Written by Maura Penza, current foster parent through The Groden Center’s treatment foster care program.

When I was asked to write this, I was unsure what I was going to write.  How could I inspire people to want to provide foster care when most people’s comments have been, “I don’t know how you do it, I could never be a foster parent.”?

I tried to think of what inspired me, what I needed to hear and what information I needed before I could make such a huge commitment. To care for not just another human being, but a special needs child.

People hear special needs and they panic.  I know I did at first. The idea of caring for someone else’s child, a child that would need special care filled my head with doubt.   We all hate to admit it, but it scares us.  We think about the cost of raising these children. The time constraints it places on our lives.  Will our friends and family be supportive? What about the biological parents?  How much contact would I have to have?   I wasn’t sure I could do it.  I had friends that have been doing it for years.  I told them the same thing, that I could never be a foster parent. 

Well, here I am three years later fostering three adorable little girls. My inspiration was a little 9-month old beautiful baby girl that needed me and my family.

People tell me I am a saint.  They tell me how incredible my family & I are for taking on these children.  That my family and I must be extraordinary people. Some people even thank me.  I am here to tell you we are just your average family.  I lose my temper just like any other parent does.  My children argue.  We worry about finances and all the problems in the the world.  We are not saints.  We are not extraordinary.  The children we foster, now THEY are the saints and the extraordinary human beings.

The one thing they all have in common is they need someone to love them.  Someone who can say it is all going to be alright and I am here, you can count on me.  Add a few meals, a roof over their heads, some clothes on their backs and a few hugs and kisses and you have the recipe for an awesome foster parent.

I am here to tell you it is not as hard as you would think and yes, you too could be someone’s foster parent.  You do not have to be extraordinary. 

I am going to try to answer all those questions and doubts as best I can.

First your heart swells, loves, breaks, and heals with each placement, and it is all, every moment of it, worth it.

My dogs announce that they have arrived and my cats come upstairs to see what the racket is all about.

I walk over to the front door with butterflies in my stomach. The children always look scared and tired. They are always being reassured by their caseworker, “This family is very nice. They have lots of pets, and other children to play with. I think you will like it here.”

They come in the front door and up the stairs.  I meet them for the first time, the child that will share our home for the next few months.  Our dogs are already smelling, sniffing and wagging. Our other children are already out surrounding or peeking out the windows. Who is here? What do they look like? Is it a girl or boy? Are they big or small? Do they look nice? I try to look like a nice person. I try to not overwhelm them.  But just walking into my house is overwhelming. I ask them if they would like to see their room and put their stuff down.  Sometimes they do not have any stuff because they are taken so quickly there is no time to collect clothing or toys.

They are always beautiful.  I think it is all in their eyes.  I take a good look and see all the worry, uncertainty and sadness.

The most fulfilling part happens within the next few weeks.  Those eyes start sparkling again.  The light behind their eyes returns.  All of the sudden you see what was under all that worry and sadness.   People tell you how amazing they look now. “What a difference” is the phrase I always hear. With a little love, patience and understanding, these children flourish and grow in the time it takes to breathe.   

I won’t lie, it is not all butterflies and flowers. Our hearts and patience get quite the workout. But with every heartache, sleepless night, tear, exhaustion and debate, also comes smiles, laughter, tears of happiness, a great sense of achievement and fulfillment.

These children teach us so much.  They remind us how simple things really are.  They remind us of what being humble is all about.  They remind us of what is important in this life we all share together.  To love one another despite our downfalls and mishaps.  To be there for one another.  To be thankful.

These children are all around you. You see them but then again you do not. I guess it is just easier that way, less painful.  What if you could see them? The difference you could make. That one life that could be changed. That future that will take a different course.

I feel that all the sacrifice is worth it.   All the sudden these children attach, love and grow. They are achieving things they never thought were possible.  I am here to tell you it is all worth it. 

These little people are not just children who show up on our doorsteps.  They are everyone’s children.  They are little minds and hearts with so many feelings and concerns.   They grow and develop in leaps and bounds. Their resiliency is amazing. They get excited to go to school in the morning.  Health problems that persisted for years are treated and fixed.  Weight that is not enough or too much becomes under control. Love, stability, love, structure and then more love and patience are the keys.

The Groden Network is a huge support system. Our clinicians are amazing people and world of knowledge.  If we ever have any questions, they give us direction.  If they don’t have the answers, they find them. 

The Groden Network is also appreciative and treats foster families very well.  They have wonderful activities throughout the year for their foster families. And biological children are always invited! They hold an annual Christmas Party with dinner, presents and all the trimmings, including Santa Claus!  They are also very accepting of what the family unit looks like in today’s world, understanding the diversity of relationships.

We have met some great people throughout our journey and now have a large support group through the Groden Network as well as groups, classes, respite care workers (respite care workers are people from The Groden Network who take care of your foster children) and other foster parents. You are never alone in this endeavor. 

Yes, the cost of raising a child is high. Discussing money and finances is such an uncomfortable conversation in this line of work.  We never want people to think we do this for the money.  The financial part of this wonderful job is not advertised.  And it is a job.  Raising children regardless of whether they are your own or fostered, is.  I am here to take some of that awkwardness away. Of course every little bit helps and the Groden Network also supplies financial support.  On top of that they cover the cost of enrichment classes for your foster child.  Throughout the year you have paid training classes.  So please do not let the financial responsibility of raising a child scare you or hinder your decision.

The last thing I want to mention is relationships with the biological families.  Every case is different.  You have parents that want to be involved in their child’s life and others, for one reason or another, do not or cannot be involved.  You are encouraged, to set boundaries, that the Groden Network will help you to achieve. It is important to keep an open mind, remembering the bottom line is the well-being of the child.

There you have it! I have tried to be as open and honest regarding my experience with being a foster parent.

If you have any questions and/or interest, you can always inquire.  Your contact person will be very caring and will not pressure you into anything.  At first, they are just there for informational purposes.  If you decide to be a foster parent, they will take you through the process every step of the way.

You are one person.  One person being enlightened.  One person that gives a child hope. One person making an enormous difference.

I never really understood the significance of those words, until I experienced them with my own eyes, heart and mind.

I have done many things in my life.  Being a foster parent I have to say has been my favorite.

Well time to close this. There is a little three-year-old foster girl here that would like help putting on her Tinker Bell costume.

Maura lives in Exeter, RI with her husband, Paul, who have been foster parents since 2014. They have since adopted two foster children.

To learn more about how you could become a foster parent to a child with special needs, contact Andrea Neri at 401-274-6310 x 1259 or aneri@grodencenter.org