Despite their occasional protestations, most kids want the same things in life as they grow up. They want some stability. They want food when they're hungry. They want to go to the same school dressed basically the same way as their friends. They want their homes to be safe, a place where no one harms them.
Unfortunately, not all kids get to have what they want. Some are brought up in families so dysfunctional as to barely be worthy of the sobriquet "family". Some are beaten by those who should be protecting them. Some are used as sex objects by the same people they call mom and dad or aunt and uncle. Some live in families so wasted on drugs and alcohol they barely remember the kids exist. And for some kids, it's even worse in ways I wouldn't want to describe to anyone who hasn't had to deal with the horror.
Through no fault of their own, these kids were born into a world that abused and/or discarded them. They are the ones who never get a visit from Santa, who never get an Easter Basket, who never know what it's like to sit down to a family meal with sober adults encouraging them to do well in school, get into a sport, or try out for a club.
When the situation in these families finally reaches the tipping point, the state steps in. All too often, the families are so broken that removing the child or children is the only immediate way to make them safe until their parents get their act together. The people who take these bruised children into their homes are called foster parents. In some cases, they are the only real parent the child will ever know. In almost all cases, they are the unsung heroes of our society because they take on a burden that most of us would feel unbearable.
It's not the children that are the burden. The burden is the massive mental, physical and psychological wounds that most bring to their foster home. They will often exhibit behaviors beyond the comprehension of anyone brought up in even a minimally stable home. Yet most foster parents embrace these children emotionally, spiritually and, if the child is not too traumatized to handle it, physically with the warm hugs we all routinely got from out parents.
May, in case you missed the headlines, is Foster Parent Month. It's a month to celebrate those families who have enough love, patience, tolerance and commitment to children to offer a safe haven in a world that often has offered none to the child in the past. While I am well aware that a small percentage of foster parents might do it for the money, after thirty years of working in the field I can tell you in no uncertain terms that the money we pay them does not even come close to the expectations we place on them or the love most freely offer to these wounded innocents.
Foster parents range from people taking in teenagers with criminal records to those who take in extremely damaged babies whose life span will be short because their mother could not stay sober while pregnant. What love those tiny little bodies know comes from foster parents who see the child beyond the wounds and know that every baby deserves to be hugged. What love those teenagers get, despite behavior that might cause your hair to go gray, comes from foster parents who believe every child deserves a second, third and fourth chance when it is so obvious their first chance was taken from them before they could do anything with it.
Foster parents are the ground troops in our ongoing efforts to make sure that every child, no matter how bad a start they've had in life, gets a chance at some normalcy, some affection, some stability. They do an extraordinary job. They should be saluted a lot more loudly than they have been in a month supposedly dedicated to them.
So here's to all the foster parents across our state. You know that ultimately your reward is not in money but in the look of a child going to school for the first time in clean clothes, well fed, homework done and smile on their face. Huzzah to you all!
Elise Patkotak is an Alaska writer and author of "Parallel Logic," a memoir of her 28 years in Barrow. Web site, www.elisepatkotak.com.