HARRISON – What unique set of circumstances brings a person to make the choice to become a foster parent? That was one of the questions put to Kori Driver and Jenna Zelkowski during an interview Friday, Sept. 27 at the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services-Clare County office in Harrison.
Driver, a representative of the Thirty-One Gifts, and Zelkowski, an Usborne Books & More consultant, are longtime friends, and the two recently pooled their efforts to enable a donation of thermal lunch bags from Thirty-One Gifts – bags filled with school supplies, books and various other special items for children to enjoy. The number of bags donated meant one for each of the children in foster care in the county at the time the enterprise was undertaken.
“We both have a way that we give back, so we just wanted to get the books and school supplies together to brighten the school year,” Zelkowski said. “We know that going to school at a time when you’re removed from your family is another change and a hard environment to be in. We wanted to do something extra so we both just took our businesses, and our customers supported us in getting the number we needed. Customers at Family Dollar in town donated some of the supplies too.”
One might not think a simple lunch bag could make much impact in the life of a child, but anyone who knows the circumstances in which some children are brought into foster care, knows that even a simple, colorful lunch bag filled with things a child can call his/her own is huge – akin to the preciousness of a brand new pair of pajamas.
Both ladies have a strong sense of community, and a deeply-held desire to give back to that community. After the lunch bags donation was received, Driver and Zelkowski took some time with the Cleaver to talk about what brought them to become foster parents, and some of the challenges and joys that undertaking brings.
When asked what brought her to fostering, Driver gestured to Zelkowski and said, “She did,” and went on to explain that with the two being best friends, Driver had been part of Zelkowski’s first journey as a foster parent.
“Our families are really close,” Driver said. “A long time ago, I had always thought about foster care, but never thought it was actually doable, thinking the typical ‘I could never do that’ phrases.”
But by experiencing her friend’s foster child and the experience shared by Zelkowski and that child, Driver came to realize something else.
“I loved her foster child as much as I would have if she was in my own home,” Driver said. “I still do. And when her journey kept going, I thought, ‘I could do that, too.’”
That was when she connected with Clare County DHSS in Harrison. Now each of their two households contains two biological children and one placement child.
Describing how her involvement in foster parenting began nearly three years ago, Zelkowski said she had started the process to become licensed about nine months prior to actually receiving a child to care for.
“We had a 2-year-old child at the time,” Zelkowski said. “And we felt we had room in our hearts to help another kiddo.”
And as is sometimes the case, the Zelkowskis were blessed recently with another biological child, giving their foster child a set of bookend siblings.
“I also work in the schools,” she said. “So, I see the need for it, and I always thought ‘I could do that, I could take that kid right there, home.’”
Asked about the process of getting from interested to the point when someone hands over a child, Zelkowski and Driver both indicated the person who walks prospective foster parents, step-by-step, through the licensing process. That includes house checks, training and, of course, getting licensed which can take from six months to a year.
“As far as getting a kid – it’s when there’s one in need that they feel is a good match for your family,” Zelkowski said. “It could be the next day or it could be months out.”
Both Driver and Zelkowski had a hard time not being able to name the individuals at the department who have been so pivotal in supporting their efforts and success in fostering. But, state-level department rules prohibit unauthorized statements about the department and the children it serves, which all stems back to the need for protecting the privacy rights of the children and parents involved.
The fundamental goal of foster parenting is to protect, provide for the health, safety and well-being of a child – all with the basic goal of reuniting the child with his/her family, if at all possible.
“It’s case by case,” Driver said. “Sometimes they go, and then they come back. It just depends. But reunification is the goal because we want the families to be together.”
If that is not possible, the new goal becomes finding a loving, adoptive family.
As much as the two ladies obviously enjoy being foster parents who love the children in their charge, they both admitted there is one difficult aspect of that commitment. That comes when it’s time to relinquish the child in whom they have invested themselves and come to deeply love.
“It’s hard for me trusting the end result,” Driver said. “You are with this child and doing everything you can for this child, and then just have to let it all go. And trust that they’ll be OK, and you have to disconnect. The hard part isn’t letting go, it’s believing they’re going to be OK, that they’re still safe.”
Driver was a bit emotional during this part of the conversation because her foster child was scheduled to be going home soon. At such a time, it is important to remember that doing any job well requires commitment and being a parent requires even more. Thus, relinquishing some of that attachment can be really tough task.
