Families are made in countless ways, with the common thread being love and devotion. Which goes without saying, or at least should go without saying. Which can make it even harder and more heart-breaking when it comes to the number of children, who through no fault of their own, are waiting for that kind of love. We caught up with Janelle Velo, who shares her journey to foster-parenting, why she does it, as well as some helpful advice for those considering the same path…
FIRSTLY, WHAT IS FOSTERING?
Foster care is a way to provide a stable and safe home for a child that has been removed from their natural home and until their family is able to properly care for them again.
Sometimes a blood relative can be approved to foster but most times, children are moved in with a certified foster family whom they are meeting for the first time. There are many reasons why children come into care. It could be due to illness or death of a parent(s), neglect, witnessing or experiencing physical abuse or violence, substance abuse in the home, extreme neglect and other circumstances where the biological family is unable or unfit to parent at that time. Foster care is meant to be temporary with the ultimate goal of reunification with the bio family; however, it could also lead to permanent transfer of guardianship from the parent to the ministry (where the child becomes a continuing ward of the state until they age out of the system), adoption, or in some cases, a child with special needs may grow up in a foster home and eventually transfer to some kind of adult care, still with caregivers that are not of kin.
I want to dispel the assumption that all kids in care are from impoverished neighbourhoods suffused with drugs and alcohol – which yes, is the truth for some – but, there are some kids who come from homes that are completely stable until one or a series of unfortunate events unfolds. For some of these kids, this is their worst nightmare come true and for others, this is their first time experiencing safe, secure love. Whether these kids come into foster care for one night or their entire childhood and youth, there is no denying the impact fostering can have on a child, the foster family and the biological family – for better or for worse.
TELL US A LITTLE BIT ABOUT YOUR FAMILY AND WHERE YOU GREW UP…
I’m a first-generation Canadian – born and raised. My parents are both from the Philippines but started their lives abroad at very young ages. My mom was 19 when she moved to America working first as a Nanny and my dad moved to Canada when he was 12, shortly after his mother died. I owe having a beautiful, stable childhood to the blood, sweat and tears they shed as they struggled to plant their roots in a foreign country. In the beginning, they sacrificed enjoying the fruits of their own labour so that they could bring my mom’s sisters and parents to Canada. At one point, their kitchen table was a cardboard box decorated in gift wrap and their utensils from the local McDonalds or KFC. By the time I was born, they had purchased their first home and then eventually they bought the house next door for my grandparents. We took down the dividing backyard fence and I spent my childhood running, playing and eating between the two homes. I also loved having access to the neighbourhood park right outside our back gate. I remember hanging from the weeping willow tree in the hot summers and sledding down the giant hill in the freezing winters. I’m so thankful that I got to grow up with four seasons of the majestic Pacific Northwest and four generations of a large, loud and loving family.
WHAT DREW YOU TO FOSTER PARENTING?
Connecting with children has always been something that has been innate and effortless – something I attribute to my mom and dad. One day in the Philippines when my mom was walking to school, an abandoned little boy on the streets wouldn’t stop tugging at the hem of her skirt, very clearly in need of help. She took him home and cared for him until he was old enough to move out on his own. She was just 17. She has an energy and disposition that kids are naturally drawn to and we often jokingly call my dad the “baby whisperer” because he has this ability to comfort any baby in distress. I guess between the two of them, I was bound to love kids! I never knew much about foster care until my parents decided to have our home be licensed to foster 15 years ago. Through my experience as being a foster sister to the kids in their care, I began learning about this reality mired in both pain and grace. Each child that came and went stuck with me, long after the final goodbye.
I think what really drew me to fostering was the opportunity to make a real, lasting impact on a human life. These kids come into your home, afraid, pained, betrayed and traumatized. Then they slowly let their guard down, agreeing to let you braid their hair, or happy to share a piece of their apple slices with you. Then, if you’re given the gift of time, they get to know and trust you, eventually sharing their fears with you and all you want to do is blanket them in unconditional love. You just want them to know that you see them and you’re here for them. Next thing you know, they’re packing up and leaving. Someone that was once a stranger, forever taking a part of your heart with them. It leaves you speechless and clothes you in humility. Through them, you see beauty and light in the darkest of stories. There’s really no turning back after that. You can’t un-see the suffering and thus, feel empowered to undo as much of this pain as possible, one child at a time.
