Children in Crisis – A series addressing issues related to foster care

This series of articles is provided by Kelly Campbell, a vice president at the Tennessee Baptist Children’s Home with a focus on family care. A Greenfield native, he has committed to a year on the road with wife Karen living in an RV as he assists local congregations in knowing how to best help families in crisis and create a supportive environment for foster care and adoptive parents. He can be reached at kcampbell@tennesseechildren.org.

Changing the question

Most of my adult life, my wife and I have been involved in the caring for children and youth. I served as a church youth minister, we were emergency foster care parents, and house parents for eight children who were not our own. My wife took care of children after school, we had a Macedonian exchange student, and raised three daughters of our own.

Much of my professional training for helping children had been behavior-based, focusing on identifying and changing behaviors for the good, and asking the question, “Why did that child do that behavior?” Behavior management seemed like the best possible solution to changing undesirable behaviors and staying with it long enough so that the child will begin to comply.

On a Friday afternoon in early May 2013, that changed. I attended a day of seminars related to caring for vulnerable children. Each presenter challenged my way of thinking and encouraged me to reexamine my long-held beliefs about how to care for children coming from hard places. I was so shaken that I needed time to process all I learned.

Ultimately, I concluded that the question for me had changed. No longer a matter of “Why?,” the question went much deeper.  I began to consider instead “What has happened to this child that causes him or her to act in this manner?” The focus became less on the behavior and more on the cause of the behavior.

I began to realize the latter question is filled with much more empathy than the former. Asking the “why” question tends to seek blame or an easy solution, so the child will cease the behavior. Asking the “what” question approaches the child with more empathy and compassionand looks beyond the surface to examine what might have happened to this child in the past that causes such a negative response now

A small child refusing to go to bed is an example. The parent, already in bed, insists the child go back to his room. The child refuses and has a major tantrum. The parent demands to be heard, expecting the child to comply. The child wants to know why he can’t stay with the parent, and the parent responds with, “Because I told you to!” After a long battle, the parent either acquiesces and lets the child sleep in the room, or, the child goes back to his room frightfully and cries until exhaustion leads to sleep.

Changing the question makes a difference in this scenario. The child comes to the parent’s room and communicates to the parent his fear. The parent takes a moment to ask what has triggered this fear. Perhaps the child has had a nightmare the night before and is afraid to go to sleep. Instead of insisting the child return to the bed, the parent finds ways to soothe the child.

Returning to the bedroom with the child, the parent takes time to read a story, or talks with the child and together they compose a prayer. They then voice this prayer to God and ask for His protection. When my children were little, we often recited Psalms 57:3, “When I am afraid, I put my trust in you” (New International Version). The parent stays with the child until the fear passes and the child is able to sleep, which may take several minutes or more. It may also take a few days before the child successfully moves beyond this fear.

The biggest difference in these two examples is the status of the parent-child relationship. The first scenario leaves the child to soothe his own fears without the parent, and the child soon learns not to depend on the parent for comfort in times of fear. The parent’s desire to teach independence has placed a wedge between them. The second scenario focuses on maintaining the relationship with the child. It takes longer, and the parent is more involved, but in the end the child learns to trust the parent. The child knows his fears are legitimate and working together creates a stronger bond between them.

What we know for sure

Recently, while attending a seminar hosted by Harmony Family Services in Knoxville, TN, I listened as two moms told their stories of fostering and adoption. They talked of their struggles and their successes.  As they concluded their remarks, they left us with these thoughts under the title of “What We Know for Sure.”

The first truth is all of this takes time. There is no quick fix. Although there have been many successes, there have been many setbacks, too. As I listened, I thought about the many families who feel a sense of calling to care for orphans. They want so desperately to provide these children with the love and support they need. They are often met with unexpected bumps in the road that cause them to question whether they have done the right thing. Encouraging families not to give up but to keep working is easy to say and sometimes hard to do. These mothers were living testimonies for the need to persevere. Baby steps in the right direction, with the commitment to stay in this for the long haul was my first takeaway.

Secondly, there are no magic bullets. Some days it is one day at a time. Some days it is a minute by minute game of trial and error. The good news is there are tools available for families that can help them in this struggle. Most counties have foster care support groups, and many adoption agencies provide resources to help families. Churches need to consider how they might rally around families who are committed to caring for children from hard places. The message I heard from these moms is one of being dedicated to stay with their children and help them succeed. Parents have the privilege of knowing more about their children than anyone else. And those who know also understand there are no magic bullets.

Thirdly, parents must be flexible and work with others to build a strong therapeutic web of support under their children. Lowering unrealistic expectations of a child is the first step in learning how to be flexible. For example, a child who is twelve years old chronologically may display the actions of a six-year-old. Most children from trauma are delayed developmentally and need the patience and flexibility of the caregiver as they work day after day to “catch up.” This is no easy task and flexibility is a must.

This leads me to the second part of this final thought. There needs to be a web of individuals from every area of the child’s life who can come alongside the parent. The hope here is that schools, therapists, and extended family members and friends can learn what works best for the child and keep the child’s life as consistent as possible. How helpful would it be for you to find a way to come alongside these parents and become part of their team?

As the ladies finished telling their stories, I thought about the children whose lives were changed. Sensing the joy these moms felt as their children continued to grow, learn and adjust, I left more determined than ever to encourage these families and those across the state who walk this road of fostering and adoption.

If your church or organization is doing something to support these families, I would love to hear from you. You can reach me by email at kcampbell@tennesseechildren.org.

Connecting with caregivers

The church service was just under way. From the back of the auditorium a mother came in with four children—one less than a year old. Immediately, people made room for this family. A lady approached the mom and asked to hold the smallest child. The child seemed to be at ease and began to get comfortable in the lap of this new friend. Meanwhile, additional chairs were brought in for the other children and everyone settled in to enjoy the singers on stage.

Occasionally, I would look over and see how this new connection was going with the baby. The caregiver rocked and held the baby close. The baby began to show signs of being sleepy. The woman adjusted the baby and placed the baby’s head on her shoulder. The baby’s eyes slowly began to close and before long she fell asleep.

After a brief nap, the baby was back in the lap of the caregiver, looking up at the woman. There seemed to be a connection. The lady began to smile and make cooing noises heard by her and the precious child in her lap. This is where the real connection began. The baby locked her eyes on the face of the caregiver. The baby began to smile and mirror the expressions made by her new friend.

Tears came to my eyes as I thought about what took place in that moment. The child made a connection with a trusted caregiver. This all took place in the span of just a few minutes, but it was an example of something foundational to children around the world.

Connecting with a trusted caregiver paves the way for a life of relational connectedness with others. When a child makes this connection with a trusted caregiver, there is a sense of safety that only such a relationship can bring.

What about the child who is denied such a connection? What happens when the caregiver is unable to care for the child in such an important manner? If this connection is not made, then the child will struggle to connect with others as well. If this connection is denied, then the child suffers from a lack of trust and learns at an early age that life can be hard. Sometimes, there is a disconnect on the part of the child, and they will spend a lifetime looking for what they never had.

Many children who are in the foster care system and who are adoptable suffer from this lack of connection. For people who are willing to come alongside these children and provide a home for them, it is necessary to learn how to deal with this need in the child’s life. There will be times when a willing caregiver struggles with the lack of connection. It is important to know this is not a reflection of the ability of the caregiver; however, there must be a willingness of the caregiver to do the hard work of helping the child connect.

This connection of trust can be made. Sometimes it requires a restart, going back developmentally and making those connections missed in early life. Understanding children from this perspective helps parents to avoid blaming the child for what is lacking. Being willing to connect and love the child unconditionally allows the child to find this needed connection with a new caregiver—one who is committed to seeing the relationship through.

To understand the implications of this connection, I recommend a book for those who care for children from hard places: The Connected Child: Bring Hope and Healing to Your Adoptive Family by Karen Purvis, Ph.D., David R. Cross, Ph.D., and Wendy Lyons Sunshine. This book, a recommended title for my staff at the Tennessee Baptist Children’s Homes, is informative, helpful and relates to the need every child has to connect with those who care for them. Even if this initial connection was missed, this book gives assurance that all is not lost. Finding this connection is possible. If you have comments or questions about this book or any other part of this article, you can connect with me at kcampbell@tennesseechildren.org.

Self-care for caregivers

Very soon, my wife and I are taking a vacation. Our plans are to fly Southwest Airlines. There are a lot of reasons why we fly Southwest. One of the most entertaining reasons is the preflight instructions. What tends to be the most ignored part of flying captures our attention because of the way these directions are presented. One of the most important parts of the presentation has to do with oxygen masks. In case the cabin loses pressure, then the masks will drop down from the ceiling. Then the attendant performing reminds those who are traveling with small children to put their mask on first before putting on the child’s mask. This is the Oxygen Mask Principle. If we do not take care of ourselves, we will be unable to care for the children.

Self-care is imperative to caring for children who come from traumatized situations. In the book, “Wounded Children Healing Homes: How Traumatized Children Impact Adoptive and Foster Families”, Jayne Schooler talks about Vicarious Trauma, or as it is called by others Secondary Trauma. Vicarious Trauma is defined as the cumulative impact of a child’s trauma stories, behaviors, and reenactments on the foster/adoptive parents. Vicarious traumatization is a transformation of a parent’s inner-self resulting from an empathic, compassionate connection to a child who has experienced trauma. The reality of Vicarious Trauma causes us to find ways to rationally detach from our children to care for ourselves and to better care for them.

Some might see this as a selfish act, and neglectful of the children who have already experienced times of abandonment. Parker Palmer, an author, educator, and activist, is quoted in “Wounded Children Healing Homes, “Self-Care is never a selfish act – it is simply good stewardship of the only gift I have, the gift I was put on earth to offer others. Anytime we can listen to true self and give it the care it requires, we do it not only for ourselves, but for the many other whose lives we touch.” When we are breathing easy through the mask of self-care, then we can better meet the needs of the children in our care.

What is one example of self-care that is helpful in caring for children from hard places? Ruth Haley Barton in her book, “Invitation to Solitude and Silence”, writes about practicing a time of noticing. This is involves finding a time during the day to take some deep breaths and allow all the unknown thoughts and feelings of the day to surface. Some of these might not be too pleasant and need to be felt and dealt with as needed. Others might be pleasant reminders of why you care for the child or children so much. It might be a reminder of the calling you have to give yourself away to your children. Finding five minutes or more to just set with your thoughts and express those thoughts to God – good or bad – will be like a burst of fresh air from the mask dropping from the ceiling.

Here is a practice I use that I find both refreshing and meaningful. I see myself as a small child. I see an image of God, as my heavenly Father. God invites me to come to him and sit on his lap. When I join him, he wraps his arms around me and pulls me to himself. I lay my head against his chest and can hear the rhythm of his heart beating. In that rhythm, I find peace and rejuvenation. I feel God’s acceptance of me and know that I can love my children as he loves me. Feeling refreshed, I can begin again with the process of giving my children the care they need by practicing the Principle of the Oxygen Mask.

If you have thoughts or questions about self-care, then I invite you to email me at kcampbell@tennesseechildren.org.

Finding Your “Third Place”

While growing up in Greenfield I remember walking into Allison’s Restaurant and seeing men sitting around tables and drinking coffee. I remember walking down Front Street and seeing men and women gathering outside the shops, some sitting on window ledges, talking about who knows what. One of the things these folks had in common was where they would meet.

I learned recently places like Allison’s and Front Street in Greenfield are known as the Third Place. The Third Place is that place you go when you are not at home, school, or work. It’s a place to gather, a place to connect with people doing something you like to do. It’s a place to enjoy a cup of coffee after having to get up every morning and making your own. It’s a place to share the latest information and to be able to contribute your part in the conversation. Today, a trip to the local coffee shop is my favorite Third Place, or perhaps a trip to the library to grab some free Wi-Fi, and maybe check out a book.

While thinking about self-care for those who are loving and caring for children who come from hard places, I realized there is a need for a Third Place. Some call this rational detachment. Michael Blackwell, the Executive Director of the North Carolina Baptist Children’s Homes, said this in a talk I heard him give last fall. “Rational detachment is about finding something else to love. It is about taking care of your own mental health. It is making the effort to care for your primary relationships first.” We need to find that Third Place, to retreat and find the margin to rejuvenate ourselves and those whom we are privileged to care for every day.

What happens when you bring a child who is new to your family into a Third Place unfamiliar to him or her? A place where you are comfortable may cause anxiety and discomfort to this child who you have committed to your care. What happens when a child who is afraid of the water joins a family of avid swimmers? While reading The Foster Journey: Often a Winding Road. Always a Trip, authored by Katie Overstreet and Jason Weber, I came across this story:

“My husband and I…were a one-child family whose favorite family activity was sitting at Barnes and Nobles reading for hours on end. It was important to us that our future child love reading…Fast-forward nine months to the placement of our new daughter, Heather. She hated reading-with a passion. That one seemingly small fact resulted in a major shift in our family’s routine. It wasn’t easy, and it required us to leave our comfort zone and redefine a core part of our family so that our new daughter would feel at home.”

