Wednesday, February 20, 2013

24 hrs can change a life

Joan was not the only one that helped us see that showing you care can make a difference, Roberta, we will call her, never lived with us as a foster child but she had four siblings that did. In Roberta’s life it was 24 hours that made a difference for her.
While her siblings lived with us, we got to know Roberta when her parents would come out to visit the kids at the house. We didn’t get to know her well since the visits were short but there was something about Roberta that kindled a friendship. This connection later helped her in her decision of where to go when she ran away from home.
The parents had a bad drinking problem and horrible tempers that went with it. They drank the welfare money and any money the children earned picking moss from the swamp. The oldest son, of the 11, had been beat so badly he was mentally handicapped. He later ended up in a mental institution.
Back then the laws were more lenient. Many lessons have been learned about the right way and wrong way to handle abuse in families.
The second oldest girl, Deanna, had lived with us for four years by the time her two little brothers came to us. Deanna was so glad to be with her brothers again. She had been their caregiver, and caregiver to the other children also, at their home before Social Service took her away.
Deanna had experienced way more than any child ever should. I remember her telling me a story that happened to her when she had lived at home. She was putting her baby sister to bed one night when her mom and dad were gone. The baby wouldn’t stop crying so she was rocking her. The baby wasn’t very old just a few weeks, as she held her little sister she quietly died in her arms from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Deanna was only about 8 or 9 years old at the time. She said she cried and cried for that baby sister.
Deanna’s life there was not easy. She was expected to do cooking and cleaning and take care for all her younger children, of the 11 she was the third oldest. She was also beaten both verbally and physically. But she loved her siblings like she was their mom and she would try to protect them from her mother. You can imagine how glad she was to see her brothers and to have them live with us also. It was a blessing for her. She got to be their sister not their mother and still be with them.
They were all glad to work on the farm. They had to work harder picking moss from the swamp at home. At least on the farm we all worked together. It was hard work but good work and Dad always worked right beside us on the farm. Dad never asked us to do something that was beyond us but he did give us the chance to learn.
Mom worked with us in the garden and guided the house crew as we did our respective cleaning chores.
But when it came to baling hay, it took the whole family. Mom ran the bailer; Dad or one of the older kids would run wagons back and forth to the barn for unloading. Dad or an older kid would be throwing the bales on to the hay stack for stacking. Where the younger kids and either Dad or an older kid, would place the bales and make sure they were stacked tight so they would not fall. As the kids got older, Mom didn’t have to help as much. It was hard on her. She grew up in the city and farm life was hard. She would bring us lemonade and sandwiches for lunch or snack. They were always a welcome sight.
Once hay is cut down and begins to dry it is important to get it off of the field and under protection from any rain or it will rot over time. It takes about 24-48 hrs of good hot sun to dry hay enough well enough to not heat up in the barn after it is stacked. Damp hay is known to cause fires. So once the morning dew dries from the hay and the rake has gone over the hay and put in windrows, it is time to start baling. If there is rain coming that meant you had only a small window of time to get the hay bailed and in the barn.
There were times we would be working away and the sky would start to get dark as the rain clouds began to roll in. Once we seen those coming, even us younger ones knew, we had to move even faster to save the hay. It was a feeling of banding together against the elements putting our all into our work to beat the rain. It was like a team in full force and pushing with all we had. The adrenaline rush was incredible sometimes.
 We knew we had to get as much of the hay baled and under cover as we could before the sky opened up.  Once the wagons were in and the bailer tucked under cover we had won. The rain was just starting to come down. As we stood at the end of the pole barn watching it being to rain harder and harder we would celebrate the victory. We rejoiced and laughed, and sometimes even ran out in the rain and jumping around laughing, we made it. The release of joy and adrenaline was incredible. The rain washed off the sweat and chaff as we stomped around in the puddles. Dad and some of the older kids stood in the door of the barn watching and laughing. It was a great feeling.