TELL US ABOUT YOUR FIRST EXPERIENCE AS A FOSTER PARENT?
I began working as a 1-1 support worker for foster kids, supporting them in their schools and in their day-to-day interactions in the community. One day, I just decided to go for it. I made an email to the agency I was with and said I wanted to do it. Soon after, I was doing the home study, criminal and health background checks, being interviewed and asked intimate questions like my stance on pornography being viewed in the house, what drugs I’ve recreationally used and my emotional and financial relationship with my partner. I gave a complete makeover to the home I would foster in – redoing the floors, the walls, etc. I bought every safety contraption you can think of – cupboard locks, outlet covers, door alarms, anti-slip mats and the like. I decorated two bedrooms, not knowing when I would receive my first placement. Quicker than I expected, I got a call asking if I would take an emergency placement of two kids I was already supporting in the community for the summer – a brother and a sister. I said yes. I was excited, thankful, anxious. I took a big inhale. In hindsight, it feels like I didn’t finally exhale until they left me four months later. My first experience was a whirlwind. I was their fourth and final home before reunification. I was thrusted into mothering a 5-year-old boy with ASD and his 9-year-old older sister. Life served us a lot in those four short months: two school moves, a Thanksgiving, a Halloween, a Christmas, a new year, a milestone birthday. But… also therapy sessions, emotional social worker visits, false accusations from the bio family, a parent released from jail and tears. A lot, a lot of tears. It was an emotional roller-coaster of a learning experience. Unfortunately, I never got to say goodbye to them. It ended abruptly and with little explanation. I donated their clothes and toys that I never got to return to them, but it never really hit me until weeks later. I was sitting in the car and just broke down in tears over how much I missed them. Over how robbed and dismissed I felt without any closure. Like my work didn’t matter or wasn’t seen. I still think about them to this day and keep them in my prayers, hoping that they know just how much I cherished our time together and that I care for them deeply.
DO YOU WANT CHILDREN OF YOUR OWN ONE DAY?
I really do, through both adoption and pregnancy. Until then, I genuinely see each child in my care “as my own” while they are with me. I love the quote by Urie Bronfenbrenner that says, “every child needs at least one adult who is irrationally crazy about him or her”. I think one of the most common responses I get from people is “I could never do it” because they’re afraid that the harder they love these kids, the harder it will be to say goodbye. Well, they’re 1000% right. The goodbyes are hard, but these kids deserve no less of a love. Research tells us that children require a secure attachment to a caregiver in order to have the best chances to grow into resilient adults with self-worth, empathy and the ability to trust others. Humans are beings of creatures of habit and in more ways than one, we repeat our childhood relationships later on in our adult life. If they grow up knowing nothing but the brokenness they were steeped in as children, the pattern will only continue. Lord knows we have enough broken in this world. We need to raise love warriors who are beams of light. No matter how much it will hurt to let them go, I have to love fearlessly. That kind of vulnerability can be scary but born from it, is restoration and healing.
WHAT ROLE DOES YOUR FIANCÉ PLAY IN YOUR FOSTER-FAMILY?
He plays all of the above and he goes above and beyond. I don’t think I even let him know I wanted to foster until I had already sent out the email to the agency, but without skipping a beat, he said yes and was all-in from day one. When he isn’t changing diapers or signing papers to change schools, teaching secret handshakes or talking them through secrets they’ve never told any other adult, making lunches or teaching them how to make their beds, he’s right there for me. Everything from buying the new clothes and strollers, to helping me pack up their bags when they move out, he’s there. If I get a phone call for a new placement, he’s beside me with wide, eager eyes saying “yes, we can do this; this kid needs us.” When I get the phone call that the child is leaving us in a few weeks, he’s ready to hold me when I collapse into tears. He is a total onboard, hands-on, heart-on-his-sleeve kind of foster dad! I simply can’t fathom doing this without him.