Just like individuals need a Third Place, so do our families. When we bring a child into our home, this favorite place may need to change. The implication here is not to give up your way of life and resent this child for changing everything. No, this is a plea to find a Third Place for yourself, and then work hard to find a Third Place that all your family can share. Make it your new place. A place even better than before because there is room for this child whose “hard place” is now a “Third Place” they share with you.

How can the local church become such a place for a foster or adoptive family? First Baptist Church in Waverly, TN, hosted an event for foster and adoptive families at their church. The purpose of the event was to help families know they were not alone in this effort to raise children from hard places. They gave away gifts and prizes to the families and helped them make connections with resources in the community. It is the hope of the church that this can be an ongoing effort on their part. They plan on hosting a Christmas party this year, where foster children can shop for their birth families and their foster families, too.

Consider some ways your church can be a Third Place for families in your community. If you want to talk about this further, please contact me at kcampbell@tennesseechildren.org.

Avoid Comparisons

The sentimental image of family that we present publicly is a defense against the pain of proclaiming the family for what it is—a sometimes comforting, sometimes devastating house of life and memory. — Thomas Moore in Care of the Soul

As we continue to consider the idea of self-care and its value to caring for children from hard places, let’s consider a few more principles that will assist us.

One of the greatest enemies to family life is comparing our families to those who attend church, play sports, and attend the same schools as our children. We all want to present a good face to the crowd. We see this every day in our use of social media. Feelings of jealousy and guilt overcome us when we open our social media feeds and see another perfect-looking picture of the family just down the street. When we think of what it would take to pose for the same picture at our house, we realize this would be an impossible task.

We can call this principle of self-care the “stay off social media principle.” This is not a rant about the ills of social media, but it is an encouraging word to avoid doing what most of us do. When we spend time and energy attempting to model our family after that of our neighbors, we are fighting a losing battle.

Thomas Moore is right. The image we hope to portray to others is nothing more than a mask of the pain and conflict we are experiencing on the other side of the beach photo where everyone is in their best white and khaki. Amid this desire to be the same as others, it is important that we find a place of authenticity. We must come to grips with who we are as a family and overcome the desire to be something we are not.

Thomas Moore goes on to write, “care of the soul appreciates the mystery of human suffering and does not offer the illusion of a problem-free life.” A friend of mine who is also a counselor does this well. There is no pretense with her. When she speaks about her family, you are brought into the mix of things. Sometimes the events are as current as the morning before the meeting where she was invited to talk about how to help families who are loving children from hard places. The transparency of her struggles is what endears her to so many people. It is also what makes her one of the best counselors I know.

Another important principle of self-care is to maintain a sense of humor. When we can think less about how we might appear to others, and accept who we are as a family, then we are able to take ourselves not so seriously. We’ve learned not to ask David to take a picture of the family when he visits from overseas. David Willersdorf is a musician from Australia who stays with us when he is here recording music. As soon as he gets the phone he starts taking pictures. No one is ready, and there are a lot of strange faces being made. Looking back on those photos, they are the best. Uncensored and uncut reality causes us to realize: sometimes all you can do is laugh.

Lowering our expectations is another principle of self-care imperative to raising children from hard places. When we attempt to compare our children to other kids in the neighborhood who have not endured the trauma that our child has, then we do both children an injustice. There are times when the pressure to conform triggers memories from long ago that further differentiates our child from the others. Learning to love my child for who he is, and not for what I want him to be is a sure way to care for myself and my child as well.

If you want to talk more about taking care of yourself as you care for your child, email me at kcampbell@tennesseechildren.org.

Recombobulation Area

Those of you who fly know going through security can be a lengthy process. Even though it is a necessary part of travel, it can seem somewhat an invasion of privacy. Recently, we traveled to Wisconsin for a few days of vacation. On our return flight from Milwaukee we cleared security, and just before walking to our gate we saw a sign that read “Recombobulation Area.”

After walking a few more feet toward the gate, we saw a T-shirt hanging at a kiosk giving us the definition of the Recombobulation Area. The formal meaning is “to cause to think clearly again, to re-orient, and to put back in working order.” The more relevant definition for the moment is to get your belongings back in place after the TSA process at General Mitchell International Airport. Having just put my belt back on and made sure my billfold and important documents were safely secured, I knew why we needed a Recombobulation Area.

Immediately my mind went to a family who goes through the foster and adoption process. Applications, physicals, and home studies are all necessary. However, through this process a family can begin to feel a little discombobulated. Once the match is made and the new child is brought into the family, there is still a period of adjustment. A feeling of being out of sorts can overtake the family. So, what can the church do to help families during this time of discombobulation? What if we provide families a Recombobulation Area?

Here are some ways we can help a family who has completed the process and is now standing disheveled in the Recombobulation Area. First, let’s make sure their immediate needs are met. Like a passenger coming through the security check point, the family may require help with basic needs. The new addition to the family may need clothing, or perhaps the family could use a prepared meal. If so, call ahead to find out what they would like or to ask about dietary restrictions. These are two simple and practical ways to get the family connected.

Remember, the child or children have joined the family after coming through all the checkpoints, so there is a time of getting to know one another. Maybe the church could assist the family by providing activities for them to do together and help them get better acquainted. This would be a great way to introduce the family to the leaders of the children’s area, and a way for staff at the church to meet this family and their new addition, even if that “addition” is a teenager. The Recombobulation Area may be the church building, or it could be a local park where the church gathers to celebrate with this family. Find creative ways to introduce each other and make everyone feel welcome.

Perhaps someone in the church has excellent organizational skills. Helping families make sure they have all their important documents and other necessary items securely stored away in their home could be a big help in the Recombobulation Area. Organizing rooms and calendars are strong points of some, however, others struggle with these tasks. Offering these kinds of services could free the parents to spend more time getting to know the child or children.

There is no doubt these parents are more than capable of doing all the necessary work, but having a loving church come alongside them will certainly make the time spent in the Recombobulation Area way more productive and less stressful.

If you have questions about how you might be able to assist families, please email me at kcampbell@tennesseechildren.org.

Helping a Child Finish the Race

Derek Anthony Redmond broke the British record for the 400 meters, a track and field event, in 1985. At the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, he pulled out of the opening round of the 400 meters 90 seconds before his first race because of an injury to his Achilles tendon. Before the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain, Redmond endured operations due to injuries. This time, he would not be denied. He was determined to win one of the three medals in the 400 meters—his preference was first place gold.

Redmond made it through the first two rounds of competition. He was now in the semi-finals. A win here, and the goal of gold was in sight. About 250 meters into the race, Redmond pulled up quickly and eventually dropped to the ground in pain. Officials raced to his side to help. He got to his feet and tried to continue the race. (Later, we learned he tore his hamstring, a muscle between the hip and the knee and one susceptible to injury.)

But in that moment, his journey continued as he limped his way around the third corner of the oval track. Security officials approached him, but he would not yield to their demands. As he prepared to turn the fourth and final corner, a man wearing shorts and a T-shirt that read, “Have You Hugged Your Feet Today,” came running from the stands. Security tried to stop him as well, but he would not be denied either.

This man joined Redmond on the track, and it was there we learned he was Jim Redmond, Derek’s father. “You don’t have to do this,” Mr. Redmond told his son. “Yes, I do!” cried Derek. So, with one arm around the neck of his father, and his father’s arm around the waist of his son, they moved toward the finish line.

Officials, trying to do their job, continued to make their way to the father and son team. Each time they were waved off by Mr. Redmond. Moving closer to the finish line, Derek motioned for his father to move over into the lane in which he started the race. For him to finish well, he needed to be in his lane. Crossing the finish line together, Mr. Redmond raised his hand in victory and patted his son on the chest, saying with these gestures, “You did it!”

As I remembered this story, read more of the details online, and watched the video of the actual event on YouTube (find the one with the Josh Groban soundtrack and bring the tissues!), I couldn’t believe how this event favored what many folks choose to do each day.

A decision is made by someone to foster or adopt a child. Or someone else may find a way to serve children who are in residential care. So, they come out of the stands and make their way to the track. They come alongside a child who has experienced defeat and loss most of their young lives. The harder they try the more times they fail. What they need is that person who can break through all the obstacles associated with the process and get this child back on track and across the finish line.

I want to say a word about the many others who were on the track that day wanting to help. As you start this journey with a hurt and broken child, don’t resist the help. Let others join you, and together make your way to the gold. And, remember there will be times when you need to be the child’s advocate, which may mean waving off ideas you know are not best for the child. Look for the helpers and stand strong on behalf of the children you are privileged to serve.

Home for the Holidays

Having everyone home for the holidays is a constant theme in commercials, songs, and of course, Hallmark movies. For the past ten years, my family had the privilege of living in a home provided by the ministry in which I served. In that home, we were able to accommodate all our nuclear family and most of our extended family. Today, we live in a 33-foot motor home which requires us to convert the dining table into a bed just to sleep a third person.

I began to get a little melancholy as I thought about this significant change in our family dynamics. Although I am grateful for the ten years we had together, finding a way to be with each other now is a little more complicated. I am also grateful for my oldest daughter who has agreed to host in her own home as many as can get there. This is allowing us to be together and start a new tradition.

As I think about this impactful change in my family’s tradition, I cannot not help but think about the children who need a home or find themselves in a new home this year. Many of these children were at their own home with family just last year. It may have been chaotic, but it was home. Everyone the child knew was gathered together, or no one was there. In either case, it was “normal” for the child. Now, this child sits down at a table with strangers.

This child may be in a residential care home with several other children from various backgrounds and locations, all cared for by a married couple. Or, this child, taken into a new foster family’s home just in time for the holidays, may be sitting down with them and their friends and family. Perhaps this child is waiting in the office of a Department of Children Services worker who is trying desperately to find a place for the child to spend the holiday.

If you are providing care for a child like this, or if you are interested in doing so in the future, it is important for you to see things from this child’s point of view. Holidays are hard, even for those of us who consider our lives to be somewhat “normal.” Imagine what it is like for a child who deals with the loss of family, friends, and, in most cases, the community with which they are most familiar. Helping this child feel loved and accepted is a tall order.

A good place to start is by helping this child feel “felt.” Children need to know that you understand and that this is not just a job for you. They need to know that you do what you do for them because of a calling. Knowing that someone loves them and is willing to invite them to sit at their table goes a long way toward helping this child feel “felt.”

This holiday experience may not be the Norman Rockwell print you saw in an old edition of The Saturday Evening Post. More than likely, it’s going to be a little messy. Things are going to be said that could be a little embarrassing, and it might not come from the usual family member this year. If you are obedient to what you have been called to do, you can trust that God will provide the support you need to care for this child.

Churches are one such avenue of support, and can help families like this one, who make changes to their traditional get-togethers for the sake of a child. Perhaps a group in the church can make sure the family has everything needed for their holiday meal. Maybe a new bed could be purchased and assembled to accommodate the addition of the child. Perhaps members of the church could invite the family and the child to join in and participate in afternoon activities in the community. These are just a few suggestions that can make “home for the holidays” a better experience for children who find themselves in new homes this year.

Jim’s Story

I first met Jim when he was in middle school. A good-looking child, who was tall for his age, he came into our care at the Tennessee Baptist Children’s Home after spending some time in the state foster care system. Our program differs from the state system in that our children are not in the custody of the state. Like Jim, the children we serve are placed in our care by a parent or guardian. The parent signs a Power of Attorney which gives us the rights we need to care for the child.

Jim did well in school and made good choices. I watched as he matured and talked with his case worker about what he might want to do after high school. A discussion usually had with a parent was now taking place between a case worker and myself — not the best situation. However, at that time in Jim’s life, it is what was best for him. Jim made his decision, and with our help, he enrolled in college.

College is a time of transition for many children. For Jim, it was just another transition among many he’d endured. By now, Jim’s history included his first home with his mother, a foster home in the state system, a children’s home, and now housing on a college campus. There he experienced a few bumps in the road as Jim learned to make better choices. Then he came to a crossroads. He could follow the path laid out for him by his friends, or he could leave that lifestyle behind and make the best decision for his future self. Fortunately, Jim made the right choice. He stayed in school. He made new friends and became more focused on his studies. Before long, I got an invitation to attend his graduation.

My wife and I drove to the college town to attend Jim’s graduation ceremony. We sat high in the building anticipating his march across the stage. Adding to the emotions of the day was the fact that not only was he graduating from college, he was also graduating as an officer in the National Guard. When it came time for Jim’s name to be called, I listened to the cheers as this young soldier and college graduate received accolades for a job well done. Tears rolled down my face as I thought about how hard Jim fought, even as a small child, to get where he was on this day.

Not long after graduation, I got another invitation in the mail. It was from Jim. He was getting married. He met a young lady in college, and now it was time for Jim and this young lady to start a family of their own. It is my prayer that Jim and his new wife enjoy a long life together. If they decide to have children, I hope Jim will take the lessons learned from his own life to be the best parent he can be.

Ask yourself this question, who do I know in my church or community whose story is like Jim’s? What can I do to make a difference in that person’s life? In the Thanksgiving edition of the Weakley County Press, there was an article about the aging out of children from foster care. My challenge to you is to find that article and read about the many needs of children who find themselves at eighteen lacking the support and direction that Jim had, and consider ways you might be able to help. Perhaps you could contact your local Department of Children Services and see how you could get involved with this population of young adults.

