Among the many everyday heroes in the United States, there is a community of stable, resilient adults willing to offer a home to children in transition.
Jenn and T.J. Menn, of West Point, New York, are two of those people. They met as cadets at the U.S. Military Academy; both later earned master’s degrees from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. T.J. is an army officer; Jenn is a certified biblical counselor.
“As newlyweds, we sought a purpose for our marriage that we could participate in together to make a difference for the kingdom of God,” the latter told LifeZette. “We knew there was a need for foster parents. We are stable and loving people who want to serve our community.”
Her husband’s parents had fostered children, while she worked in a teen homeless shelter in high school — so the couple understood some of the demands of fostering children and underwent foster care training. But they quickly learned there is no predicting life as foster parents.
Their first parenting experience was to three kids under age four who came to them on short notice. In addition, T.J. once returned from a tour of duty in Afghanistan to find that two new foster daughters had joined the family. The pair has fostered an amazing 22 children, from newborns to high school students, as well as groups of siblings. They recently wrote a book, “Faith to Foster,” about their experiences.
“As newlyweds, we sought out a purpose for our marriage that we could participate in together to make a difference,” said one foster parent.
“The rewards, that’s where it’s well worth it,” Jenn Menn explained. “We’ve been a part of dramatic changes in children. A little girl named Jasmine went from being a trembling four-year-old who couldn’t speak besides cursing, with fearful night terrors and raw wounds, to freely dancing, confident in herself, and chattering away like a typical little girl. These are powerful, life-shifting differences, and we experience them every year.”
States Struggle to Accommodate the Young Ones
The rising demand for foster parents, fueled in large part by the nation’s opioid epidemic, is heartbreaking. More than 400,000 children are currently in foster care in the U.S. In Georgia alone, the foster-care population has gone from about 7,600 children in September 2013 to over 13,000 last month.
Jennifer Peterson, president of Wavelength Marketing LLC in Columbia, Pennsylvania, decided long ago she would open her heart and her home to foster children — ever since watching her social worker aunt help a young girl transition to a new school when she herself was just a child.
“My aunt gave the little girl money to buy something at a book fair,” Peterson said. “The little girl clutched onto her with one hand and clutched the book money in the other. It touched me in a way I can’t explain, and I decided to become a foster and/or adoptive parent when I ‘grew up.'”
When Peterson married, her husband agreed with her dream and the pair pushed themselves to learn about the special needs of children in foster care.
“Children are like onions, gradually peeling off layer after layer of issues that you don’t know about when they are first placed with you,” she explained. “These unknowns make it hard to be prepared for some of the behaviors and disclosures they may make. For us, the biggest joy was allowing our foster children to stop feeling as though they had to be adults who had to survive on their own, and get back to being children, and to watch them learn to laugh and play.”
‘You Don’t Need Tons of Money’
More people can be foster parents than give themselves credit, said foster parent Richard Jones (not his real name) of Salt Lake City.
“You don’t have to own a home or make tons of money. Just be relatively sane and try to do right by these kids. You’ll figure it out along the way,” Jones told LifeZette. He added it’s easy to help others who are foster parents because there’s a lot of stress and burnout. He suggests finding a foster parent and donating clothing, bedding, money, or toys, or offering tutoring or cooking dinner. Becoming certified in respite care means people can babysit for foster parents, so they get a much-needed break.
“Waiting for the perfect time to be a foster parent is like waiting for the ocean to stand still,” Jenn Menn said. “Every change in our life may not be comfortable and timely, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it. Children’s worlds change forever when they enter foster care, and you could be that world-changer.”
Pat Barone is a professional credentialed coach and author of the Own Every Bite! bodycentric re-education program for mindful and intuitive eating; she helps clients heal food addictions.