Sometimes we got caught in the rain. We continued to push on to the finish, driving as fast as we dared with the wagons loaded with hay heading for home. Those days we got wet, so did the hay. Most of the time we could set it to the side and feed it first to the animals, as long as you fed the hay right away it was still good and cattle love fresh baled hay. That way it wasn’t completely lost.
That was the kind of team we had become. Deanna was a big part of that and so were her brothers. Then one day Mom and Dad got a call from Social Services, their parents had been making an effort to change and Social Services were going to give them another chance with their boys. They were going home. They were excited. They figured life would be good back home, mom and dad had changed.
We had grown close to the boys, Tom and Sam, we didn’t want them to go and we didn’t understand why they wanted to go. But the boys wanted to be with their natural mom and dad. Even though they had been beaten and treated badly they still had hope that their natural parents would love them and care for them.
It was said that their parents had “changed their ways” and were getting better. Deanna was afraid this was not true and though she did not have to go or really want to leave, she decided to go back with Tom and Sam to protect them. I remember asking them why they wanted to go back to a place where they are beaten. I still remember their answer to this day, “But they love us.” “So do we!” I replied. “We know but we want to be with our real mom and dad.” They answered. They had lived all but a short time that way and it seemed to them the life was supposed to be. They were still young, just out of 4th and 5th grades. They couldn’t understand how their own parent’s way of ‘loving’ them was not right. Sadly the parents wanted the welfare money not the kids. This proved out in a short time.
When all three returned to their natural mother, she didn’t wait long to pick up the old habits. This time she began by destroying all Deanna’s things that she had worked so hard for and gotten as gifts over the 4 years with us. Her record collection and clothes she had bought with her own hard earned money from babysitting, allowance from the farm and selling sweet corn. Her mother took those records and flung them like Frisbees into a fire.  She didn’t beat Deanna anymore she knew Deanna was now stronger than she was. But the verbal abuse and destroying what was good in her life was more than Deanna could take. She had finally come out of her shell and was happy before she went back. She didn’t want to lose that again.  Deanna had learned, at our house, that there was a better way to be treated. You didn’t have to be called horrible names, be run down and verbally destroyed.
Deanna decided to run away she knew she couldn’t stay; her brothers seemed to be okay and she had to get away from her mother. Her sister, Roberta, wanted out too.  Having no idea where else they could go that was safe, they ran back to our house. Mom and Dad knew the parents would be looking for them. They called the police shortly after the girls got there. Their parents didn’t take long to figure out where they went.  They showed up in the driveway before the police got there. Dad did not let them come in. He knew from past experience that with this couple it could too easily become ugly and it wasn’t going to happen on his watch.
Once the officer arrived the parents and the officer came in. Deanna and Roberta were tucked up in the bedroom with the rest of us kids while we all wait for the outcome. They were safe for the now. But none of us knew how the night would end.  All of us kids were scared. While we waited Deanna and Roberta told us what had been happening. It was hard to imagine a mom being so mean to her own daughters.
After a long conversation with the officer and the girls’ parents, the officer told Dad to tell the girls they had to go home with their parents. Dad refused. He was not going to be the one that told those girls they had to go back into the hands of that woman. Dad told the officer, “You have jurisdiction, you tell them to go with her!” The officer, who was familiar enough with the family and the situation, thought for a moment and said, “The girls can stay here until court.” He didn’t want to put them back in harm’s way either.
The girls’ parents left and the officer left soon after. It was three days until their case was heard. We went on trying not to let the pending day worry us. The girls had no idea if they would have to go back to their parents or not. They were scared but we kept busy and that helped all of us not think about it so much.
The day finally came; Mom, Dad, Deanna and Roberta went to court. The court decided the girls did not have to go back. Deanna was to choose if she wanted to go back to our farm or to a different foster home in town. She told us later that she wished she had gone back to the farm but the in town living sounded easier. She said it was the worst decision she made. It was easier, too easy. Unfortunately, they had too much free time on their hands and a lot of hurt in their hearts and were looking for someone who cared. They began going out and staying out. They were no longer welcome at that home.    