Most of the children who age-out will not take advantage of the opportunities afforded them. For every Jim I meet, there are many others who made the decision to try and make it on their own. A few of those came back to see me. Some who made it with the help of others outside our agency would thank me for the opportunities we gave them. Others, who found life to be harder than expected, would ask for a second chance. All of them could use someone like you to help guide them through the rough waters of adulthood.

Our Own Christmas Story

Some twenty years ago, my wife and I made the decision to become foster parents. We could not foster full time, so we chose to be emergency foster care parents. When a case worker needed more time to find the right home for a child, the child would be placed with us temporarily.

Part of the process of becoming foster parents included several weeks of training, then known as MAPPS. Now those classes are known as PATH (Parents As Tender Healers), and are required for anyone who wants to foster in the state of Tennessee. I can’t remember where we took the training, but I remember being in the classes. After completing these classes and all the necessary paperwork, we waited patiently for that first call.

This is an anxious time. We feel like our training and life experiences have prepared us for this but there is also a feeling of uncertainty. Will we be able to care for these children properly? How will our family adjust to having a new child or children in our home?  Can we do this?

Then the phone rang. It was our case worker calling about a newborn whose mother decided to surrender her rights. Someone needed to travel to the city and pick the child up from the hospital. Were we interested? Since this is what we wanted to do, we made the decision to go.

We drove about two hours and walked through the hospital doors preparing to take this precious child home with us. We made our way to the maternity hall to take responsibility for this newborn baby. Fear and anxiety can fill your mind as you walk out of a hospital feeling somewhat guilty for taking someone else’s child home with you.

A person can learn a lot in twenty years. Looking back on those first few days with this newborn in our home, I remember how attached the baby was to my wife. When the baby was hungry, he was fed. When he was wet or soiled, he was changed. When he was sleepy, he was rocked to sleep. Before long, there was a connection.

What I know now is true of all of us. A baby is wired for connecting with a caregiver. In most cases, that caregiver is the mother. In this case, it was my wife. This child, like all children, would connect to any number of caregivers who provide for the child’s needs. The connection is not lost just because the mother is not around. The important thing is that there is a connection made.

That connection goes both ways. Soon after the baby came home with us, I had to do some training out of state. While I was gone, the grace period for the birth mother to change her mind about surrendering her rights would come and go. We knew this was a possibility but agreed that I should go and that my wife would let me know if she heard from our case worker.

While I was away, I received that phone call from my wife. The mother had changed her mind, and the caseworker would be coming by to take the child back to his mother. I knew the strength of that connection with my wife when she told me she would be joining me. There were so many questions, and the pain of loss was felt by all of us. We hoped reuniting the child with the mother was a good thing, but there were so many unknowns. It was a time we just needed to be together.

I wish I could tell you the rest of the story, but I cannot. I don’t know what happened after the child was returned to the mother. All my wife and I can do is hope for the best. This child would now be about twenty years old, a young man whose life began in our home. My prayer is that all is well in his life.

Our time of fostering was brief. Over a period of a few months, we fostered five children, and learned a lot during that time. We learned the joys and the heartaches of caring for the children of others. If we had it to do over again, would we? I’m not sure. But I wouldn’t trade the experience we had for anything in the world.

Usually I try to share some ideas for you to implement personally or as a church. This time I challenge you to pray. Pray for mothers who feel like the best solution for their situation is to surrender a newborn child. Pray for children who come into a world of uncertainty. Pray for those who foster or foster-to-adopt, who deal with a world of emotions through the entire process. Pray for case workers from private and public agencies who work to find homes for these precious children. And as you pray, consider what role you might play in taking care of these children.

What To Do In Case of Emergency

It’s early in the evening and time for baths. Suddenly there is an emergency. The water is on and cannot be shut off. The whole house springs into action. Who do you call on a Saturday night? The water must be shut off at the meter. Someone from the city is notified. The first responder, an officer from the local police, assists with shutting off the water. Soon after, a person from Public Works comes by to see how he can help. It just so happens, the person from the city is a relative. So, he comes in and offers his services. He knows a contractor who might be able to help. Another phone call is made to a friend who is a plumber.

Now, how do we fix the problem? Where do you find the part this time of night in a small town? A call is made to a “big box” store a few towns away. Someone in the plumbing department says the part is in stock. The drive is made, and the part is purchased. Soon the problem is fixed, and everyone can have their Saturday night bath whether it was needed or not.

What does this have to do with children in crisis? Well, let’s look at the story and see. First, a crisis never happens at a good time. This may not be a verifiable scientific statement, but the longer you live and the more crises you endure, the more accurate this statement seems.

Second, being willing to acknowledge the crisis is the beginning of a resolution. The crisis may not be water running with no way of shutting it off. The crisis could be something much more significant. It may be a child having a meltdown over something simple like taking a bath—a crisis because it takes place every night and lasts for hours.

Third, there are times when calling for help is the best thing you can do. Although you may have some resistance to the idea of it “taking a village” to raise a child, now is the time to move beyond that. It’s time to ask, “who can help in this moment?” Perhaps it is local law enforcement. Maybe it is a social worker who is more than willing to help, or a community or church friend. It might be someone from outside the community who has the skill set to resolve the issue.

Fourth, the resolution of the crisis will bring back a sense of normalcy. Getting everything put back together by working through the crisis leads to a time of tension reduction. What seems like a hopeless situation becomes more manageable as the child and the direct caregivers all begin to calm.

Fifth, when it’s over, it’s over. The temptation is to look back on the crisis and blame the child for blowing things out of proportion, or to be critical of how you handled the situation. There may be a sense of failure because you couldn’t handle the child put into your care without assistance from others.

Taking time to forgive the child, and yourself, is important as you seek to reopen communication. Avoiding grudges, loving the child despite their inability to understand, and reestablishing communication are imperative to the health of the relationship. The hope is that the next time there is a crisis, a few principles have been learned and can be used to shorten the duration of an event or avoid it altogether.

If you are the person called upon to assist in the crisis, here are a few suggestions. Build a relationship with the caregiver so they feel confident calling on you. Be honest. If you don’t know how to help, at least find a way to be present. This may be just what the caregiver needs. Maintain confidentiality. One of the most important concepts to learn when you are invited into a family’s life is that what happens at a time like this is not something to talk about with others. Like the caregiver in this situation, you must not hold a grudge against the child for hurting your friend. Find a way to reconnect with this child for the child’s mental health and yours, love your friend and stay connected to them and the child, and model forgiveness. These are the keys to becoming an important person to call on when “the faucet is broken.”

Stepping Up in Times of Loss

My father, Bennie Robert Campbell, died on December 23, 1971 at 2:30 a.m. He died of a massive heart attack. He was 40 years old.

I was 10.

This Christmas, I sit on the couch with my granddaughter. She doesn’t remember the last time she saw her father. He made the choice to leave her brother and her when she was 5 months old. Would I want this to be different? Absolutely. Right now, I see it as a privilege to connect with my granddaughter and her brother to make sure they know they are loved. If I could, I would take away the void, the one only a father can fill. Since I can’t, I am privileged to stand in the gap and love them.

When talking about what it is like to experience loss as a child, I refer to my own personal loss of a parent. The memories of that night are as real as they were the night I lived them. I have no doubt this adverse childhood experience had a profound effect on me. And, I’m sure, the experiences my grandchildren are enduring are having an impact as well. Their loss is just as real, and, in my opinion, more painful than mine.

Every year at this time, I don’t have to worry about where my father is and if I will see him at Christmas. My father is not coming home, nor can I go and visit him.

But my grandchildren live with a different kind of reality. They join the fraternity of too many other vulnerable children in Tennessee who would not be seeing their fathers this Christmas. In some cases, these fathers live in the same community. Other dads live in another state. Still others, live behind bars. These dads have made the conscious decision not to be with their children. Or, the decision was made for them for the safety of the child.

“Most of the kids in the state system are orphans of the living,” says Paul Chitwood. Paul is the President of the International Mission Board, an agency sending missionaries around the world. Paul and his wife, Michelle, are adoptive parents. Paul adds, “The plight of an orphan of the living is, I believe, a worse plight than that of a child whose parents have passed away.”

How can I make a difference in the life of a child who has an absentee father? One example from my childhood is the annual Father Son Breakfast at the church I attended. One of the men from the church would come by and make sure my brother and I had a ride. My uncle took us to a sporting event, so we could have a fun experience that would often be experienced by father and son.

Maybe there are children in your community who have experienced the loss of a father or mother. Would it be possible to work with others to find ways to demonstrate love for these children by investing in their lives? Perhaps it’s by becoming foster parents or finding ways to love children in practical ways who are in the foster care system.

An organization in middle Tennessee called the Tennessee Alliance for Kids, provided presents for 120 children this holiday season. Perhaps you can be that person who starts such a program in your area. This month, the Press reported numerous churches, schools and organizations who were ensuring that those in need found gifts under their Christmas trees.

Now that Christmas has come and gone, the question of what happens next looms for those children who live in a limbo I can try to imagine but have never experienced. The anxiety of not knowing when or if a parent will reappear, the longing for being like kids with two parents and a home void of crisis, the gnawing feeling of having done something wrong … are compounded when the lights and ornaments are put away and there’s little to anticipate other than more of the same.

I can tell you from personal experience, although no one can replace my father, I will forever be obliged to those who showed they cared by their actions. In this post-Christmas season, your actions can be the gift that keep on giving.

The Value of a Child

“God never compares what he creates.” — Bob Goff

This statement is true when it relates to God comparing one person to another. However, in the Creation narrative God does speak of a higher ranking of the human species. After each day of Creation, the writer would write, “And God saw what He made, and it was good.” Then God creates humankind and we get that added comparative, “God saw what he made, and behold it was very good. The word “very” can be translated “exceedingly”. Thus, the idea is God creating humankind is an exceedingly good thing. (And we thought this phrase originated with Martha Stewart.)

With the start of a new year, a return to the basics is important. The value of a life is fundamental to a person’s faith and their understanding of the lives of children. The value of a child’s life does not fluctuate based on race or economic status. Where a child is born or the country of origin doesn’t determine their worth. A vulnerable child has no less value than a child born into a loving and stable home.

Life is precious. When a child is born into a life of difficult circumstances, their self-worth is at stake. Living in chaos and/or uncertainty can translate into their sense of who they are and whether they matter going up or down like the stock market.

How does this knowledge of a child’s self-worth help us in caring for children from hard places? In one of the Forwards written by his children and recorded in the 25th anniversary edition of Stephen Covey’s book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, we read, “Leadership is communicating others’ worth and potential so clearly that they are inspired to see it in themselves.” Let’s substitute the word “caregiver” for the word “leadership” in this quote. As we communicate to a child a message of self-worth and dignity, this particular child begins to believe this truth. The more this message is spoken to a child, the more likely the child is to believe it.

Thinking about this and relating this concept back to the Creation story, a beautiful picture unfolds. God finishes his creative work. He leans forward and speaks to the crown jewel of His creation. God whispers in His still small voice to say, “You are very good.” This goodness is not based on what you have or have not done. This goodness is because of who you are as a part of God’s creative plan.

No child is a mistake. No child should be compared to another child to determine their value. The intrinsic worth of a child is there from conception. There are no circumstances that can change this truth. Why not make it a resolution to remind a child this year of their worth in God’s eyes, as well as yours? Remind them that they are fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of God. See them through God’s eyes and love them accordingly.

A Compassionate Response to a Community in Need

“I believe awareness begets compassion. Compassion begets a response. And that response can be the cup of water, ray of light, or seed of hope that gives life.” –David Arms, artist

You live in a rural community somewhere in Tennessee. Your church is small, but there is a growing awareness of children in the community who come from hard places. People begin to ask questions like, “How can we meet the needs of these children? What can be done to reach these kids in hopes of reaching their parents as well?”

The answer seems to be a simple one. However, once you get started, the realization sets in that you may be in over your head. The trauma and stress endured by these kids is brought into the church, and before long the effects of secondhand trauma are evident in your workers. Those who are on the outside looking in start saying, “This might not be such a good idea.”

Some are saying, “If this situation doesn’t get under control, the children are going to have to leave.” Others would do anything to keep these kids coming. The truth is, they need to be there. The church is the cup of water and the ray of light for these hurting children. So, you find yourself at a crossroads. What you do next could affect the lives of children in your community forever. What do you do?

This week, I had the privilege of sitting down with the leadership of a church facing this dilemma to talk about what’s next. We gathered around the tables and began to discuss all the various aspects of what it means to love and care for children. We talked about their hunger for physical food, and how many of them do without a nutritious meal once they get home from school. Many of the disruptions at church come from children who feel a sense of anxiety and stress associated with their home life and their experiences at school.

The importance of play and exercise led to the decision to spend some time letting kids be kids before they sit down to learn. The church will then become a safe place to be; a place away from the chaos of home and the stress of school.

