Jack & Reba

The Foster Home Licensing Worker's Story

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Jack & Reba McKinley have two daughters and a four and a half year old foster son. I had heard about the remarkable transformation that had occurred in this foster child and I wanted to see this for myself. Joys, delights and good news are sometimes in short order in this business! I'd like to share this story with you now.

The familyI will call the McKinley's foster son, Leo, because no foster child may be identified in any publication, magazine, newspaper, etc. Leo had been moved to the McKinley's from another foster home. His younger brother seemed to be developing normally and was placed with a relative but the relative could not take Leo. Leo seemed to be treading water, not going anywhere, just staying in place, no forward movement, no progress. He seemed responsive when I spoke with him in those early days, though he only communicated with his eyes. He was three years old, past the two year old "Language explosion" stage, but he did not use words.

When I last visited the McKinley foster home I was looking forward to seeing Leo. He walked into the room shortly after I arrived and I could immediately see the change in him. His skin color was rosier, his blue eyes, brighter. Something in him that was once bound up had been released. He was a happy child, a very young person beginning to experience how "who he is" delights others. This was a child with "presence."

Visits from social workers tend to alarm children who have been placed in foster care. Social workers become associated with moves and separations. I quickly let Leo Know that I had come to see him because I had heard how well he was doing.

The McKinleys have put magnetic letters on the refrigerator door at Leo's eye level. Leo is able to do puzzles with words and word card games. He knows the sounds of all the alphabet letters. He also has the unique ability to conceptualize the reverse of words such as "stop" when asked what the reverse of the word "stop" is, he was quiet for a moment and then said, "pots." The McKinley family helped Leo learn the entire alphabet during summer vacation. "Learning the alphabet gave Leo power, and language followed," Reba McKinley observed.

The McKinleys know how quickly Leo can loose focus on things, but they also know that when he is focused he is able to do remarkable things. As I watched, Leo scanned a page featuring fifteen jugs. The activity was to identify all the jugs that looked the same. Quickly, without pausing, he correctly circled all the similar jugs. This was a major accomplishment for Leo.

Now, Leo counts out loud to twenty-nine with no trouble. He sometimes gets stuck at "eleven," but he will say it to himself, "E--lev--en." He practices numbers as well. One day this past summer, after returning from a visit with his mother, he brought home one apple. The next day someone gave him two apples. Reba McKinley said to him, "See, you have two apples!" Leo responded, "No, I have three apples! I had one from yesterday. Now I have two more." Leo now understands the concepts of addition, quantity and grouping, quite a change from the child who arrived in this home a year earlier with no language at all!

When Leo first arrived at the McKinley foster home he was unable to use eating utensils. He had no idea how to use them. Now, "He dines like a gentleman," Reba stated, "If you're going to take the time to teach, you might as well do it right!" Not long ago Leo and the McKinley family attended a wedding. Leo seemed to blossom. Because of the noise of the music and of people talking so loudly, no one had to remind Leo to keep his voice down. He could just let go, cut loose and be spontaneous. Leo, who is very observant, watched people dancing. He had never danced before. He watched carefully and learned the steps and how to hold a partner appropriately through observation. Although initially, he was a bit awkward, he continued to practice. Then he asked Reba McKinley to dance.

I saw a picture of Leo at this wedding. He was sitting at a table and wearing a suit, a white shirt and tie. He saw the picture I was looking at of Jack McKinley and himself and said, "We are twins! We wore the same clothes!" He then said to Reba, "When I grow up, I will be a man and I will cook dinner for you, so you don't have to!" Jack McKinley wryly observed, "I'm taking lessons from him!"

Leo can zip his own jacket, although he has some trouble with snaps. Sometimes he will say, "I can't do it!" but Reba tells him gently but insistently, "I won't accept that." She knows his ability level and encourages him to strive for what he is clearly capable of doing and a little beyond. She says that a lot has to do with expectations. Hers are high, and Leo responds.

I reflected on the changes that have taken place in this child and they made me glad! For me, this is a perfect example of both the beauty and the difficulties of foster care. With the great love and commitment given by this wonderful foster family, this child has been given the tools to embark upon a very productive and satisfying life for himself. The plan is for Leo to be reunited with his family. Although they may not be able to encourage Leo to the same extent that the McKinley family has done, he has, nevertheless, been launched upon a path of self awareness and has developed a sense of curiosity which will help him mold his future.

A long time ago, I worked with a foster mother who gad cared for some seventy-three children during the twelve years in which she had fostered. One of the last children she cared for was a blind, partially deaf infant. This foster mother did not dwell on the child's handicaps, but rather, she worked with what he had; a sense of touch, smell and partial hearing. She frequently held and cuddled him. She moved his hands and his legs so he would get the exercise that he could not obtain for himself. She played music for him and she always placed him close to the sound so that he could perhaps feel the vibrations of the notes that he might not be able to hear. She gave him toys with texture so that he could develop his tactile sense and she always let him smell things like perfumes, food and flowers. After four months with this woman this baby became a happy, active child. He learned to crawl with her help and he developed a heightened curiosity about the world around him.

Some people may think that it would be difficult for a the child to be placed with such a person and then eventually lose her due to reunification, adoption, retirement or death. That has never been my feeling. If only once we have been fortunate enough to know someone who truly loved us for ourselves, even if we later lost that person, we may yet still cling to the expectation that, perhaps, there will be someone else who can love us for ourselves as well. That foster mother always taught the children in her care to view their leaving as just another part of their life experience, which, like the shoreline of the sea, is always changing. When they left her they might feel sad, but they would also feel excitement about the new and future part of their life before them. She was an ideal foster mother for that reason. She was able to prepare the children to leave her because she harbored no fantasy that the children were hers and she did not need to live through them to define herself. She was a small women who wore casual clothing and no makeup. If you had seen her on the street, you would probably have passed by her.

I am reminded of the great Persian poet, Kahlil Gibran, who wrote in his book, "The Prophet:"

"Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
for their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams."
angel cupid graphic "Though they are with you, yet they belong not to you."
Possessiveness is a killing thing.
She would have said this, though not in the same language.
She had such great respect for children.

Written by Elizabeth Ustick,
Foster Parent Licensing Worker, New Hampshire
Division for Children, Youth & Families
Courtesy of "The White Heron," a New Hampshire foster parent newsletter.

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I hope that this story has touched your heart as it did mine.

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