It Takes a Village
*Names changed to protect privacy
by Deb Kelleher -Executive Director, Annie C. Courtney Fdtn.
We’re all familiar with the saying, “It takes a village.” For one foster mom, her “village” is truly a godsend, enabling her to care for children whose needs would overwhelm most parents.
Alicia always wanted to be a foster parent, her whole life. As a single adult, it seemed like a good way to experience parenting and, even, under the right circumstances, form a permanent family. In 2017, she completed the training through the CT Department of Children and Families and began her foster care journey. For the first two years, Alicia cared for several kids, all of whom either returned home to their parents or moved on to another family. Along the way, Alicia became certified to care for children with complicated medical issues. She’d found her calling. In July of 2019, Alicia received the call to care for a 5-month-old baby boy with medical issues. Little did she know that this boy would remain with her forever, beginning a journey that also would include reuniting him with his two older sisters, all of whom are now adopted by this single mom.
Alicia is the kind of woman who loves hard, a woman with a soft place in her heart for children in need. This description would embarrass her as she desires no recognition for her selflessness. Shortly after the adoption of her 3 children, while chatting with a foster parent friend, Alicia heard about another little boy in DCF care who desperately needed a family – a 7-year-old little boy named Phillip with very significant medical needs. As a special education teacher, she was likely more comfortable with children whose needs can be complex and challenging, but the hands-on care – is something entirely different. What Alicia knew though, was that this little boy needed a family and DCF was struggling to find the right fit for him. She wondered if the right fit could be her. This drove her to stretch out of her comfort zone, take a leap of faith that help would be there when she needed it, and ask about bringing Phillip into her growing family. Alicia reached out to the DCF supervisor.
Jean Norvig is the supervisor for the foster care division unit in DCF supporting Alicia. Jean has done this work for many years and has deep relationships with many of the families who foster children from the Greater Danbury area. Jean and Alicia and Alicia’s support worker, Jerry, as well as Phillip’s DCF team of workers and supervisors, met and talked about Phillip’s needs and Alicia’s ability to meet those needs. One advantage Alicia has is that as a special education teacher, she has summers off making some of the challenges around childcare a bit more doable. She is also comfortable with children with differing abilities. They talked about how the department could help find support for Alicia given the big job she was willing to take on. Between all of them, they figured out how to make it work so Phillip could be cared for by Alicia. Ultimately, a decision to place Phillip in Alicia’s home was made and Phillip came home in January 2022.
Phillip is a sweet child. He is non-verbal and uses a wheelchair. He is fed through a feeding tube, and he requires assistance with all activities of daily life from bathing to dressing. He has an ongoing relationship with his dad and his sister which Alicia supports as she does for each of her children. Alicia’s girlfriend, Yvette, was a part of the decision to care for Phillip. Like Alicia, she has known Phillip since he was two, and Alicia says, “Yvette was fully supportive and onboard for bringing him into our family.” Even though they do not live together, Alicia and Yvette consider themselves family. Yvette also is a part of Phillip’s “care team.” She went to the hospital and completed the same training Alicia received so that she could care for Phillip. She frequently takes Phillip to doctors’ appointments. She is regularly in the home and always lends a helping hand. She is an occupational therapist, and so well-suited to meet Phillip’s needs. She provides overnight care on rare occasions when Alicia treats herself to a little self-care.
Here’s where the rest of the village comes in. Many of Alicia’s friends and colleagues agreed to jump in when needed. Two different foster parents care for the children when there are early dismissals at school and during the four teacher in-service days over the school year when Alicia is required to work. Phillip needs one-on-one support with daycare as well as after-school care. Another friend helped out after school. Early morning care became the last hurdle. And after a few bumps in the road, Jean came up with the perfect plan – a “retired” foster mom named Darlene. Alicia, smiling, recalls it like this: “Jean had been reaching out to all her contacts. And then she remembered Darlene, a former foster mom so Jean reached out to her. And it ended up working and she got trained. Pretty sure she fell in love with all four kids.” Not only did Darlene agree to provide Phillip’s support before school, it turned out that Alicia would need her on Monday afternoons also and Darlene quickly jumped in to help.