If you have ever been in a van with twelve to fifteen children, then you know another hot topic was their behavior on the bus to and from their homes, and an important observation was made. Oftentimes, when the van begins to empty, the kids will start moving towards the front. They know they can trust this person who takes them home each week. Before long the ice is broken, and the child begins to discuss their hurts. All the chaos and clatter of the evening become worth it when the child begins to talk. They trust you and you must never violate that trust.

Another important topic was the need for adults who work with children from hard places to have a general understanding of what abuse looks like and how it should be reported. No one wants to have this discussion, but it is critical.

For two hours we sat around the table and discussed these ideas and many others. In the end, the team decided these kids are worth it. They began to talk about changes to improve what they do, and they decided they want to be the seed of hope that gives life.

As I was preparing to leave, one of the team members asked, “After spending two hours with us, do you think we are hopeless?” I assured her that they were not. On the contrary, I believe they are distributors of hope. The vulnerable children in the community around this church will know they are loved and cared for. The more the team members learn about themselves and the trauma experienced by these children, the more hope they will convey.

Before you decide that you lack what it takes to be a part of something like this, and before your church throws in the towel because you are too small and don’t have enough volunteers, remember this: most weeks this team of volunteers is outnumbered three to one by the children. Most weeks there are more children and adults there on Wednesday night than people at the church on Sunday morning. The children in your community will say to you by their attendance that you need to be there for them. What will be your response?

How Do I Become a Foster Parent?

The answer to this question has many parts, which may differ slightly from agency to agency. Writing as a representative of Tennessee Baptist Children’s Homes, the first part of our process begins with special training known as PATH (Parents As Tender Healers). The state of Tennessee requires all potential foster parents to attend this training, so to foster children who are in the custody of Tennessee Department of Children Services on behalf of TBCH, these classes are the first step.

It is important to understand that this preliminary training, although mandatory, does not guarantee approval as a foster parent. In addition to PATH classes, potential foster parents must complete several other steps in the process, including home studies, background checks, reference checks and medical forms. Although the process isn’t simple, case managers are available to assist along the way.

What does this training look like? Our organization teaches these classes at local churches or community locations, instructed by our own foster care case managers and supervisors who are certified PATH trainers. Each of the seven weekly sessions are about three to four hours in length.

The first session is an informational meeting. As a precursor to a commitment to foster, this orientation gives you an opportunity to find out if fostering is for you, before spending time on the paperwork and the lengthy process. Some take-aways from this initial gathering are learning about the status of foster care in Tennessee and discovering additional ways you can get involved.

What do some of the other sessions look like? Following orientation, you’ll spend a session on understanding the child welfare system. This session helps you become familiar with the many parts of the process a child goes through while in the foster care system. You will also get a better idea of the roles of the adults involved throughout the process.

The next two sessions are critical to your success as a foster parent. These deal with the impact of trauma on a child in foster care. Awareness of trauma in a child’s life is an important part of understanding how it affects all aspects of that child’s life and development. This is followed by training in the effective use of discipline. Understanding discipline not as punishment but as an opportunity to connect and teach, provides you with a framework of how to best care for a foster child in your home.

The next session has been described as one of the most informative, as it involves an “expert panel” gathered to discuss their respective roles in the fostering process. This panel consists of former foster children, foster parents, and others who have firsthand experience caring for and being cared for in the foster system. Another topic covered is cultural awareness, assisting those who may receive into their homes children of different cultures or ethnicities, or children from different socio-economic backgrounds. This training is intended to give you a better understanding of diversity and a skill set you need to be accepting of any child.

The other sessions deal with some practical safety matters. Managing medication, safety practices and first aid are all important parts of caring for foster children. Training in this area helps foster parents ensure safety for the child as well as themselves, build trust with the child, and keep appropriate documentation for case management records. This portion of training also includes First Aid and CPR certification, which is both mandatory as well as practical, and equips you to protect not only yourself and the child in your care, but others as well.

These sessions represent the first step in becoming a foster parent. Now that you know what to expect, what will you do next? If you are interested in learning more about this process, please feel free to email a colleague of mine, Brandon Rutledge (brutledge@tennesseechildren.org), whom I also thank for his help with this summary of PATH training. For information about upcoming PATH classes offered by Tennessee Baptist Children’s Homes, including those in the Weakley County area, visit us on Facebook @tennesseechildren.

Practices of Caregivers

I recently attempted to participate in a webinar about how caregivers of orphaned and vulnerable children sustain positive mental health. When that attempt didn’t work out, I settled for downloading the provided articles. One article “Caring and Thriving: An International Qualitative Study of Caregivers of Orphaned and Vulnerable Children and Strategies to Sustain Positive Mental Health” identified practices of caregivers which helped them prolong their service to children in care (Proeschold-Bell, R.J., et. al 2019).

This study contained some very interesting facts. A total of 69 caregivers from six countries across three continents participated in the study. Participants had been caregivers for an average of 8.4 years and had a mean age of 36.1. A strong majority (76.8%) had flourishing mental health. According to the article, the findings in this study were consistent with studies of caregivers in the United States as well.

The data collected came from the answers to these three basic questions. (1) Are there things that you do regularly to improve or maintain (take care of) your mental health? (2) Are there other things that you do that you think might help keep you mentally healthy, even if you don’t do them specifically to care for your mental health? (3) When something difficult happens at work, do you do anything to make you feel better and keep your spirits up? If so, what do you do? What strategies work best for you to stay positive in the face of work challenges?

Before I reveal the responses, why not take a minute to review and answer these questions for yourself?

Three areas that lead to a more positive mental health for these caregivers emerged from the respondents. The most frequently named strategy for sustaining caregiving was religious practices. Some of you may be thinking, “What else would a person who works for a faith-based organization say was the number one response?” Point well taken. However, the truth is, this group of respondents was not limited to the Christian faith. Six different religious preferences were identified by the 69 individuals.

Religious practices to sustain strong mental health while caregiving included having a personalized faith, reading from sacred writings, attending places of worship, and in some cases even the singing of hymns or songs. Having a belief system that goes beyond yourself and your own abilities could provide you with the mental health support you need to be a more balanced caregiver.

The second practice perceived as enhancing mental health may seem a little odd, especially to those who have not been involved in caregiving on any level. Participating in caregiving and engaging with the children seemed to aid the caregivers in their own mental health. (See what I mean by odd?) Paperwork, responsibilities associated with working for a nonprofit, and dealing with your own life issues, sometimes prohibit a caregiver from doing the very thing they feel called to do; that is, taking care of children.

When I served as director of one of our campuses in Brentwood, I would have houseparents (caregivers who serve children in a family-style setting) tell me that their favorite part of the work was the time they got to spend with the kids going somewhere or just playing out in the yard. It was rejuvenating for the caregivers and the children as well.

Social support was another contributing factor to the strengthening of a caregiver’s mental health. Spending time with other caregivers to compare notes and sharing solutions to persistent problems can be very helpful. Talking with friends and family who understand what you do, and who know the strain associated with caring for broken and fragile children can be a great source of venting for the caregiver. Perhaps having a counselor who can hear you as you experience the reality of “secondhand trauma” would be beneficial as well. Finding that person who can listen well and provide a sense of release can be just what a person needs to effectively care for children in crisis.

This study confirmed that religious practices, engaging in caregiving, and social support are critical to the mental health of caregivers. As a caregiver, are there areas in your life that would benefit from one or more of these strategies? And for those of you who want to support a caregiver, what could you do to make it possible for a caregiver to spend more time engaging with their children? How could you become a part of their social support, giving them a listening ear as they tell their story?

Foster Stories

Recently, while staying at a campground, I saw John. John and I have known each other for several years. He always acts glad to see me, and I am always glad to see him as well. After catching up a little bit since our last visit, John asked me what I did for a living.

I told him I worked for the Tennessee Baptist Children’s Homes. I told him my job allowed me to do remote work and that I would be in the area for a while. That’s when I learned something about John I didn’t know. “I lived in a foster home when I was six years old,” he said. I could see a thoughtful look on his face as he went back there in his mind.

“There were three of us, and my mother was pregnant. The part I didn’t like was all three of us went to different homes. I was in foster care for about two years. Mom got her life together, and we were able to go home.”

My first question for John was how many homes he had been in while in foster care. He said one home, and it was actually a good experience. Looking back as an adult, he said it was probably for the best.

Although I didn’t ask for details, he offered them anyway. He repeated a story his mom would tell him each time that topic was discussed. I’m not sure John was convinced of the story, but it’s what he was told. Unfortunately, John does not have a good relationship with his father or mother. However, he has a great spirit about himself, and he seems to be at peace with his past.

A few days later while attending a church, I was introduced to a minister. The minister and his wife served as foster parents for more than 25 years. I asked him how many children they served, and he said there were too many to remember. I did not probe much deeper, but I got the impression that it was a good experience. He went on to tell me that his son’s family adopted two children from their own foster care experience, so I would say fostering has had a positive impact on this family for multiple generations.

What do my two encounters do for you? I hope they are a source of encouragement. Not every foster care experience is a bad one; my guess is that most are positive. Obviously, if a child needs foster care the situation is not good. However, a lot of loving and competent people sense a call to foster. Their love, understanding and patience lead to a good life for these children from hard places.

Like John, there are young adults who are grateful for the families who step into their situations and help make things better. Maybe that’s you or someone you know. Maybe you could be an encouragement and make life a little easier by serving someone well while they serve children.

Some people have been fostering for a long time. It’s hard to wrap my mind around the idea of folks who love children so much that they are willing to open their homes for more than 25 years, and some have served children even longer than that. Perhaps there is someone you know who could share their experiences with you, someone with whom you could sit down and listen to their stories of caring for children. Imagine the stories they could tell!

This week find someone who has fostered or who is fostering, or someone who grew up in foster care. Spend some time learning from them. If you are considering becoming a foster parent or supporting a foster parent, this would be a great way to learn more. Many people love to share their stories!

You can also read some stories, by visiting www.tennesseechildren.org and clicking on “Impact Stories.” The story about “Chase” is a good place to start.

Tribute to a Foster Mom

 

On Monday, February 4, 2019, we received a call no one likes to get. Karen, my wife, received word her mother, Clarice Goodlow died.  As a person tends to do, I began to reflect on some things I appreciated about my mother-in-law.

There is one trait that stands out above the rest. Clarice never met a stranger. There was a willingness about her to bring in the “strays.” This collection of strays consisted of animals and people. This is not about devaluing people by comparing them to animals. It is about my mother-in-law’s willingness to bring in those in need, no matter their species. The truth is, Karen’s dad, Lloyd brought in most of them. However, I’m pretty sure nothing or no one would have been permitted to stay without Clarice’s consent.

Some 40 years ago, my wife, Karen participated in a church mission project. While leading at a Vacation Bible School for special needs children, she met a young boy. Karen couldn’t get this little boy off her mind and told her parents about him when she got home. I am not sure how the conversation went but knowing the passion of my wife she probably presented some convincing proofs why her family should take this child into their home.

Having parented three daughters myself, I know some of the tricks of the trade to get our children’s minds off an idea. I’m sure Clarice and Lloyd attempted to get Karen to focus on something else. However, the need was there, and so instead of ignoring Karen’s request, they pursued the possibility.

Nothing about this decision was easy. If I remember correctly, there were some trying times with a little boy who came from a very hard place. I don’t know how long he stayed, and I know he eventually was moved from their home. This might have been a good time for them to stop and go on with their own lives and raising their own children. But that’s not what happened.

Personally, I remember four more children who spent an extended period of time with Clarice and Lloyd. At least two of the children attended our wedding. There were two sisters who spent time with them as well. As an outsider looking in, I remember thinking how difficult it must have been to bring these children into their home and give them the love and attention they needed.

When I think about my family’s involvement with children from foster care, I am reminded of the example set for us by Clarice and Lloyd. There is a chance that we would have decided to help as we did anyway; however, because of Karen’s parents and their willingness to serve these children, I believe it made our decision a little easier.

In my heart, there is a place of gratitude for my wife’s willingness to come home that day and encourage her parents to take this boy in. There is an appreciation for Clarice and Lloyd for listening to Karen and agreeing to do what was necessary to love this difficult child. Even today, there are remarks made and memories conjured up that include something said or done by one of the little ones in their home. This legacy is one fondly remembered.

Now here I am, many years after the events outlined in this article, still involved in the care of children from hard places. Knowing that I too come from a family who cared for the least of these, I am grateful for the example set by Karen’s mom, Clarice. I had the privilege of saying a few words at her graveside service on Friday. As I shared words of hope and encouragement with her family, I remembered the hope and encouragement she was to the vulnerable children in her life.

Perhaps you know someone who fosters children. Maybe you have a relative who has willingly brought children into his or her home. If so, let me encourage you this week to seek them out. Find a way to thank them for their service, maybe something as simple as a text, a phone call, or a thank you note in the mail. You could even drop by their home and let them know how grateful you are. Whatever you find to do this week, make it meaningful.

Bringing Healing and Hope to a Child of Trauma

“The more healthy relationships a child has, the more likely he will be to recover from trauma and thrive. Relationships are the agents of change, and the most powerful therapy is human love.”—Dr. Bruce Perry

Recently, I visited a church and met a couple who were caring for a little boy. Their love for him was evident but so was their frustration. They wanted to care for him and provide him with the permanency he needed. However, they were running out of ideas and felt like they lacked the resources to continue. The traditional methods of discipline and behavior management did not seem to be working. Without help this situation was only going to get worse. Something had to change, or the child would need to be placed in another home.

