Holidays a time for inclusion at home and in community for foster families

Posted November 18, 2018 4:10 p.m. EST
Updated November 21, 2018 11:03 a.m. EST

Children in foster care are faced with the challenge of meeting extended family or being thrown into traditions that are different from what they might have always known. (Chris Benson/Unsplash)

This article was written for our sponsor, Children's Home Society of North Carolina.

No other time of year is quite as synonymous with "family" as the holidays.

With the hustle and bustle of the holiday season comes the idea of home, family, being with your loved ones and family traditions. Now, imagine going through a holiday season with all of that stripped away – none of the traditions you've grown up knowing, none of the family you can’t wait to see.

This is a reality for the more than 11,000 children in foster care across North Carolina during the holiday season. And while it's true foster homes provide a safe and stable environment – maybe the first a child has ever known – this time of year can be difficult to navigate.

"The holidays can be very hard for children in foster care because they are thinking about their family and their own traditions," said Alex Kelly, director of Family Engagement at the Children's Home Society of North Carolina. "[Even] if they came from an unsafe environment, they're still loved there and it's still their family, and there are still traditions – regardless of what they are, they are still memories."

Children in foster care are also faced with the challenge of meeting extended family or being thrown into traditions that are different from what they might have always known, but Kelly said involving them as much as possible is a good thing. She also recommended not being afraid to start new traditions or help children make new memories.

"The reality is that both the adults and the children know that that foster family is temporary, but just because it's temporary doesn't mean you cannot create memories or make a lasting impact in the life of the child," Kelly said.

Angie Robinson, a foster parent in North Carolina, reiterated the importance of respecting traditions from the child’s past while including them in traditions your family enjoys.

"We have tried to keep certain traditions if possible," Robinson said, citing favorite foods or activities the child may remember. "[We also start] new traditions with them to make memories – a lot of times they may not have had any traditions."

Robinson also recommended taking pictures to make a scrapbook, so if they are reunited with their biological family or are adopted by another family, they can take those memories you helped create with them.

The Children's Home Society of North Carolina encourages foster families to take children in foster care on vacations, to family outings and holiday events as much as possible, treating them just as they would any other child in their home.

Exposing children in foster care to extended family or to other groups that are significant in the foster family's life presents a myriad of opportunities for those in the community to help support that foster family during the holiday season and beyond.

Betsy Seaton, director of Community Engagement for CHSNC, said it's important for the community to rally around foster families and those in foster care because it's the duty of the community to help take care of them.

"Children are in this situation through no fault of their own," Seaton said. "Sadly, their families have been faced with issues that have not allowed them to provide a safe and healthy environment. We – as a community – can help by providing nurturing and temporary homes, and showing that there is love and support for children."

Matt Anderson, vice president of Programs and Business Development with CHSNC, said one way to support children in foster care is to adopt a heightened understanding during this time of trauma and transition. Teachers, administrators and other school officials, for example, can help by understanding that emotions and emotional responses could be stronger during the holiday season.

"A lot of kids in care will have [mixed emotions] during the holidays," Robinson said. "We have had kids who made it through Christmas okay, but then the day after have major meltdowns. Some kids can't handle the extra stimulation that may come from meeting a lot of new people ... at times our family just had to sit these events out. This can make foster families feel isolated and alone."

For others in the community connected to foster families, there are other simple ways to help.

Kelly said offering emotional support can be huge. It can be something as simple as calling and checking in, or lending a listening ear.

Another easy way to support foster families during the bustling holiday season is with the gift of time – simply taking them a meal, helping decorate the house or another simple task that's on that family's list of chores can offer relief to a family navigating additional challenges during an already busy time of year.

To take this a step further, Robinson mentioned that even offering to babysit if you're available can be a huge help.

"If you are close enough to the family, offer to babysit. [Fostering] puts a lot of pressure on a marriage, and a date night is important to keep communication going," she said.

Kelly echoed that thanks to the Reasonable and Prudent Parenting legislation passed in North Carolina in 2015, it's relatively easy for trusted friends in a foster family's community to take the child for short periods of time – for play dates, to see a movie, even to help run errands. The goal of this legislation was to help give some normalcy back to the children in foster care.

CHSNC : Spotlight : Hope for the Holidays

CHSNC also hosts an event at the end of each year, Hope for the Holidays, which is a simple way for the wider community to help celebrate and support foster families and children in foster care across the state. It takes the more traditional "angel tree" concept, where participants select a wish list from a child in foster care and provide the desired gifts. This year, CHSNC is hoping to fill close to 1,000 wishlists throughout the state.

Foster families work with the child to come up with the wishlist for the holidays. An individual or organization can then sponsor a wishlist, fulfill the items on the list and drop the gifts off at a CHSNC location across the state to be distributed.

"We'll work with individuals, with families, with companies, with schools – all kinds of different folks across the state – to help us fill those wish lists for kids," Anderson said. "It gives those kids an opportunity to have an experience of a normal holiday season, and brings some joy to their lives. It brings something that they can have and hold onto during the holiday season."

Seaton said that a lot of times, she’ll see a sponsor putting a personal spin on their donation by choosing a child who is similar to someone in their own life, which can help put the spirit of the holidays into perspective.

"It's something my family really likes to do just because we get so carried away, and I think many people do," Seaton said. "There are kids out there who don’t have shoes, and there are kids out there who need jackets, who need socks, who need hygiene products. And, most importantly, they need a family to love them and to support them. If we can help be a part of that, then that makes my holiday a bit more focused I suppose."

Even those who may not have the means to sponsor a wishlist can help spread the word to others who might be able to. The more participation CHSNC can get each year, then the more families they are able to serve.

Seaton also said that as the number of children in foster care across the state continues to rise in record-breaking numbers, the need for foster families is more urgent than ever.

"The two major things we need all year round, I call 'funding and families,' " Seaton said.

Robinson reiterated this need and stressed how rewarding the experience of being a foster parent can be, not just for the child who may be in a loving and supporting home for the first time, but for the foster parent as well.

"I wish people knew how desperately these kids needed them to foster," Robinson said. "I get so tired of hearing people say they could never do this when that simply isn't true. I am just an ordinary person who loves kids. Yes, it is hard, sometimes unimaginably so, but it's so worth it."

This article was written for our sponsor, Children's Home Society of North Carolina.