FAVOURITE THING ABOUT FOSTERING?
My favourite thing is connecting with and experiencing the spirits of these kids when they just get to be kids. You have to be present to catch these moments… It’s the uncontrollable laughter when they’re being tickled, it’s when they’re flushed from hanging on the monkey bars, it’s when their hair is sweaty from falling asleep in your arms, and when they have chocolate on their chin after chomping away at the cookies you helped them bake. Sometimes we take these blissful moments for granted. Some of the things that these kids have gone through are horrifically unconscionable. Once they are placed in their first foster home, they live the rest of their lives with the label “foster kid” and unfortunately due to lack of awareness, are looked at as less-than or as a liability in their communities. When they get the space to just be kids, that’s my favourite part because I know, that’s nothing less than God’s grace orchestrating a miracle through these children.
…AND HARDEST THING?
Letting go. Letting go of my own selfish desires, naïve fantasies and biased fears. Letting go when we have to say goodbye, but also letting go of control. I can’t control the painful experiences that these kids experience, or the decisions made in court. I can’t control the behaviour of each child and the ways their trauma outbursts from their bodies. I can’t control the preconceived judgements of their biological family. I can’t control the meddling looks of the public when I’m out at the mall and it looks like I’m hosting a toddler version of the United Nations. I can’t control time when it seems to stop during hour-long tantrums or when it skips too fast to the final hug. Every day, every hour, I have to let go. Sometimes it can feel like I’m forever floating in an unknown abyss, but I have to surrender. Every day I have to choose between fear, confusion and frustration or faith, comfort and hope that He has a plan for each of them.
WHAT TIPS CAN YOU SHARE FOR ANYONE THINKING ABOUT FOSTERING?
Strive for unconditional forgiveness, not for unrealistic perfection.
Forgive what caused the mess and remember that hurt people, hurt people. Sometimes it can turn into an “us versus them” battle with the biological families but when you can find it in yourself to extend empathy and compassion, you can see the bigger picture and from that comes healing of the child that sees all the adults in their life holding one another up for the sake of giving them a stable foundation.
Forgive the child when they’re going through their big emotions or when they’re repeating behavioural patterns that have been in their family for generations. They’re learning how to do life and how to undo cyclical intergenerational trauma. They are truly resilient and they have as much to teach you as you do them.
Forgive yourself for all the times you lose your patience, your strength, your identity. You’re taking care of the world’s most vulnerable and also most promising resource. You are shaping the person they become and the people these kids become will shape this world. That’s no easy task and it will require you to evolve in ways you never imagined. You don’t always get it right and that’s okay.
Forgive the system. It will sometimes bring you to your wit’s end but don’t deem it hopeless. It needs you to be bothered because well-intentioned, bothered foster caregivers demand change and reform and that’s what the system needs.
Forgive time. It doesn’t seem fair that you do all things “Mom” or all things “Dad” and yet don’t get to have that honourable badge for the rest of your life and theirs. Know this: the reverberations of your love are not constrained and will echo for aeons beyond your lifetime or even theirs. Hopefully because of you, the pain stops when you step in, and future generations will have you to thank for.
Lastly, have a village. A village that will hold you and the child. Some days, the hero needs saving too. Reach out for help when you’re exhausted, these kids don’t need a perfect parent, they need a present one.
WHAT’S NEXT FOR YOU FOR THE REST OF THE YEAR?
Well, I currently have two toddlers learning to walk so, this summer I will be soaking up the sun, sand and this delicious stage of childhood that they’re in! Then, come September, I’ll be starting my journey into becoming a Certified Conscious Parenting Method Coach, learning under the direction of world-renowned Thought Leader and Psychologist, Dr. Shefali. I am so excited to embark on this new chapter and can’t wait to help others find true joy in raising children by teaching them how to raise themselves.
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Inspiration/Image Credits: Jenzel Velo Photography, @rogue_florist