The simple statement from Dr. Bruce Perry brings a great deal of hope to this scenario. It is a scenario I hear repeated across our state, and his statement seems too good to be true. “All you need is love” makes a great song lyric, but it doesn’t do much for a parent who is struggling to get an eight-year-old bathed without constant screaming and fear associated with past traumas.

The message is this: relationships and love are two significant factors in healing a child from past traumas. The statement reads like a prescription from your local physician. For this child to be healed he needs meaningful relationships in his life. This starts with you. Often when we deal with children from trauma, we are made aware of needs in our own history that must be addressed. Children are born needy. An adult who is also needy will soon become consumed with the needs of the child. With that comes the potential to neglect the needs of the child because they are overwhelming. You must deal with your own past hurts so that you are then able to help deal with those of the child.

Dealing with your own past hurts puts you in a better place to be a more patient caregiver but doing this alone is ill-advised. Someone else in the home serving as a sounding board and helper is critical to caring for a child from hard places. This could be a spouse or another family member who is willing to step into this role. Conversations with extended family, friends or others who can come alongside you can provide even more stability. Perhaps even someone from your small group at church might be willing to spend time with your child. Notice the reference to relationships in Dr. Perry’s quote is plural. The implication is the need for this to be a team approach. Look around and find those in your circle of influence who are willing to make a difference in your child’s life. Helping this child see and be a part of healthy relationships is like putting ointment on a wound.

Therapy is often one of the most requested needs of families who care for vulnerable children. Therapy can be expensive, and in some areas of our state it can be hard to find. There is one kind of therapeutic care mentioned in this quote we don’t need to overlook. “The most powerful therapy is human love.” The love necessary to care for a traumatized child is unconditional, serving as a powerful antidote for trauma. It is the love of one person willing to sacrifice his or her own needs and wants to care for someone less fortunate. This love is patient and kind. It is a love hyper-focused on bringing healing to a child. It is a love meant to be shared.

The key to unlocking the hearts and minds of children from trauma is available to us all. Loving sacrificially and unconditionally those children who are placed in our homes is a God-given ability. Healing begins when the caregivers have peace in their own hearts. It continues as friends and family come into the picture and assist in the care of a child. Because of the complex needs of a child, love may not be all you need, but it is a great place to start. Being able to patiently love a child is an important part of the healing process. Stay the course, ask for help, don’t give up, and unconditionally love your child. Healing will come.

Caution: Construction Ahead

“All of us are works in progress, and being a clumsy parent is as good as we will ever become.” Stephen James and Chip Dodd in Parenting with Heart: How Imperfect Parents Can Raise Resilient, Loving, and Wise-Hearted Kids.

Looking back on my early years of parenting, there were certain standards I set for me and my children. High expectations and the perfect formula would get me the results I wanted, I surmised. Those of us who choose to foster other people’s children come at this with a similar set of standards.

What happens when the reality of parenting begins to surface, and you realize you are not the kind of parent you hoped you would be?

About ten years into parenting, I had a conversation with a professional counselor. I know—you are wondering what took me so long to get there. You can do a lot of damage to a well-adjusted child in ten years. The good news is you can have a conversation with a professional counselor at any time. This person gave me a piece of advice that stuck with me. He encouraged me to examine the standards I set for myself as a parent and those I set for my child, and if they are unrealistic, to consider doing something about them.

This sounds like such a simple idea, and it is. There is also great freedom in this concept. While trying to be the best parent ever, I established standards for my children that even I couldn’t meet. I realized they had more to do with making me and my family look good to others than helping my children become loving, caring and wise adults. I wish I could tell you how well I followed his advice, but I can’t. What I can tell you is that what he said was true. Even now, with adult children, I often remind myself not to expect anything from them I wouldn’t expect from myself.

Perfectionism is a difficult trait to possess as a parent. Some have described perfectionism as a mountain to climb. James and Dodd in Parenting with Heart describe this mountain as one made from sand. If you have ever climbed a sand dune, you know the difficulty in reaching the top. Trying to be the perfect parent and raise the perfect children is a very similar endeavor.

Accepting the fact that I am not perfect, and therefore cannot be the perfect parent, gives me the freedom to accept me as I am. It also allows me to see my children for who they are. They are created in the image of God and created for a special purpose. It is not my job to make them into perfect little people. It is my responsibility to love them regardless of my own imperfections. It is important for them to know that I am doing the best I can, not to make them like me, but to help them reach their own potential.

This week I encourage you to examine your parenting plan. Is it based on sinless perfection of you and your children? If so, consider talking with someone who can help you come to peace with your own imperfections. Are the standards you have set for your children unrealistic? If so, consider how you might better serve your children by changing to a more realistic level of expectation.

How much of your own stuff are you passing on to your own children? Maybe it’s time to separate your past from the direction in which you are trying to guide them. A child’s life is not your opportunity to do things differently a second time around. Instead, by sharing the stories of your life with your children, maybe you can help them avoid some of the pitfalls you’ve experienced. Then again, maybe not—perfect parents and perfect children don’t exist. But imperfect parents who work hard every day to meet their children’s needs do exist. Accepting my own imperfection will make me more vulnerable and approachable for the sake of my own children and those God has called me to serve.

Overwhelmed with Big Emotions

 

“When little people are overwhelmed by big emotions, it’s our job to share our calm, not join their chaos.” L.R. Knost

Child: “I want to ride in the buggy!”

Caregiver: “No, the buggy is for our groceries.”

Child: “My legs are tired, why can’t I ride in the buggy?”

Caregiver: ”Because I said so!”

This scene is common in most grocery stores. What you don’t see is the battle that began long before arriving at the store. Getting dressed, having breakfast, and getting buckled in the car seat are the backdrop to this public encounter between the child and caregiver.

Like me, the rest of us see this drama unfold being critical of the child … or the caregiver. Either we silently critique everything the caregiver does, or perhaps exclaim to the person with us what we would do differently if this were “my child.”

Have you ever noticed that the people watching are always the expert? We are pretty good at playing “arm chair” parent when we are not one of the principle characters in the story. What if we were? Are there some truths we can understand, and some tips that could help us in a situation like the one above?

As the caregiver preparing for this encounter, the day starts early. I know what you are thinking. “My child is up before the sun, how on earth can I get anything done earlier in the day?” Good point. However, it’s important that we prepare ourselves to be the best we can be with our children. Learning how to regulate emotions is a learned behavior. It is taught best by the primary caregivers.

Maybe it’s not earlier in the day, but at some point, I must remind myself that I am the adult in any encounter with my child, that I am not restricted to the primitive part of my brain but have a much more developed brain with cognitive abilities superior to my child’s. Learning how to allow this more developed portion of the adult brain be in charge provides me with the opportunity to rise above lowering myself to my child’s level in an argument.

From a Christian worldview, spending time reading from the Bible or listening to praise or worship music while I am getting ready for the day provides a sense of calming. This calming effect helps me to focus on what is best for my child, even in a public setting. When entering a public battle from a place of calm, as the caregiver, I am better able to help my child regulate their actions.

One of the greatest tools in my tool box is that of self-control. Self-control is a gift from God and provides me with the stillness of soul to be able to remain calm and in my right mind when dealing with a child who is leaning towards being out of control.

Understanding my child and the effects of his surroundings helps me to stay attuned to his or her needs. For example, since hunger can cause a child to feel frustrated or agitated, perhaps it is best we take the time to have breakfast before heading to the store. Even as an adult, I find it’s better not to go to the grocery store hungry or without a list. But that’s a whole other issue for someone else to address.

Transitions are tough on little ones. So, taking the time to talk with my child about where we are going is helpful. I find that doing this more than once is even better. As we are getting ready for the day, I remind my child about our trip to the store. When we are getting in the car, and then as we drive, I talk about what our plans are for the next hour.

Doing my best to prepare my child for a trip to the store still may not prevent him or her from becoming dysregulated once we arrive. Now it’s time for me to show concern and genuine love for a child who is feeling overwhelmed. Making sure that I stay calm and focused will help my child deal with the chaotic feelings welling up inside.

Am I going to be successful at this every time? Of course not. But each time is a growing experience for me and my child. Perfectionism is not the goal. Helping my child learn how to cope with big feelings in a positive manner is.

For those of us who are watching this crisis unfold in the store, how about a little empathy? Maybe then would be a good time to offer up a prayer of peace for the child and caregiver? Perhaps there is some way you could help the caregiver in the moment? Sometimes a kind word, or even a smile of support can help both the caregiver and the child in this situation. Even though you may be a stranger to the situation, your kindness could help the child feel less out of control.

Children in Crisis: Listening to Understand

It’s early evening, and dad is loading the dishwasher. Adam comes into the kitchen and sits down at the island. “Hey little man, are you ok?” Dad says, “I could tell something was bothering you at dinner.”

“I don’t want to go back to school ever again,” Adam moans.

“Aw, sure you do! When I was a little boy, I couldn’t wait to get back to school.”

“But, Dad, you don’t understand. My teacher never helps me, and everybody makes fun of me!”

Dad goes about his chore and says, “Oh, it can’t be that bad. I am sure things will be better tomorrow. Now go get ready for bed.”

While reading the 25th anniversary edition of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey, I came across a section on Empathic Listening. Covey states, “Communication is the most important skill in life. We spend most of our waking hours communicating. But consider this: You’ve spent years learning how to read and write, years learning how to speak. But what about listening?”

This type of listening is more than learning a technique like “reflective” or “active” listening, when we reflect to a person something they said. Covey and others refer to this superfood of listening as Empathic Listening. Empathic Listening is seeking to hear not only what is being said, but to listen with the intention of understanding the person who is speaking.

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand,” says Covey, “they listen with the intent to reply. They’re either speaking or preparing to speak. They’re filtering everything through their paradigms, reading their autobiography into other people’s lives.” The father in the encounter above falls victim to this.

Is there a way this dad can help his son identify his feelings and turn this moment into something meaningful and helpful for them both?

Empathic Listening is an active process of understanding what another person is saying. To effectively use this listening style with a child, we must first develop the relationship. This helps us see when something is not right. It gives us an edge when the child is exhibiting signs of being anxious or upset. It is a notice to us that we should pause from the routine and see if there is a problem.

For such an encounter to be productive, it requires our undivided attention. In the scene above, dad may need to either stop what he is doing and pull up a stool or set a time right after he finishes the dishes to sit down with his son and find out what is going on. Perhaps it is necessary to designate a place in our home as a “distraction free” zone where we can discuss matters like this.

Here is where the real work begins. “Everyone should be quick to listen,” records James in the New Testament of the Bible. Listening is more than hearing the words being spoken. It is hearing the words and doing our best to understand the feelings behind them. To find out what is really troubling the child, dad must listen first for understanding before offering any suggestions or help.

Sometimes the best thing we can offer is silence. Fighting the temptation to fill in the blanks as the child experiments with using his voice helps us get to the heart of the problem. Silence allows the child the opportunity to put his feelings into words. Validating those feelings helps him feel safe enough to express what is really going on inside, and it helps him feel understood by one of the people in his life he trusts the most.

A strong relationship, undivided attention, listening for the feelings behind the words, and learning to offer silence are all aspects of Empathic Listening which can help a child better understand how to communicate and experience what he or she is feeling. Begin now to practice these skills so that they become second nature the next time a child comes to you with a problem.

 An Invitation for You

 

My column this week is a personal invitation to attend the Empowered to Connect Conference. This conference had a great impact on my life several years ago, and I want you to have the same opportunity. I read somewhere that the best way to communicate through journalism is to answer the Who, What, When, Where, and Why questions. Well, the information below does all of that plus some. Since registration for the event is in an Eventbrite page, you needed to know How to sign up. And, I believe the What needs to come before the Who.

Before we look at the details, let’s talk about the principles behind the conference. Trust-Based Relational Intervention (TBRI) came about through the work of Dr. Karyn Purvis and Dr. David Cross at Texas Christian University. Dr. Purvis became the face of the TBRI model and spent over 20 years of her life dedicated to the model’s development. In April 2016, Dr. Purvis died after a long battle with cancer. However, her legacy continues through the Karyn Purvis Institute of Child Development at TCU.

What is the Empowered to Connect Conference?

The Empowered to Connect Conference features two days of practical teaching in a safe and supportive community as we work to equip families, churches, and professionals to better serve children affected by adoption and foster care. The two-day event is comprised of three primary teachings. One deals with how to connect with children who come from trauma. Another deals with learning how to effectively correct children and still maintain a close connection to them. And, the final section teaches us how to empower children from hard places to self-regulate and learn how to deal with their feelings in a loving and constructive manner. To learn more, go to empoweredtoconnect.org.

Who should attend the conference?

The conference content is beneficial for adoptive parents, foster parents, potential adoptive or foster parents, and professionals or ministry leaders serving children. The original intent of the conference was to help professionals and other community leaders know how to understand and serve children from trauma. Over time, parents came to realize the merit of the training and began to attend the conferences as well. As a parent and someone who spends a lot of time talking with others who serve children, I believe anyone who deals with children in any capacity will benefit from what they learn at the Empowered to Connect Conference.

