There are over 420,000 children in foster care in the United States that have been removed from their home due to abuse, neglect, or death of parents. The foster home is that critical space for children to live and thrive until reunification with biological families or other relatives (66%), adoption (23%) or becoming legal adults (8%) (Reference, US department of health and human services).
Sad stories about foster care situations have often been reflected in the media. As I reflect back on my own childhood and how important it was to have a safe and loving home to grow up in, I can only imagine the trauma of being removed from a home that is deemed abusive and unsafe.
Last week, I had the opportunity to visit a home for children in Minnesota, established and run by two School Sisters of Notre Dame, that provides a nurturing environment for children displaced from their home due to abuse or neglect. This is a bit about my experience there.
I arrived at Li’l Farm Children’s home to be greeting by Sister Francette, two excited twin boys (age 5), and their older sister (age 9) that viewed us with curious reserve. Immediately, I noticed Sister correcting the boys, asking them to keep their voices low, giving them instruction on some chores to do. I was not sure how I felt about this. It seemed kind of strict! The boys seemed interested in us and asked a lot of questions. They were eager to share their room, to show how they made their beds neatly …with super-hero character bedsheets! As we prepared for lunch together, I noticed that each child had their chore and kind reminders were given about how to behave as we sat at table together, then cleaned up afterwards. I learned that this routine and consistent structure of behavior helped the kids to be grounded and secure in their care. They were pleased when they were told “good job” and “thank you” for responding positively to an instruction or for doing their best to fulfill their task.
After that, they were very keen to play outside. And why not?! Big sister carefully pointed out to me from the porch, all of the different play areas in the backyard according to its name - slides, brown house, green house, yellow gym … Sister Francette gave us a tour of the farm ... barn area and pens, chicken coup and surrounding areas. The children migrated over to introduce us to the animals, the Lama ‘ET’, the sheep “Snickers” and the good ole goat “Otis,” the peahens, ducks, chicks, turkeys, pigs… and to assist a bit with their feeding, but mostly to play. These are all farm pets, there to serve a therapeutic purpose. Given the joy of interacting with the animals and that Sister Caritas and I enjoyed, it was easy to see the positive impact of this special place would have on kids.
Sister Francette explained to us the history of Li’l Farm which she and Sister Margaret established 24 years ago, to help to meet a need. Since that time, over 400 children have spent from one month to over a year living at the farm, as artistically represented on the basement wall which displays the unique handprint of each of the kids that have stayed there. Sister Francette shared how the families progressed, many to adoption, who were thankful for their time at Li’l Farm, for the loving care and environment.
I felt privileged to have a “glimpse” into this SSND ministry helping children to become more whole and able to fulfill their potential. Mother Theresa’s spirit of care and love for children is most evident as is the expression of unity with God’s creation.
While I gained an opportunity to learn from this experience, I couldn’t help but feel heavy and sad as I left. As a mother of a 21 year old and 14 year old, I have seen and sought to help my kids with their struggles to find their place in the world, confirm that they are loved, and to find their unique and special identity. I found a similar if not enhanced hunger among these foster kids displaced from the home and parents they know -- hungry for connection, validation, and love. What would happen to them? Will they continue to grow in their knowledge that they are loved and special? What about the many other children in a similar boat, whom have had parents that do not have the capacity to care for their children? What can I do to help?
I felt so inadequate as I gave each child a hug and said “you are very special.” Maybe I can hug my own children a little more frequently and tell them the same. Perhaps I can send a card at Christmas or maybe a small trinket so that they know that their specialness was not forgotten by someone. These feel like small things. I can only pray and have faith that God will continue to direct the lives of these children and guide them to people and places for continued growth and love.