This week’s installment of the Huffington Post Gay Voices RaiseAChild.US “Let Love Define Family” series is a personal tribute to summers past, present and future.
During the summer just before my two kids started elementary school, I was well warned of the dreaded first grade school assignment that had the potential to mess them up. That class project was the tradition of teaching first graders to create and find their place within their own family tree. For most kids, it can be a fun exercise that might include pasting baby photos on construction paper next to faded Polaroid squares of grandma and grandpa. However, for children like mine from the foster care system, this simple assignment can create any number of issues in the classroom, on the playground, or at home. You see, foster children don’t usually come with baby pictures or family photos. So the task of creating a family tree in front of their peers can be a devastating challenge for foster kids.
With the family tree assignment looming in my mind, I set out with a summertime goal of creating as many good memories for my children as possible. I bought a small camera and rushed to begin building a digital history. Not one to replace their birth family, but a history with which they could provide tangible evidence. I was determined that while my kids’ family tree may look like a sapling, it was going to be rich with foliage.
I took pictures of them on walks with our dog. I took pictures of them in front of a sunny Hollywood sign, a rainy Space Needle and a foggy Golden Gate Bridge. Over the 4th of July holiday, we flew back east to my hometown and I got pictures of my kids with grandma, aunts, uncles and cousins at family cookouts and gatherings.
In the school years that followed that first summer together in 2007, my kids managed their family tree assignments with flying colors. Luckily they had two great and sensitive teachers that encouraged them to create their own robust and non-traditional family trees that included their birth mom, their siblings and a foster mom. Then, closer to the base of my son’s family tree were three younger, shorter branches. One to represent me, one to represent my new partner and the third to represent our family dog.
I feel that I have been rather lucky in my life. I think about my own childhood and those warm and humid summer days growing up in my small hometown in the green rolling mountains of Central Pennsylvania. I remember events like the day my father took me and my brothers to “Widow’s Rock,” a hidden swimming hole fed by a cold stream at the end of a long, dusty dirt road. I remember the time my mother and I picked four large coffee cans full of huckleberries and the sweet smell of her kitchen as the muffins and huckleberry pie baked.
Just last week, I took my kids back to my hometown. This time, I didn’t even think to pack my camera. The purpose of this trip home was different. I just wanted to spend time with my kids, my mother and family. You see, my father passed a few years before I became a dad. Two years ago, on the evening of July 4th, my mother suffered a stroke that left her mind sharp and her body paralyzed. My mom is a strong and determined woman. I am proud that she has worked so hard to regain much of her strength. Yes, the purpose of this trip was different. I have come to realize how fast time passes and how quickly kids grow. I wanted to bank some new memories of watching my teenage children spending time talking, laughing and playing cards with my mother as I used to do. I wanted to revisit my college town with my kids and share with them some memories about being a Penn State Nittany Lion. I wanted to tackle my mother’s list of gardening chores and accomplish them with my kids. I really wanted to relax and enjoy the experience of being a father around the family I grew up in. The family that helped make me who I am. The family that I love.
Living in Los Angeles, so far away from my family, has its advantages and disadvantages. But for a few days last week, I actually got to savor and enjoy the new family tree that I created. Like the taste of my mother’s huckleberry pie, those days will long remain a fond summer memory of mine.
Rich Valenza is the Founder and CEO of RaiseAChild.US, a national organization headquartered in Hollywood, California that encourages the LGBT community to build families through fostering and adopting to serve the needs of the 400,000 children in the U.S. foster care system. Since 2011, RaiseAChild.US has run media campaigns and events to educate prospective parents and the public, and has engaged more than 2,200 prospective parents. For information about how you can become a foster or fost/adopt parent, visit www.RaiseAChild.US and click on “Next Step to Parenthood.”