When is this year’s conference?

The live event takes place on Friday and Saturday, April 5-6. Sessions begin at 9:00 a.m. and continue to 5:00 p.m.

Where is the closest conference to the readers of the Weakley County Press?

First Baptist Church Paris, Tennessee has graciously consented to host the Empowered to Connect Conference this year. The church will provide lunch each day. Childcare is available for ages birth through 6 years. However, space is limited, so you might want to register as soon as possible. Lunch and childcare will be provided each day.

First Baptist is located at 313 N Poplar St, Paris. If you need more information about the church, you can email Angela James at ajames@fbcparis.org, The phone number for the church is 731-642-5074.

How do you register for the conference?

Go to Eventbrite.com and search by event type, town or city, or by date. Either of these should connect you. Once on the Paris, TN event page, click on the green “Register” button. The event is free to attend.

For professionals who need CEUs and for foster parents who need training hours, the Empowered to Connect conference allows you to do both. The paperwork you need will be provided at the registration table both days of the event.

The Empowered to Connect Conference is sponsored by the Tennessee Baptist Children’s Homes. The host church, First Baptist Church, Paris, is providing the use of their building, childcare, lunch, and snacks. The Tennessee Baptist Children’s Homes is grateful for the willingness of First Baptist to invest in children and families in the northwest Tennessee area.

Empowered to Connect

 

What does “Empowered to Connect” mean for children who come from hard places? For children who spend most of their days ignored, it means someone pausing to look their way. For abused children, it means someone taking the time to hear their voice and see their scars. It means finally finding someone who believes in them and is motivated to help them overcome the many years of neglect and abuse.

Being empowered is what we want for children who suffer abuse and neglect. This empowerment enables them to go where they have never gone before. Unlike disassociation, which is the place children can go in their minds to help them endure another abusive moment, empowerment is the place from which a child can find the ability to speak up. It is the place where children can say to someone they trust, “I am being hurt. Please help me.”

Empowerment is also the ability to say to someone, “I am out of control on the inside. Please help me by showing me how to be calm. Help me express my feelings in a way that you and I can both understand.” Empowerment means helping children understand exactly how they feel in a moment and helping them express those feelings in an appropriate way. Empowerment brings hope to a hopeless situation.

One of the key components of a child feeling empowered is for the child to be connected to a loving and caring adult. Connection is an important aspect of childhood development. Early in life, a child may or may not have an adult as a direct caregiver. For those who do have such a person, a literal connection is made. When the child cries, the caregiver responds to the expressed needs of the child.

This circle of security, where the child expresses a need and a loving adult caregiver responds, is foundational to building trust. Trust is the bedrock for the development of a healthy brain in a child, and a main ingredient of physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual well-being. Without a strong connection, there is a possibility a child will grow up with delays in all these areas.

Connection can be a simple process. Responding when a child expresses a need and making time to spend with the child help make a connection and provide tools of interaction for a child that will have a life-long benefit.

Being connected gives us the closeness we feel to people later in life. It is the missing link for many children who need the love and care of a trusted adult. Even if earlier opportunities are missed, it is most often not too late for connection and the development of trust to happen for a child.

As a person who chooses to love and care for a neglected or abused child, you can make that connection. Even a teenager who missed out on early life connections can connect. This may take starting over with the basics of connections, but it can happen.

If you are interested in learning more, the upcoming Empowered to Connect Conference is a training opportunity you won’t want to miss. The event is Friday and Saturday, April 5-6 at First Baptist Church in Paris, TN. Lunch and childcare are provided by the church. For professionals who work with children from hard places, this training is approved for CEUs, and the conference also provides most of the annual training hours required for foster parents. For more information, including an Eventbrite registration link, on the web go to www.nwtntoday.com/2019/03/20/empowered-to-connect-conference-set-for-caregivers/.

Grateful for…

 

Earlier this year, some of our staff attended a retreat. While at the retreat, our boss gave us a journal. He said we could use the journal for whatever we wanted. So, I chose to save mine. A few days later, I was introduced to the idea of keeping a “gratitude” journal. What better way to use something that was gifted to me, than to start a journal of nothing but those things I am thankful for?

Over the last several days, I had the opportunity to be around people who dedicate their lives to the care of children from hard places. The Knox Area Foster Care and Adoption Ministries (KAFCAM) hosted a conference in Knoxville. While there to represent the Tennessee Baptist Children’s Homes, I got to listen to some of the speakers and meet many of the attendees. Over the next few weeks, I want to introduce you to some of those folks.

Kristin Miller, the Volunteer Executive Director of KAFCAM and an adoptive mom, addressed the group in the opening session. Kristin reminded us of the sacrificial love that is required to love children who come to us from hard places. I am grateful for this reminder. Although we are called to love children sacrificially, we are not their Savior.

Kristin introduced a local juvenile court judge, who serves as an integral role in the placement of children in foster and adoptive homes. “I get to go to work each day knowing I have the chance to make a kid’s life better,” was the opening statement to his presentation. I am grateful for those who set in seats of authority who look at what they do in such a compassionate way.

“There is no more noble calling than opening your home to a child who needs you in a time of crisis,” the Judge reminded us. From his point of view, reunification, where a child is reunited with the birth family, and adoption are both wins.

Along with the Judge, I want to say thanks to the person who sticks with the child until the parent gets better. I am grateful for the person who is willing to assume the rights and responsibilities associated with raising a child if parents are not able to continue.

In the area served by the Judge, there are about 700 children in custody. Only about 31 of those children are in custody because of some delinquent act. The others are there because of the choices of others. The Judge encouraged those who were there and considering fostering for the first time to think about most of these children who simply need a safe, stable and loving home to thrive.

“Each child is so important,” said the Judge. “We will do anything to make their lives better.”

A young lady who then took the stage shared her story of entering state custody at the age of eight. “Stable, structured, loving,” and “feeling wanted” were words used by her to describe the family who took her into care.

One of the accepted risks of doing foster care is knowing a child could be sent back to their family, which as was stated earlier, can be a good thing. However, in the case of this young girl, the reunification was not positive. She relayed that she dreamed of her foster home and hoping one day she could return. At age 15, this dream came true.

“God showed me He is my Rescuer,” she said with confidence. “No child should ever have to raise themselves. I strongly encourage you to lean on the Lord. He will never abandon you. Just like he never abandoned me.”

Grateful seems like such a small word to describe my feelings for this young lady who bravely told her story.

The emotions of the moment were obvious when Kristin, our host, took the stage with the unenviable task of giving us instructions for the rest of the day. Through her tears, she dismissed us.

Let me close with one more word of gratitude. I read in the April 2 edition of the Weakley County Press about the award received by Lynette Wagster and her staff. This award was presented by the Tennessee Council on Children and Youth, an agency that advocates to improve the quality of life for children and families and provides leadership and support for child advocates.

Congratulations on a job well done. I am grateful.

Not easy but worth it

 

“It’s not easy, but it is worth it.”—a foster mom’s response to caring for teenagers.

In last week’s article, I wrote about the Knox Area Foster Care and Adoption Ministries meeting. This week, I want to share the stories of two foster moms. One is named Carol. Carol and her husband attended the KAFCAM conference two years ago. At the time, they had a four-month-old daughter and they were expecting their second child. To say the least, life was busy.

At that conference, they attended a breakout session entitled Foster and Adoption 101, which opened their eyes to the foster care system. It initiated a path of communication between their family and the local Department of Children Services. They began to see the “system” and the needs of children in care with new eyes.

Recognizing the need for fostering older children and teens, Carol and her husband felt called to make this their age group of choice, and they began to foster teens. These teens were not just in the system, but some had special needs as well. After saying yes to fostering and yes to fostering teens with special needs, they could say, “It’s not easy, but it is worth it.”

Leslie and her husband Phil are the biological parents to three children. As their children grew up and began leaving home, Leslie and Phil were called to foster teens. On two occasions they brought teens into their home, and in the end, they had adopted six of these teens as their own.

“If someone is in need, we move over and make room,” said Leslie to those of us who attended a panel discussion including her and several others acquainted with the foster care system.

Leslie shared that she and her husband felt drawn to teens. “To think that a good home would be enough is a false belief,” she said, “it is up to us to learn about trauma.” This was Leslie’s way of reminding us that the decision to foster, and especially fostering teens, is a challenge. However, the need is great, and the help is out there if you are willing to invest in learning new skills and loving unconditionally.

After the sessions, Leslie came by our booth to say hi. It seems that life had continued with difficulty for some of the teens, now adults, who were brought into their home. Leslie’s transparency about this was refreshing. It would be easy to tell all the warm and fuzzy details and to mislead or give a false sense of hope to those who might consider fostering. Leslie carries the torch for fostering without seeing the process through rose-colored glasses.

She works for an agency like ours, and her job is to recruit new foster parents. With her willingness to bring teens into her home, and her ability to be truthful about the struggles, she seems like the perfect person for the job. “I cannot quit advocating for children.” This statement marks the life of person like Leslie who is dedicated to finding families for children from hard places, and sometimes that home is her own.

I am grateful for families like Carol’s and Leslie’s. Both ladies represent those who are open and willing to do what it takes to serve the children of Tennessee through foster care, and in some cases adoption. Maybe this is something you are thinking about, and you need to talk with someone like Carol or Leslie. Let me encourage you to contact your local Department of Children Services. Perhaps there is someone there who could encourage you to take the next step, or if you would like to consider fostering through our agency, email me at the address below and I will put you in touch with a Case Manager in your area.

Do Something

 

“We are not all called to do the same thing, but we are all capable of doing something.”—Jason Johnson

Last week while visiting churches in the area, I had the opportunity to speak by phone with Jason Johnson. Jason works for an organization called Christian Alliance for Orphans (CAFO). He serves as the National Director for Church Ministries Initiatives and is the author of the book Everyone Can Do Something.

Working remotely means conversations like this one can take place most anywhere. I pulled into the parking lot of the church I was visiting and put Jason on speaker phone. He took time out of his busy schedule to spend a few minutes reviewing some slides he sent me that I would be using in a presentation just a few days later.

One of the slides Jason sent was a family of five: a mother holding a baby, a father and two other children. The family was encircled by several individuals who had each committed to do some service for them.

That family represents someone in your church or community who brings a foster child into their home. “What I want people to see in this slide is there are far more people outside the circle than there are inside the circle,” Jason noted. The truth behind this is obvious. Not every family will sense the call to invite a child into their home; however, all of us can find some way to provide the support such a family will need.

Jason and others call this “wrapping around” families to provide them with the necessary resources. These services include prayer, meals, transportation, and perhaps becoming certified to provide respite care for foster families.

Jason tells the story of a man who owned a barbeque restaurant. After hearing Jason speak, the man decided there was something he could do to help. So, every time a family in his church fosters a new child, he brings them a BBQ dinner. When there is a local event to help foster or adoptive families, this gentleman caters it for free. “I can’t foster, but this is something I can do,” the man says with a sense of pride.

Wrap around services are not just provided by individuals coming alongside foster and adoptive families. Churches and other agencies can also work together to help meet the four basic pillars of needs for these families. These four pillars are tangible, educational, spiritual, and relational.

The tangible pillar is about meeting the physical needs of families. Although many of these needs can be met with services provided by individuals, some needs may require the services of churches or other agencies in the area.

Since many children who come into care are behind educationally, tutoring services may be needed. Local churches or agencies may provide tutoring services, or a person could pay for the services of a business whose primary focus is helping children achieve the appropriate grade level.

Spiritual resources include things like prayer, Bible studies and retreats. Some churches provide free or discounted prices for children in care who want to attend a retreat. Churches could also offer an opportunity to provide a retreat for foster families, giving the adults some much needed self-care, and the children a time of fun and building relationships with other foster children.

The last pillar helps to bring understanding to the relational aspect of caring for families. Offering opportunities for connection to these families and their children is essential. Being the church that finds a way to provide these kinds of services would benefit everyone involved. Again, we don’t have to do it all, but we are called to do something.

As you determine what resources the families in your church or community might need, Jason suggests you consider these questions: What services are already available in our area? How can we leverage these services for families we are attempting to serve?  Who do we need to start a conversation with to discuss the needs and how these needs can be met?

Jason’s book Everyone Can Do Something is available through Amazon and on the Christian Alliance for Orphans resource page at cafo.org. I encourage you to get a copy and begin building an excellent resource library in your church and community for families who foster or adopt.

A special thanks to Jason Johnson for taking the time to talk with me about something for which we both have a passion.

Things Children Should Know

“Not an orphan anymore,” read the sign being held by a young child just after her international adoption was finalized.

When we bring children into care or home for the first time, what do we want them to know? A couple of thoughts come to mind.

First, we want them to know they are safe. Most children who come from hard places do not feel safe, and not just physically safe, but emotionally as well. They don’t feel safe around those who should be their primary care givers. There is a lack of trust, and without trust, there can be no felt safety.