Darlene and Jean began their relationship close to 21 years ago when Darlene became licensed to care for infants. Darlene describes herself as “a helper who likes being in the background.” Caring for babies in foster care was a perfect fit for her. Over her 21-year “career,” Darlene cared for 21 infants, the longest one for three years, each baby either returning home or moving on to adoption. Recently, she retired her license, explaining that she felt it was the right time to step down. Jean approached her about Alicia’s need for before-school care and after some thought, Darlene agreed to help. She missed her foster care work, and this seemed like a good match for someone who no longer wished to provide full-time care. Darlene explained, “You know, it's hard just to stop doing something like that.” Darlene lights up when she talks about Phillip. Thinking back to when she first met him, Darlene said, “I was a little nervous because I wasn't exposed to Phillip's disabilities, but he's the cutest little thing. And even though he doesn't speak, he's non-verbal. He communicates with his eyes. It's hard not to fall in love with him.”
At first, Darlene just provided before-school care. But within two weeks, this connection morphed into more than just childcare. Darlene explains, “I'm a foodie. I've been cooking for people for a long time. That's how I care about people. For years, Darlene was a stay-at-home mom. She says, “When I went out into the workforce, I went into catering. It's hard to understand the emotional and physical strains on Alicia. She’s just amazing to me So, I talked to her workers to see what I could do to help her, besides caring for Phillip. They said, ‘Oh, she's very self-sufficient. And, you know, she doesn't require anything’ but I know the stronger you show yourself; the fewer people offer to help you.”
When it turned out that Darlene was needed on Monday afternoons for after-school care, this all came together in her head. Monday night dinners. Initially, she worried that she might insult Alicia, so she reached out to Jean for advice. “She thought it would be okay to ask Alicia. And she said “no” right away. But I told her that I wanted to help, that I know how much is on her plate. And so, she finally said okay. So now I'll cook breakfast for the kids occasionally and bring it in the mornings. Because she has to get four kids ready, and she seems like she's good, but everyone can use help.” So, Darlene regularly prepares Monday night dinners for Alicia and her kids. Darlene says that Phillip loves to look at the food even though he is unable to eat it.
Darlene likens these dinners to her time as a foster parent. “People that don't foster say that you're taking care of somebody's kid and you're giving it up? And I don't know how many times I heard that. I don't know how you do that. I would get too attached. Well, I'm not a selfish person.” She believes that this did not win her a lot of friends, but she is comfortable with her life’s work. She goes on to say, “It's not about us. It's about them. Help the children, don’t help me.” So, this is what she does. She sees this as not only helping Alicia but as a way for her to continue to help the children.
Alicia really appreciates the meals and everything Darlene is doing for her. And Darlene is thrilled to be able to cook and bake for her little “adopted” family. She takes great pride in trying to think up new and interesting meals – and especially desserts – Darlene’s favorite to make. On Hanukkah, Darlene made a beautiful spread for the family including homemade applesauce. Alicia texted her over and over that evening to say how delicious it was, so it is on Darlene’s list to repeat again. Darlene loves to bake so each Monday comes with a delicious dessert. Recently, she made black and white cookies. Alicia says, “Darlene also made everybody individualized Christmas presents. She sews so I asked her to adapt some clothing for Phillip, and she did that as well. She's multitalented.” Alicia goes on to say, “And I think she empathizes with me as well. So, it's nice to have that person there supporting us.”
Alicia, like all foster parents, does not know how long Phillip will be with her but for the time being Alicia and Darlene and the rest of Alicia’s village will pour all their love into Phillip allowing him to live his best life.
Recently, our agency director spoke with Jean and the subject of these dinners came up. Jean was hoping we could collaborate and come up with some funding to offset the cost of the dinners Darlene so generously provides. So, we went to the community to raise money and folks generously responded. So far, we have raised over $300 to help offset the cost of the food. While Darlene was not looking for assistance with the costs, in this economy, we all felt that Darlene’s gift of time and talent should be met with equal community backing. Foster care is a labor of love and commitment. No one can do this kind of “job” entirely on their own. Most foster parents, like Alicia, develop a “village” of supporters, all helping in different ways. When a burden can be shared, almost anything is doable. There are over 3000 Connecticut children just like Phillip and Alicia’s other children deserving of a “village” to meet their needs. When we each do a little, a lot can get done. And these children deserve our best.
For more information on all the different ways you can help a child in foster care, please give our office a call at 475-235-2184. Gift cards for Darlene and other helpers like her are needed and welcome. Donations can be made via Venmo to @AnnieCCourt. Volunteers to provide a meal or respite are always in short supply and truly appreciated. Connecticut needs more foster parents like Alicia, and all our foster parents need their own village of helpers. In the words of the writer, James Baldwin, “For these are all our children, we will all profit by or pay for what they become.” Let’s be their village, let’s love them and care for them and help them achieve their highest potential.