Today, we launch National Foster Care Awareness Month by featuring a couple in our Huffington Post Gay Voices RaiseAChild.US “Let Love Define Family™” series who have a personal interest in improving the lives of foster children. RaiseAChild.US contributing writer Beth Hallstrom shares their story.
Mernie and Karen Meier are committed to changing the foster parenting paradigm by insisting that foster care does not mean just temporarily warehousing children, but providing a loving home and what foster kids crave most, permanency and stability, however long the arrangement lasts.
The La Crescenta, California, couple has a unique viewpoint on the foster care system. Mernie, 48 and a registered nurse, was raised in seven foster homes and is now a member of the influential Foster Care Project at All Saints Church in Pasadena.
Mernie and Karen, who is 47 and an accountant specializing in non-profit organizations, had their commitment ceremony at All Saints Church 15 years ago. They legally married in 2008.
Because of Mernie's life experience in the foster care system and her work with the Foster Care Project at their local church, the couple became interested in fostering and adoption. During their training, they met future foster daughter Lydia, then 17.
"We originally signed on for a sibling set of two children between the ages of three and seven years old; however our foster care agency asked if we would take a 17-and-a-half year old and we felt we had connected with Lydia. She and her brother were teen trainers, speaking about how teenagers -- and not just little kids -- make great foster children," Karen explained.
"Things happen for a reason," Mernie said, picking up the story. "We had some things in common. Her parents are deaf and hard of hearing and I have a degree in Deaf Studies and am fluent in American Sign Language. Having met during our foster parent training, Lydia said she was interested in coming to live with us when her group home transitioned from housing girls to boys. The agency wondered if she would be comfortable living with a lesbian couple and she said she was ‘OK’ with it. Frankly, I think she was more interested in having her own bedroom and some peace and quiet."
After a week-long trial visit, Lydia moved in and was told from the get-go she was a member of the family. Even though Lydia declined to be adopted by the women, she now refers to them as her "moms."
"We told her that was OK, that she would always be our child. We have a love for her that transcends paperwork filed in a courtroom," Mernie noted.
The new family embarked on a series of firsts for Lydia: her first airplane ride, first cruise, first family reunion, and first prom dress. Especially significant for Mernie and Karen, Lydia's first birthday party when she turned 18.
"We wanted to make sure she knew we were a family that she wasn't just passing through our lives. You have to remember, foster children's lives are full of upheaval and chaos, and that impacts them deeply, affecting every avenue of their lives," Mernie said.
"It's hard to form healthy relationships when you move around so much. You end up missing so many important things, such basic life skills, like balancing a checkbook or learning how to plan and cook meals. We felt it was very important to show Lydia how a family deals with the normal ups and downs of life; and that it was OK to make mistakes, just like any other kid," she continued.
Ever mindful of her own experiences in foster care, Mernie said she and Karen always included Lydia in decisions about her future. As a member of their family, Lydia was included in decisions made about things that happened in their home.
"When you're in foster care, you have very little control over your own life. You're told where to live, what to wear, and what to eat. We made sure Lydia knew we were a family; either we're all in or none of us are," Mernie said.
Making sure foster children have a voice is also a priority for the Foster Care Project (FCP) at All Saints Church in Pasadena, California where the women volunteer. It started 13 years ago with three members and has grown to include elected officials, health and human service professionals and, according to Mernie, "adults who use their resources and talents to make life better for foster children."
Among the FCP Steering Committee's current initiatives are providing trained, volunteer coach-monitors to provide court-ordered supervision so that children, removed from the care of their parents, can visit their parents in a physically and emotionally safe setting. In addition, they partner with agencies that help young adults leaving the foster care system find jobs and housing and continue their educations.
The steering committee also provides mentoring and tutoring, ensures every foster child in the Birthday Club receives a birthday gift, takes foster children shopping for new school clothes, and lobbies for law and policy changes. One of its larger annual efforts is the Christmas Angel Tree, which grants the holiday wishes of more than 700 children in foster care.
Recruiting and educating foster parents is another FCP priority, Mernie said, adding, "it's important for prospective foster parents to see what the journey is like. You are inviting this child into your life and inserting yourself into his or her life. We want the new foster parents to know they are creating or adding to their families and aren't just in a holding situation. While every situation isn't permanent, it's important to put some roots down with that child."
"Members of the Foster Care Project care about children from a lot of different angles," Mernie said.
Caring for their own child is a lifelong commitment for Mernie and Karen, too. Now 25 years old, living on her own and working toward a college degree, Lydia still calls each of them Mom and still turns to them for advice and returns home for holidays and other family celebrations.
"It's exciting to see her blossom into the woman she's become and see her live up to her own potential. Our biggest role at this point is to be that safety net while she's figuring out her life. Every child needs and deserves encouragement, and help to get back up when they make mistakes and to keep going," Karen said.
Added Mernie, "We'll always be that for her. That's our definition of family."
On Sunday, May 3, 2015, RaiseAChild.US will celebrate National Foster Care Awareness Month with a reception hosted by All Saints Church, 132 N Euclid Avenue, Pasadena, California. Starting at 12:15 p.m. in The Guild Room, this free event will feature an exchange of information and welcoming foster and adoption resources like local agency, Five Acres.
RaiseAChild.US is the nationwide leader in the recruitment and support of LGBT and all prospective parents interested in building families through fostering and adopting to meet the needs of the 400,000 children in the foster care system. RaiseAChild.US recruits, educates, and nurtures supportive relationships equally with all prospective foster and adoptive parents while partnering with agencies to improve the process of advancing foster children to safe, loving and permanent homes. For information about how you can become a foster or adoptive parent, please visit www.RaiseAChild.US.