Bikes resting by the driveway waiting for the next burst of energy that will take them speeding down the steep hill, an open garage with room for most everything except cars, and two tan pups lounging on the porch – such are the sights that greet an early Saturday morning visitor to the home of Sue and Bruce Johnson, just outside Sharon. But the real testament to the family within are the two signs posted on the table in the foyer. One is a blessing: “Bless this House and all who enter.” The other could be considered a warning: “You call it chaos. We call it family.”
“That one,” Sue says as she calls attention to the proclamation of chaos, “is our family motto.” Then a smile that consumes her whole face and a quick laugh underscores that she wouldn’t have it any other way.
Bruce and Sue know a thing or two about family. Theirs includes three adult children, three grandchildren, and for the last 14 years, 87 children who came to their 6-bedroom 3-bath home through foster care.
“Actually, it’s four bathrooms,” admits Bruce. “I have one in the garage.” When prompted, he admits that one is sometimes a haven.
The transplanted Minnesotans came to Weakley County because of Sue’s family ties. At the time, they had a five-year-old and 23 acres which meant no playmates nearby. So, since they had always wanted a big family, they began looking into foster care. Currently, between children with the Johnson name, teens in foster care and young men who have aged out of the system but still need a place to call home, seven are living in the self-described chaos.
However, look a little longer and the strong foundation the couple provide soon becomes apparent. Sure, toys are discarded across the den, the TV is on, and tears are being wiped away on the 1-year-old after the 7-year-old sat on her hand, but the tears are being wiped, the hugs are frequent, and the walls are covered with photographed memories.
Initially, the couple provided foster care for girls. Now, they focus mostly on boys and, both admit, have a little less drama.
When asked what the benefits are for the providers of foster care, Sue doesn’t hesitate in her response, “The knowledge of how the world works and the predicaments of what the children live in and what they’ve overcome” is one source of her inspiration. Another is the relationships that are made.
Bruce chimes in to explain that they now have 20 surrogate grandchildren and extended family that goes “from Indiana to Alabama.”
Bruce also readily admits that he’s the “teddy bear” in the duo and Susan offers the much-needed structure and stability that makes things work. “She’s got a huge heart,” he said. “But she’s very driven and she knows what she wants and how to get it.”
With Mother’s Day fast approaching, both acknowledge that tolerance, patience, and a giving nature make Susan into the foster care mother that so many now celebrate. Her pragmatic approach comes from a strong will and a lot of compassion.
“A lot of people think it [foster care parenting] is scary,” she acknowledged. “But for the most part, kids are looking for permanency, for support, whether they know it or not. When they get here, and you give them stability and a routine … it just works out.”
Stephanie M. Richardson is in Foster Parent Support at the Northwest Tennessee Department of Children Services (DCS). She praises Sue’s ability to support connections to birth families and give the tools needed to succeed as youth in their care move from being teenagers to adults.
“Sue is like other great moms who stand behind their kids, help them succeed, cheer them on, help them learn from their mistakes, and continue to be very supportive of them even after they leave the nest. She just does it as a foster mom,” said Richardson.
The DCS reports that Weakley County now has 21 children from the County in foster care. Of those 21, 10 have been placed in foster homes in Weakley County. The others had to be placed in counties up to 100 miles away.
Trying to keep the children at least somewhat close to home is a priority for DCS but not always a reality.
“Ideally, we would have enough homes in each county for the children from that county,” said Richardson. “But we don’t. Having a foster home ready for a child that’s close to their family’s home is invaluable. Kids that are placed into foster care are already facing so much change in their lives, it helps tremendously if they don’t have to leave their school, their teachers, their friends and their familiar surroundings.
“We want to do everything we can to reduce the trauma children have to experience. Having a foster home ready and willing to foster the children from their own community is priceless.”
Children and youth in foster care in the Northwest region now number 402. The greatest need is for homes for youth. Currently, 128 teens in foster care are between the ages of 13-17.
Camille Legins, Regional Administrator for the Northwest Region suggests individuals who are interested in foster care but may be fearful of what is involved can begin as a volunteer assisting a current foster care situation. Options include:
- Assisting a family with chores, home repairs, car repairs, etc.
- Sponsoring special events such as holiday parties
- Providing needed items such as beds, cribs, clothing, etc.
- Becoming a volunteer or facilitator at a visitation site
The Tennessee Fosters website (tnfosters.gov) has more information about what it takes to become a foster parent, and what others can do to support foster parents. DCS is also on social media. See news from the Northwest Region on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/Northwestdcs/.
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