What can we do to help children feel physically and emotionally safe? Providing a safe home is a good place to start. Home is where children can explore without getting into things that might cause them physical harm. Some of these children come from homes where ingredients for illegal drugs lay around the house like yesterday’s play clothes. Providing space that is kid-friendly starts the process of what it means for these children to feel safe.

Yelling and screaming are magnified in the minds of children from trauma. Most of them are from homes where the loudest yelling yields the desired results. Oftentimes, loud voices came from those demanding control of situations, even though they were very much out of control themselves.

Providing a home where the adults are in control of their own emotions and are committed to speaking in an appropriate tone, cadence and volume, especially to children, creates a place of felt safety. Knowing we can be heard without yelling is an important truth to learn as adults. It is also one of the most precious gifts for the children we serve. It is a gift that will last them a lifetime, and one they may pass down to their own children someday.

Another tool we can help develop in the lives of the children we serve is the ability to express emotions in an appropriate manner. Generation Mindful is a company out of St. Louis whose purpose is to connect different generations mindfully and playfully. It was started by Suzanne Tucker, a physical therapist and mother of four who teaches positive parenting classes. Many of her students would come to her and ask how to connect with their children, especially when the parents were feeling stressed.

Born out of this apparent need, Generation Mindful creates tools and toys that mature emotional intelligence by connecting the generations joyfully. The goal of this company is a world where all people feel powerful, safe and connected. To learn more about the tools and toys produced by Generation Mindful check out their website www.genmindful.com/St.Louis.

In addition to wanting children to feel safe, we also want them to know they are loved. One of the most quoted verses from the Bible is found in the third chapter of the gospel of John. Jesus is talking to a man by the name of Nicodemus, a religious person who knows little about what it means to be loved. “For God so loved the world, that He gave His One and Only Son…” (verse 16). These words, spoken by Jesus, are a reminder to Nicodemus and the rest of us that we are loved.

Children need to know they are loved. They need to understand that this kind of love is not something that must be earned, or a kind of love that could cost them their innocence. It is a love that is given to them unconditionally. It is a love that provides for their deepest need. It is a love that is something that will last them forever. When we can love children, who feel unlovable because of what they have been told or what they have experienced, then we are giving them exactly what they need.

Felt safety and unconditional love are essential to caring for children from hard places. Whether you are fostering a child, caring for the child of a relative or friend, adopting a child, or raising biological children of your own, you can answer this question, “What do we want this child to know?”

Ask questions, find resources, and seek help from people God places in your life to find the support you need to love these children well. Help them discover what they need to know, so that as they grow older, they can pass this knowledge on to those children who may one day be a part of their lives.

The Benefits of Play

 

“Go outside and play!” This is a command I gave several times as a parent. It is also one I heard often growing up in Greenfield. What I am learning now is there are a great number of benefits of going outside to play or playing in the house for that matter.

Another important fact is that going outside to play is not just for the kids. Adults benefit a lot from leaving behind the stressors associated with “adulting” and finding something enjoyable to do. What could happen if adults and children went outside and played together?

The storyline for a commercial advertising migraine headache medicine includes a little girl who desperately wants to play with mom. However, mom is plagued with regular migraine headaches. “Mom, can we play today?” the little girl askes with some hesitation.

In the next scene, mom and daughter are dressed as pirates at war with one another on a deserted island. Then, the daughter is riding in a wheelbarrow-turned-airplane, with mom pushing her around the yard. Mother and daughter enjoy a great day of fun playing together and using their imaginations.

When I watch this commercial, I think about what we as adults give up when we find ourselves too old or too busy to play and have fun. The connections we make with our children are solidified when we walk out the door with them to go play.

Greg McKeown in his book Essentialism dedicates an entire chapter, entitled “Play: Embrace the Wisdom of Your Inner Child,” to this idea. He defines play as anything we do simply for the joy of doing rather than as a means to an end. McKeown goes on to say, “Play stimulates the parts of the brain involved in both careful, logical reasoning and carefree, unbound exploration.”

A legitimate response to this idea is not having enough time in the day for play. Granted, we all live busy lives, and finding time for play may not always make it into our busy schedules. What if we look at our day with the goal of finding just a few minutes to spend playing with our children?

Play doesn’t have to be as elaborate as it is portrayed in the commercial mentioned above. Maybe you can find something playful to do with your child for ten or fifteen minutes before or after dinner. Perhaps a family in your community or church could coordinate a play date involving parents and children.

For children there is more to play than just connection. The physical activity associated with play provides some children with the ability to help regulate themselves. This is true for children who need a little physical play to help them calm down and better focus on what’s next. A few minutes of play before homework time might be just what the child needs to concentrate on studies.

Finding time to play for you as an adult is important as well. Enlisting the help of other trusted adults to care for your children while you take time to play can be beneficial. While you may not have all day, you might have enough time to go to the mall, meet a friend for coffee, or take a walk through your neighborhood.

So, the next time you are tempted to send the kids outside to play, why not consider joining them? Find your pail and shovel and meet them in the sandbox. Call the neighbors and have them bring their children over to build a fort together in the living room. When was the last time you went to the local park and played in the swings? They might be surprised and impressed with your ability to play.

Play is about connection, and connection builds trust. Children who come from hard places so often lack the ability to trust. Instead of telling them with our words, we can speak to them with our actions and build that trust by engaging them in play.

Foster Moms Help Make the Broken Whole Again

 

Josh and Jamie are foster parents. Jamie describes the foster care journey like this, “I have compared this journey to walking and trying to carry shattered glass. You try not to drop any of the pieces, get cut, and cut others all while knowing that even if you could glue it all back together, it will never be the same.”

These words appear in the 2019 Spring edition of the @TBCH quarterly magazine published by the Tennessee Baptist Children’s Homes (tennesseechildren.org/resources). Jamie, the foster mom, does a wonderful job of verbalizing the difficult process involved in taking care of children from hard places.

As I prepared to write this article, I received an email from David Arms, an artist, who has a gallery in the little community of Leipers Fork, near Franklin, Tennessee. It is a small wooden structure just on the outskirts of town. If you are lucky you might get a parking place on the road leading into town just down the driveway from David’s place.

As his email loaded onto my computer, I saw images of two bowls that looked to be made from clay. I noticed that both bowls appeared to be broken and put back together.

Then a strange and unfamiliar word appeared on my screen – Kintsugi. According to Wikipedia, Kintsugi, is a Japanese word that means “golden joinery” and is the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with lacquer dusted or mixed with powdered gold, silver, or platinum. As a philosophy, it treats breakage and repair as part of the history of an object, rather than something to disguise.

While looking at this beautiful print drawn by the artist David Arms, I couldn’t help but think about the words spoken by Jamie. Foster moms spend most of their days putting broken lives back together.

This work is no easy task. These young lives are so fragile. Pain and heartache are part of their daily existence. Their inability to trust and their need to feel safe are both constant reminders of what life is like for even the most innocent of children. Gathering up the pieces is difficult; however, the process of putting them back together is even more of a challenge.

The “lacquer” used by foster moms come from various sources. Part of the mixture comes from how they were raised. Then, there is personal experience gained from having children of their own. After agreeing to foster, the support staff provided by the agency provides even more skills. Soon you have a combination that is the base needed to begin to put the shattered pieces back together.

In Kintsugi, it is the dust of a precious metal that sets this process apart. With the introduction of this precious metal, the object becomes of greater value than before—it is more valuable in its brokenness.

From my Christian worldview, this priceless matter added to the skills learned by foster moms is the unconditional love and acceptance given to and learned by us from the Heavenly Father. A foster mom’s ability to love deeply adds both value and substance to the lives of the children she serves. Loving like this is not easy. The stress and strains of everyday life often take a toll. There are days when giving up would appear to be the best option.

Broken children from hard places need caregivers who refuse to give up. I am not advocating staying in a dangerous situation without help, or in some cases when a child needs a higher level of care. What I am saying is most of the children served by our families need the bond that comes with a family who stubbornly refuses to let them remain in their broken state.

Children are grateful for foster moms who dedicate themselves to picking up the pieces. They do this with all the uncertainties one has when cleaning up the chards of a broken bowl shattered on the floor. Yes, it is messy. Yes, it is dangerous. But in the end, the lives of children are not like the broken pieces of this bowl. No, their lives are represented by that priceless bowl, broken and carefully put back together.

Mothers’ Day is upon us. This article is dedicated to those of you like Jamie. You see the brokenness of the children you serve, and you are dedicated to their restoration. You are determined to combine the skills you have gained with the love you have been given. This mixture of skills and love starts the messy healing process for the children you serve. You bring beauty out of their brokenness, and for that I am grateful.

Brokenness and Beauty

Recently, I attended the Christian Alliance for Orphans (CAFO) Summit in Louisville, Kentucky. Hundreds of likeminded people from all over the globe met to share stories and find rest for their souls. The intention is to leave refreshed and ready to advance the cause of the vulnerable child. The belief is together we can bring beauty out of the brokenness of children. So, the theme for the three partial days we were together was “Brokenness and Beauty.”

Chris Brooks, the emcee of the event challenged us in the opening session to do four things. First, find your people. There are so many people providing a vast array of services for children. The challenge is to find those who are doing what you do and learn more from them. It is also a challenge to find others who might be doing something completely different from you. It’s possible that what you learn from them could change the direction of how you care for children and bring them from brokenness to beauty.

Second, Chris encouraged us to focus our minds. We live in a world of distractions. With the availability of the world on our smart phones, we find it difficult to focus on the essentials. The essentials for those of us who care for vulnerable children has to do with finding ways to bring beauty from the brokenness. Beauty has little to do with the physical features and everything to do with the regeneration that comes to a child who is rescued from pain and introduced to joy. With so much at stake, we cannot afford to let distractions move us off center from our cause.

Third, we were exhorted to feed our soul. Robert Gelinas, who leads a ministry called Project 127, spoke about rest for your souls. “How’s your soul?” is the question Robert presented to us as we all took in the moment. Gelinas suggested we find a time and place to walk and consider any soul conflicts we might be experiencing. He knew what we are were thinking. How can I bring beauty out of brokenness when I am walking around feeling the brokenness of my own life?

The next morning before the sessions started, I took him up on this challenge. The venue for my soul-searching walk was the parking lot of the church where we met. As I walked, I asked myself about any conflicts that might be present in my life. The more I walked the more I was amazed at the number of issues that surfaced. Simply speaking these thoughts out loud led me to a time of refreshing. The acknowledgement of my own brokenness made me better prepared to serve others.

Fourth, the emcee asked us to consider filling our hands with the information we might need to bring beauty into the lives of the broken children we serve. This event has been described as learning how to drink water from a fire hose. There were over 100 different workshops to choose from. There were dozens of coaching tables, which gave you the chance to sit down with a consultant and a few other participants to share ideas. Add to this the general sessions that were filled with testimonies of those sharing their own brokenness to beauty stories, and you have the recipe for an overwhelming experience. But like most, I walked away with more than enough to enrich the lives of others.

Most of you reading this probably didn’t attend CAFO. However, I believe there are some take-aways for you as well. Finding your people could be looking for ways to overcome this feeling of isolation that often accompanies serving vulnerable children. Perhaps there is a support network in your church or community.

Finding a moment of solitude throughout your day to refocus your mind could bring a time of refreshing that you might need to serve well. What is it that feeds your soul? Is it reading inspirational words from the Bible? Is it listening to music? Is it going for a walk or some other form of exercise?

Filling your hands could mean a trip to your local library where you might find a book on something that you know you need to learn more about. It might mean searching the web for articles of videos that could help in your efforts to serve children.

Understanding Compression and Release

On a recent trip to Florence, Alabama, my wife, Karen, and I visited the Rosenbaum House. This house was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, a famed architect who designed more that 1,000 structures, 532 of which were completed. The Rosenbaum House is now owned and operated by the city of Florence.

The tour of the house begins in a small dark foyer just inside the front door. Immediately you notice a stark contrast just down the corridor. There you find a spacious living area filled with natural light. The light floods in from full length windows overlooking the backyard. More light comes from small openings between the windows and the ceilings. Then, even more light from the skylights above.

This design technique is called “compression and release.” As the tour guide explained it, I immediately thought of the work we do with vulnerable children. Often the children who come to us leave a world of stress and darkness. In a sense, they feel the compression of this darkness in their lives. It is our prayer that this feeling of loneliness and isolation gives way to light as the children are brought into care.

While on this same trip, we made our way down to Tuscumbia, Alabama. Here we visited the home of Helen Keller. A vulnerable child in her own right, Helen came into the world on June 27, 1880. Her uncomplicated birth and happy childhood changed drastically when she was 19 months old. Helen contracted an unknown illness. This disease left her both deaf and blind. Helen described her life after the illness in her book, The Story of My Life, as being at sea in a dense fog.

After making your way out of the two-story home where Helen lived with her mother and father, and Anne Sullivan, the woman Helen affectionally called Teacher, there is a pump used to draw water for the house. It was at this pump where Helen had her own “compression and release” experience.

Anne Sullivan taught Helen by using sign language. Since Helen was both blind and deaf, Anne would spell words into the palm of Helen’s hand. Helen remembers this process, and how she was not able to make the connection between the spelling of the word and the actual item. She could feel the letters C-U-P but could not make the connection between that word and the utensil used for drinking.