Deanna’s decision impacted Roberta’s choices. Sadly, later the girls were spilt up. Roberta ended up in a home that should never have been allowed a license. Her foster father gave her drugs and alcohol. Eventually, Roberta ended up pregnant. Social services did not learn there was a problem until she was pregnant.  
Years past and we didn’t hear from either of the girls. Deanna had graduated and would touch base from time to time. She had got married and had a child. They had struggles but were trying to make it. Roberta had not been in touch since she left. Even Deanna didn’t know where she was much of the time.
Several years had gone by and we had not heard from either of the girls. My brother was having his wedding reception at the farm where we all grew up and Roberta decided to ‘crash’ the party. It seems she lived closer than she knew and when she seen the announcement in the paper, she realized she was just a few miles away.
She surprised many. When she got to the farm she went looking for Dad. He happened to be in the trailer getting more food from the refrigerator. She came in behind him and said, “Hi, Harry” Dad turned around and looked at her with an unfamiliar look on his face. She said, “You don’t recognize me do you?” He replied, “No, I am sorry I don’t. Should I?” She told him her name was Roberta Smith, Once Roberta Thompson. Dad’s eyes lit-up and he threw his arms out to her as a father would. She ran to him and like little girl jumped into his arms throwing herself around him and crying. They both laughed and cried as she told him that he had no idea what it meant to her that night he protected her from her parents. She knew she had worth. It took her many years to realize it before she got out of an abusive relationship. But because Dad stood up for her she had made the choice to move on to a better life. She had met a man that treated her right and they had been married for several years now.
We do not know what impact we can have on another person’s life. For that young girl it was one act of protection that later helped her make a choice that may have saved her life. Sometimes we get to see or hear what our positive input does. Other times we just have to trust it made a difference.
For me these two incidences have helped me many times when I think I am getting nowhere in helping a young person I remember what I seen at home and how those young women were changed. It gives me strength to keep going. Even with my own kids.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Making a difference in a fallin' world

Ever wondered about taking in someone else's children into your home and if you could help? I was the 'natural' child of a home that took in foster children. Perhaps if I share my experience with you it might help you decide if it is for you or not.

     Have you ever heard of foster kids or the foster care system? All too often if you have it was from a News report of something happening or a TV show reference indicating a troubled child or past. Like anything else there is good and bad in everything.
     I want to share some experiences as a ‘natural’ child of home that took in foster children. These things impacted my life and the lives of many children.
    Seeing 22 foster kids go through my childhood home I have a pretty good idea of what life can be like. Like all things there is good and bad in everything and how we deal with it is key.  As the youngest natural child and second youngest of all 27, I found myself watching and learning more from what was happening around me, even than I realized until I was older.  
     Many of the things that I learned kept me from making worse choices than I did, showed me, Mom and Dad usually knew what they were talking about and if I just listened to them things went better. Not that knowing all this kept me from making poor decisions; I still had plenty that I had to learn by making my mistakes. There are many things that happened back then that stick with me now and help me to see things differently.
     Every person has their own filter that they see things through. What you have been taught at home, in school, on the streets, from one another, through media, TV, radio, songs, and the experiences you have had all impact our judgment and actions or reactions.
     One of several instances that stands out so strongly and has encouraged me to try to help others was when one of the foster girls came back home for a visit 11 years later having lived with us for only a short time.
     She came to us a young 16 year old girl. I don’t know exactly why she couldn't be at home other than the fact that she was not getting to school. I know all too well that when she came to live with us she was bossy and angry. As the youngest I got to feel that anger. I was about 10 or 11 years old. She jumped into the bossy part of a ‘big sister’ real quick. I don’t think Mom and Dad had any idea how she acted to me she was pretty good at hiding it. Usually they were not in the room when something happened.
     If there was one thing I didn't think I could dare do, it was to be a tattle tail and tell Mom and Dad. Back then it wasn't recognized as bulling, it was the way life was. Today, with my kids, we see it as accountability with limits on the pettiness of the ‘crime’. But this was a foreign concept when I was a child. I learned to watch for things based on what my life was like.