“She said it really well,” Zelkowski said. “It’s the trusting piece; I just take it day by day really. It’s nice to have other foster parents and support here [Clare County DHHS] to be able to lean on, and I just move forward and try to focus on our family, and working as much with their family [Driver family] as I can.”
Although it is not a typical situation, Zelkowski also spoke of the positive aspects of maintaining an open, communicating relationship with the biological parents.
“I think that’s ideal,” she said. “To be able to provide a positive example.”
If it is safe and appropriate, such a relationship between the foster and birth parents is encouraged to continue when the children go back. This can result in some strong, successful relationships which ultimately benefit the children – a win-win for the kids.
“A lot of times we’re the ones teaching the kiddo about a healthy attachment,” Zelkowski said. “So, if they can maintain that when they go back, it’s really bridging the transition back home.”
“Sometimes they don’t have a lot of support,” Driver said. “And if we can give them that, and it shows the kiddo who has been trusting us that we’re still part of their lives.”
They also described what they found most rewarding about fostering, for the children and for themselves.
Referring to research showing how much connection benefits children, Zelkowski said it is most interesting to see their development change because of that connection.
“And just knowing that you’re the safety net while the family is working on whatever they need to work on,” she said. “For me, just having another part of the community that I’m involved in.”
“I would say the same,” Driver said. “I really enjoy getting to see the change in the child and helping them defy the odds.”
Zelkowski also noted the impact fostering has on both women’s biological children.
“I think that’s what a lot of people worry about,” she said. “We have seen nothing but positive impacts on them.”
Zelkowski said her one child was then 2 ½ and is now 5, and could probably answer the interview questions better than she could.
“It’s a sudden adjustment for them,” Driver said. “And now they want more – they talk about it together – the foster kids want more.”
Zelkowski said that as chaotic as it can get, the children feel most secure when everyone’s there and the house is full.
“Because that’s family,” she said.
That family, of course, also includes the dads who are fully involved. Zelkowski said her husband was a bit more hesitant than she to become a foster parent, but now he is “all in.” Driver said the same is true for her husband.
Then it was time to ask what else these two wanted the world to know about being a foster parent.
“The biggest thing I tell anybody who asks about it, is if it’s on your heart, if you’re thinking about it at all, come and meet with somebody to talk about it,” Zelkowski said. “And just try it, because what’s the worst that’s going to happen? Everybody’s worried about getting attached to them and them going back – that’s the point. The point is to get attached, because that’s how you’re going to make an impact.”
While foster parenting is open to people ages 18 and older, she said there also are other ways to give back, such as providing respite care. Respite care also requires licensing, but is one way a prospective foster parent could try it out. It was pointed out that licensing includes not only the foster parent, but also the home and property. Both Driver and Zelkowski agreed that the various inspections, and all the process, are steps to ensure the home is safe for the foster child and that the potential foster parents are truly prepared for the task.
They pointed out that if someone can’t foster, they can still volunteer, help by educating people or by donating to the Foster Closet in Clare County. That closet is run on donations and is free to foster parents.
“A lot of times people will say ‘I have extra clothes’ or whatever is, ‘Where can I donate?’ and I always say the Foster Closet,” Zelkowski said. “Because then kiddos who are placed can go there and get whatever they need.”
“It goes straight to foster parents,” Driver said. “So, when you’re getting a new placement, you can call the Foster Closet and they might have what you need.”
Asked if they had thought about the time when a child goes home, and their thoughts about the next possible fostering, they said some people take a break, and others get a call and jump right back in. Foster parents do have the ability to say “no” to that call if it’s not the right time for them or their family.
“Our foster child is going back, and we aren’t not going to accept calls,” Driver said. “Our license will stay open, and if we get a call that will fit our family and we feel ready, we will say ‘Yes’ to the call.”
“I have learned all of my flexibility skills,” Zelkowski said. “I’ve become a much more open-minded person.”
One needs only to read the words on Driver’s shirt and Zelkowski’s jacket to understand their open-arms embracing of the foster parent’s investment. “Get Too Attached #fosterlove” and “Raise Hope and Foster Dreams, Become a foster parent, 1(855)MICHKIDS.
For more information about the need for fostering children, see that adjacent information provided by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.
Something in there might just flip the “maybe switch” that could lead to an enriching relationship and a better life for a child as yet unknown.