One day while drawing water from the well, Anne took Helen’s hand. She held one hand under the running water, and spelled W-A-T-E-R into the other. In a video you can watch in the garden surrounding the home, is a clip of Helen speaking to Lions International. Here she talks about this moment. She describes it as the time in her life when the darkness and frustration left, and the light came pouring into her life. Making the connection between the spelling of the words and the meaning of those words was Helen’s “compression and release” moment.

Having worked with several vulnerable children, I have seen these moments in many of their lives. I hear their stories of feeling lost and believing that life was never going to get better. I see their pain and know that what should be unthinkable in the life of a child is their normal. To see these children come out of this time in their lives into a fresh start with loving parents or caregivers is something exciting to watch.

Although Helen Keller is the hero in this story, the most important person in her life was Anne Sullivan. Mrs. Sullivan served as Helen’s guide. She walked her through the hallway of darkness and brought her into the vast expanse of light.

For those of you who care for vulnerable children, I hope you see the important role you play as the guide for the children you serve. Without your dedication and commitment to bringing them into the light, these children will continue to experience loss and hurt while feeling trapped in the darkness. Never underestimate the value of your commitment to these children.

If you are considering investing your life into the life of a vulnerable child, then consider the cost. Think about the amount of time and effort it will take to help these children travel this road from darkness to light. Take advantage of all training available to you. Seek out the help you need from others who have walked this path. Before becoming the guide these children need, let others guide you to the light of understanding children from hard places.

Hospitality and “For Now” Families

 

Recently, I was introduced to a young Muppet by the name of Karli. Karli, is one of the newest characters on the long running children’s program on PBS, Sesame Street (https://www.cnn.com/2019/05/20/entertainment/sesame-street-karli-foster-care/index.html).

The lesson Karli learns this particular day from her foster parents, or her “for now parents” as they call themselves, is that she is safe, and she belongs. Two critical lessons every child wants and needs to understand.

I watched this clip with my granddaughter, who was introduced to foster care this school year. There was a little boy named Jimmy in her class. Jimmy didn’t live with his mother and father. Jimmy lived with a foster family.

My grandson got his first introduction to foster care as well this school year. It seems his teacher just happened to be Jimmy’s foster mom. I found out from my grandson that Jimmy is not the only foster child in his teacher’s home. Jimmy has three sibling and they all live with their “for now parents.”

There was a time when children who were in foster care were branded as trouble makers. Since they were unable to stay with their real parents, there must be something wrong with these children. It never occurred to us that maybe their families were going through a difficult time and simply needed some help.

Not all cultural changes are as welcoming as this one is. Knowing there is a growing understanding of the plight of children in care, is a pleasant change from what used to be. Now there seems to be more of a focus on how we can help these children find their way back home, or how we can find them a safer and forever family.

Dr. Krish Kandiah, founder of Home for Good, asks an important question, “Can Hospitality Change the World?” Dr. Kandiah is a British social entrepreneur and advocate for fostering and adoption. He recently gave a TEDx Oxford talk, where he gave an inspiring message of how fostering can make a profound difference in the lives of vulnerable children. (To watch the video, you can go to YouTube and search, “Can Hospitality Change the World?”)

Dr. Kandiah calls those who are in the foster care system as “care leavers.” He argues that the Care System is not working. “The Care System should not be a place of hospice where children’s dreams go to die,” says Kandiah, “It should be a hospital where children can get the healing and help they need.”

Dr. Kandiah asks where can we find these hospitals to meet the needs of these children? The answer is in the acts of hospitality offered by “for now” families who take these children into their homes.

These hospitals look like churches who open their doors to Department of Children Services workers who need a place for families to carry out supervised visits. These hospitals look like small groups from our churches who provide wrap-around services to families serving vulnerable children.

Using Dr. Kandiah’s terminology, he talks about hospitality and how it can help these children in care. First, hospitality breeds hospitality. As evident in the story about my grandchildren and their exposure to foster care, the greatest advertisement for foster care families are families who are currently caring for vulnerable children.

Second, hospitality breaks hostility. The best way to clear up misconceptions about children and their families who find themselves in the care system is to get to know them. Third, hospitality bequeaths hope. Children often find themselves in hopeless situations. Your home may provide them with the hope they need to overcome.

Finally, hospitality builds heroes. The heroes are not the ones who provide the care for these vulnerable children. No, they represent the guides who serve the heroes. The heroes are the children. Children who come from deplorable situations and rise above their circumstances. They are the heroes.

As my granddaughter and I finished the video featuring the hero, Karli, she looked up at me with a beautiful smile on her face. I am not sure if the smile was for Karli or if it was the satisfaction my granddaughter felt knowing she is safe and that she belongs. What a privilege to provide hospitality to those who need it most. Thanks for giving yourself away by serving others.

Connect Before Correct

 

Ryan and Kayla North are the parents to six children. Four of those children are adopted, and most of them have special needs. Ryan has been serving with a ministry in Texas known as Tapestry for several years. Recently, Ryan and Kayla have begun working together through Tapestry helping churches and families serving vulnerable children.

My first introduction to Ryan and Kayla was at an Empowered to Connect conference. They were a part of the first Empowered to Connect a few years ago, having gotten to know Dr. Karen Purvis who worked with others to begin this valuable training for professionals and parents.

After becoming adoptive parents, the Norths began searching for helps. They realized the importance of educating individuals, schools, and churches about building connections with children from hard places. This search led to their involvement with Tapestry, and now to the further development of a ministry geared toward equipping churches to help children feel safe and connected.

At the recent Christian Alliance for Orphans (CAFO) summit in Louisville, Kentucky, Ryan and Kayla hosted a coaching table. This was an opportunity for smaller groups of individuals to sit down with professionals and learn by sharing ideas. I was fortunate to be at their table.

Ryan and I talked prior to CAFO and planned for him to come to Tennessee and meet with me and my boss, Greg McCoy, and last Saturday it happened. Ryan flew in from Dallas, I met him at the airport in Nashville, and we spent some time together at the Tennessee Baptist Children’s Homes campus in Brentwood.

Ryan shared their desire to help churches become safe places for children. He talked about how many families who serve vulnerable children often leave the church because of an inability to connect. The focus is on the behavior of the children, not on learning how to see the need behind the behavior and helping these children feel safe.

Ryan and Kayla teach a philosophy of learning that looks something like this—first, children learn best when they feel safe. This is not just about a safe environment, but a place where they feel they are accepted by the adults, they can express their emotions, and learn how to do so in a positive manner. This expression leads to a felt safety. Beyond this, a child can make a connection to the adults. When the adults are okay with themselves and able to connect with children, we call this connection attachment. Learning takes place as a child experiences felt safety and connection attachment.

At this point adults can lead children toward changed behavior. Much literature has been written espousing the idea that connection must come first before correction can happen. When a child is displaying challenging behavior, finding a way to connect before you attempt to correct always leads to better results.

The goal is to help children learn whatever it is we are attempting to teach them. In the case of churches, we may want them to learn a Bible story. This can happen, but not by forcing the importance of the story over the relationship. Relational teaching was a strength of Jesus, and one that we can mimic by following his examples by first seeking to build relationships with children.

To learn more about Ryan and Kayla’s work with vulnerable children and families, visit their website, OneBigHappyHome.com. To learn more about how your church can participate in equipping staff and volunteers to better serve children and families, please email me at the address below.

First Anniversary Traveling Across Tennessee

When reading my title of this article, you may have noticed it mentions taking a year to travel across the state to consider ways we might help families who serve vulnerable children. Well, the year has come and gone, and we are still on the road. It looks like this life-in-an-RV-experiment is going to be extended for a while.

What we have learned? Living in 330 square feet is quite different than living in most of the houses my wife and I have had over the last 39 years, although one of our first houses came close to the same square footage. However, even it had more rooms and would be considered quite spacious compared to what we have now.

The positives far outweigh the negatives. Getting rid of almost forty years of stuff and keeping only the essentials has been a great experience and sharing what we have with our girls provides us the opportunity to see our stuff when we go to visit.

One of the greatest blessings has been getting to be with our girls where they live, splitting our time between the three. They each live in the three grand divisions of Tennessee, so we are able to be in their element. Spending time with each of them and their families in a more relaxed environment is something we enjoy the most.

Another wonderful experience for the year is getting to know the folks who operate the various campgrounds where we stay. Everyone is unique and all three have been good for us. We are now back in the first campground we started in last year. It is strategically located for me and the work I do with the Tennessee Baptist Children’s Homes.

This campground allows my wife, Karen, the opportunity to conduct what she affectionally calls “Camp Mawmaw.” We are less than ten minutes from two of our grandchildren. Each day, they come to the campground and enjoy the pool, the playground, and many new friends who come and go throughout the summer.

In a few months, we will be moving to our “lake home” in Lake County. There we will get to see our other grandkids play football for their dad, the high school coach. This is a big year for our oldest grandson, his senior year. We will spend some extra time there this year as we celebrate all his accomplishments. Our grandsons have one more year to play together on the same team. We are excited for them and the opportunity to share this time with them.

After spending some time with my mother next winter, we plan to return to east Tennessee. We have a new place to stay there this year. One of our daughters just bought a new home. And guess what they have—an RV pad right there in their driveway. We can’t wait to get back there and enjoy spending even more time with family.

Since we have lived all across Tennessee, we have friends everywhere. We have been privileged to serve in several churches as well. On most Sundays, we get to be in a different church either to worship or represent TBCH. It is so exciting to see churches who serve vulnerable children by providing foster parents, residential families, and support of various kinds.

One of the best surprises over the last year has been getting to see what so many people and organizations are doing to serve this population of children and adults. It is what we need to motivate us to drive another mile, visit another church, and help more children.

As I write this article, I am sitting in one of the many “coffices” (a coffee shop office) I get to enjoy across the state. When working remotely, finding a place with free Wi-Fi and good coffee is a win. The more I travel the more I am grateful for those who have a dream of providing a Third Place for people to come together, and sometimes get some work done.

It is our plan to keep traveling and serving families. It will be interesting to see how this experiment develops throughout this next year. I have a great deal of gratitude for the folks who let me write this article each month, especially my sister, Karen, who first suggested the idea. Having the opportunity to share your stories and helping families is a great privilege.

Serve and Return

“The most important influence on early brain development is the real-life serve and return interaction with caring adults” (Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University).

A few weeks ago, I and 55 million others watched a video of a father sitting on the couch with his less than two-year-old son. The father is a comedian from Tennessee, DJ Pryor, watching television with his son, Kingston, and it appears they are carrying on a conversation about the show. To see this video, and you really should, go to YouTube and type in the search bar “Kingston conversation with me over next season.”

When I first saw this clip, I remembered some training I was fortunate to participate in called Building Stronger Brains Tennessee. This training introduced me to the idea of serve and return.

“In these types of exchanges, an infant or child ‘serves’ to an adult, in the form of a gaze, a sound, or a question, and the adult returns the serve with an affectionate and engaging gaze, a coo, or a caring response to that question,” writes Jenny Anderson, senior reporter for the online business publication Quartz (qz.com).

According to the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, “Serve and return interactions shape brain architecture. When an infant or young child babbles, gestures, or cries, and an adult responds appropriately with eye contact, words, or a hug, neural connections are built and strengthened in the child’s brain that support the development of communication and social skills. Much like a lively game of tennis, volleyball, or Ping-Pong, this back-and-forth is both fun and capacity-building. When caregivers are sensitive and responsive to a young child’s signals and needs, they provide an environment rich in serve and return experiences.”

The Center further explains the five stages of this back and forth exchange between the child and the connected and caring adult.

The first stage is to notice the “serve” from the child and focus your attention on the sound or motion the child made. This can be done best by observing the child and noticing her interest. Then you begin to share the child’s focus of attention and the connection is made.

The second stage is to “return” the serve by supporting and encouraging the child. Acknowledge her interest by verbally or nonverbally responding. “Wow! I see the bird on the bird feeder.” Or, you can nonverbally point to the bird, which let’s the child know you see what she sees.

Just a note here—some may be wondering if serve and return is exclusive to infants and young children. The answer is no. Although it might be most beneficial at an earlier age to aid in the development of brain architecture, it is still helpful in building connection with older children.

The third stage has to do with highlighting what the child is interested in by giving it a name. This is not only important to providing much needed connection with a child, it also helps in the development of language. Being able to identify that big red object in the floor as a ball enables the child to make the connection between the object and the spoken word.

The fourth stage is to take turns and wait. The goal is to keep the interaction going. The more time spent volleying is more time developing the architecture of the child’s brain. This stage requires a bit of patience on the part of the caregiver. Obviously, there are other things to do around the house, but  few are more important than the building of your child’s brain and the connection between you and your child.

The fifth and final stage of this model is to practice endings and beginnings. You may have noticed the attention span of most children is not very long. While playing, children may see other toys or objects that catch their eye. Instead of trying to keep their attention on this one thing, help them by transitioning to the next item. Start the serve and return process over with the new shiny object.

Transitioning can be difficult for children. So, working with them to end one time of serve and return and move on to another is good work for their developing brains.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leave a Comment