     This young woman, we’ll call Joan, had a lot of anger stored up. In the 6 months she lived with us I remember only one nice thing she did for me or to me.  We were working on our daily chores and this particular day it was our turn to wash dishes. 
     When there are 9 kids in the house and 2 adults, dishes are done after every meal and it was a big job. Often done by two. Mom always taught us to wash the dishes in the water so the water would move the dirt from the dish, not above the water. I was washing and she was rinsing. When I would not keep my hands in the water as I washed she pushed my hands down into the water stating, “Wash in the water!” I jerked my hands back up and said, “The waters too hot!” Much to my surprise she asked, “Why didn't you tell me?” and she cooled the water down. This was such a difference from what I expected. The usual “So!” didn't come. This was a significant act of kindness based on her treatment of me.
     You can imagine my surprise when this once anger young woman stopped in for a visit was 11 years after she had gone back home. After all, why would someone who hated being there want to come back and visit?
     By this time I had moved out and had my own place. I happened to be home visiting Mom and Dad that day. As Mom, Dad and I sat at the kitchen table talking, we noticed an unfamiliar car drive in.  It came around to the back of the house as most people do if they know us and have been to the house.
     We went to the back door to see who it could be. As we looked, we realized it was Joan. Shocked I said, “Its Joan! Wonder what brings her back?” “What!” Mom and Dad said, “Really?” They were just as surprised as I was. Was it possible? Why would she come back? She always seemed so unhappy.  We hadn't heard from her in years. None of us could begin to know what she might want. We opened the door,  gave her a warm and surprised greeting “Hi! How are you?” She replied she was good, now, and introduced her little brother. Who was far from little any more. He was now six foot tall, what seemed to be a nice young man.
     He was about 2 years old when she left. The smile on her face was so good to see. We visited just a moment before she asked if she could see her old room. We explained that it was not the same as when she lived here. Since she left it had become the boys’ room with model airplanes hanging from the ceiling, that were still there, even though all the kids were long gone now. She didn’t care, she just wanted to see the room.  
     Up the stairs we went. Sure enough the 2 sets of bunk beds, a few dressers and the airplanes hanging from the ceiling, filled the room. As she looked around, tears began to roll down her cheeks. We weren't sure what to say. Not knowing what she was thinking we just stood in silence for a while. Finally, we asked, “Are you okay?” She looked at us, smiled slightly through the tears and replied, “You don’t know what being here with you has done for me.” She told us how she had really messed up her life. She had gotten wrapped up in drugs, and alcohol ended up divorcing her husband and was really struggling until she remembered what she had learned while living with us. Because of that time, the love shown her the life lessons shared with her, she was turning her life around. She had gotten help with her addictions and was soon to re-marry her husband.
     We were all so happy for her. We hugged and cried and told her how glad we were for her and that we were had been there for her. As we reminisced about those short 6 months, laughing about the antics of the boys and the work we use to do, we knew that even if those days weren't perfect they were very important and we would not have changed them for the world.  
     It was amazing to us that we had helped so much. We didn't think we had made any difference in her life. We often would talk about the kids that had gone through the house and how they were doing today because of things they had learned with us, but Joan was one that we didn't think we had helped. It just shows that we really don’t know the full impact that our dedication to helping others can do.
     We didn't have a perfect home. It had good times and hard times but we stuck together. Sure being with us didn't keep her from making bad choices but it did help her find her way to the right path. All because of the love and training she got. Perhaps because it wasn't perfect and we still stuck together maybe that was what made the difference? The difference that caused her to want to turn her life around, to know that there was a better way to live. 

     To know that our family had impacted Joan’s life that much was amazing. We stood and let the tears of joy roll down our faces for a while as we hugged each other.  We began to understand that even if you have only a short time with someone, you might be what helps them later in life to do the right thing.

Things will happen to us that we do not like. We can choose to either become bitter or better  because of them. Anger festers into hurting others.
....More stories to come, keep watching and let me know what you think.