to be provided for and protected. For me as a Christian it is not just politics at the border that we’re talking about … it is people. I was reflecting the other day as I read through Exodus that God had a plan to send his people into Egypt for provision and protection, and that lasted 400 years. And then after Jesus was born, the first thing we read in the Bible is that God sends Jesus and his family again to Egypt. This thought of migration is not a new issue and not something outside of how God works.
I imagine it’s difficult to say goodbye to these kids when they go on to a new home. Can you just talk about that transition?
Yeah, that’s a tough one. We had one child where we were given one hour of notice that they were leaving; for others we have maybe a day or a day and a half. So, there’s not a lot of time to say goodbye. And I think we kind of live with that … knowing every day that they could leave tomorrow. So, in a way we’ve sort of said some of our goodbyes along the way, we have a sense that it’s coming.
Once we had a turnover that happened really fast. We got three new kids one night, and two others were leaving the next morning. One of the things our girls have learned to do is to knit. They use these knitting looms, and they crank out a whole bunch of hats. And it was so important to the two who were leaving, to pass the baton and to teach the new girls how to do that. We ended up all staying up together till 12:30 a.m. that night with them sitting with the new girls and making sure they knew how to do this before they flew out the next morning.
And for a lot of them, like I said, it hasn’t totally been goodbye, because we give them our contact information. As foster parents, we’re not allowed to contact them, but they’re allowed to contact us. And so, we’ve had that bridge … so it’s not truly goodbye, which helps a lot.
Is there anything else you would like to add before you go?
I’ve tried to make it a practice the last few years to read through the Bible, beginning to end. And I just think what keeps jumping out at me is God’s amazing heart and his faithfulness, and that we’re here for a purpose. And that purpose is for His kingdom and for His glory.
There have been so many times when we have thought we needed a break. But God has kept saying “just keep going.” And it’s just fun to see how if we have our eyes open to see what he’s doing, we get to see how he continues to work through everything. As I remember the small part that we get to play in this overarching plan of his, I keep putting myself back in a space of saying, It’s not my time. It’s not my home. It’s not my abilities. God says he gives us enough so that we can be generous with others. And there is always something more.