By Emma Ville
We always knew we wanted to foster. When we talked about it initially we
envisaged cute little toddlers who needed love and a safe space – certainly not teenagers.
We moved to America 12 years ago, and within 6 months a friend of a friend mentioned a teen who needed somewhere to stay until she graduated. In what seemed like a short space of time a beautiful, awkward, too-old-for-her-years teen arrived on our doorstep. At the time, we had two little ones and we had just moved to the US from the UK. Our support network wasn’t huge.
Suddenly we were navigating a relationship with an angry, sad, lost teenager who everyone had given up on.
Twelve years later, we look back on this as the best decision we ever made.
There have been ups and downs, but the wonderful moments far outweigh the negatives.
I tend to fall in love with every kid that comes through my door, and these kids so want love
and recognition that they are humans too. They may not match the picture that most people think of as foster children, but they desperately need someone.
We discovered over time that we were often the only people who had been to parents’ evening at school with them, read a school report, or gone to watch a ball game – just normal, run of the mill parenting things that we do with our own kids.
We made sure they had nice clothes for their first day of school, trying our best to keep up with
what was in fashion for kids their age so they didn’t stick out. It was so important to us that
they started a new school with a fresh slate. We told them that this was the time to start anew,
to make their own path and not to be defined by their past and the often sad labels that had followed them around.
We kept chipping away at the barriers they had put up. Most of these kids were past the “cute stage” where people had wanted to adopt them. They had been in group homes or foster homes that locked cupboards and rationed food. We were determined to stick with them to show that they weren’t lost causes.
It helped that we had hadn’t forgotten what it was like to be that age. Some tried to sneak out
to see friends – we slept on the sofa and enjoyed watching them startle when we said hi when
they came home. We set boundaries and made sure they knew the rules were not arbitrary, but were put in place because we cared. We waited up if they missed curfew and grounded them when they shouted and slammed doors. We just hung in.
With some kids it was a wild ride, tiring and stressful, without the rewarding feeling that comes when a toddler lifts up his or her arms to be held. But the rewards came when they graduated and you watched them walk across that stage as a person and not just as a number.
A lot of times teenagers age out of foster care and get moved to a homeless shelter or are left to fend for themselves. We made sure we were that place they could come home to during breaks from college, or from or their first apartment when it didn’t work out.
We also learned to be firm about what our family could cope with. We said no to placements
that were beyond our capabilities to help. By now we had three little ones to raise, so we were
more aware of behavior that would be detrimental to their lives.
But we also balanced it with acceptance of typical teenager behavior and a belief that you show up and it makes a difference. What I’ve loved the most is watching teenagers arrive and—after the “honeymoon” period of fitting in has worn off—realizing that our family wouldn’t bat an eyelid that they were LGBTQ, or that we really would get up at 6am every morning to take them to community college because we wanted them to graduate.
We are about to adopt our 26 year old! He has been our son since he walked in 10 years ago. He was an utter stinker in his teenage years, with many sleepless nights, but he’s our son now.
It doesn’t really matter how old you are; you always need a family, and we are his. We want him to know that although we missed the first 16 years of his life, we are so grateful to get to spend the rest of our lives watching him become the awesome human he is today. He is also the best brother you could imagine! He still brings his laundry home when he is back for the weekend, and still causes me sleepless nights when he doesn’t call me back the same day.
Fostering is never easy. Heartbreak Is often just around a corner, and the system sometimes seems to be on the opposite side of the children and the foster families, but that old cliché that you can make a difference really does ring true. While you may not get handed a winning football player like in the Blind Side, you could give a child away at their wedding or buy their first prom dress from a store and not from a hand-me-down closet. I don’t think it’s ever too late to show someone that people do care, that they are individuals in their own right, and that they aren’t lost causes.
If you want to learn more about the many teenagers waiting for permeant homes you can visit Adopt Us Kids.