Six years ago, Tom and Deborah Burns were your average middle-aged Alaska couple. They had jobs they enjoyed in Palmer. They shared a meal every night at 7. They put miles on their motor home whenever they could and the last of their eight kids had just moved out.
But when they saw a television ad calling for people with the willingness to open their hearts and their homes for foster children, they decided they weren't quite ready to be empty nesters.
In doing so, they, and numerous other Alaska foster parents, have found there are myriad ways to make a family.
Tom and Deborah had each come from childhoods of neglect and abuse, so they felt like they could relate to the kids. Now it's six years and several dozen foster kids later—they stopped counting at 25—one of whom they adopted.
Another Alaska foster family, Amanda Metivier and her husband, Anthony Hernandez, had been in the foster care system as kids—her for three years, him for 15. Now both work doing non-profit advocacy work for foster kids that engages youth to share their stories in an effort to promote systemic change.
"We just know what it's like and want to help in whatever way we can," Amanda said. "You have a different view of the system when you've experienced it."
Anchorage mom Leesa Little knew she wanted to adopt and felt the foster care system was a good place to start. She now has full legal guardianship of three of the four children who live with her.
Though the job can be taxing, time-demanding and economically challenging (Tom estimates the state reimbursement covers only about 80 percent of the total costs), each of the families said their experiences have been worth it.
"I like that you get to give someone a family and get to guide them and watch them grow," Amanda said. "The youth we have now has been to 46 foster homes, but she drives now, has a job, goes to college. It's cool to see them overcome and to see where they end up."
While Tom and Deborah said they knew the ultimate goal was to reunite the children with their parents, it didn't stop them from loving their foster children, even if they were only there for a couple weeks.
"There was no difference between our foster kids and our own kids," Tom said. "They were all equal. I always hoped when they left here, they left knowing that and knowing that we love them."
Much of the drive was providing their foster children with things they wouldn't have otherwise had: a better education, healthy meals, a warm bed and opportunities to travel. Both Tom and Leesa noted that most of their foster children hadn't been out of the state, let alone Anchorage.
"For so long Anchorage was their whole world," Leesa said. "I wanted to show them there is more to life outside of Anchorage and maybe more importantly, more to life and its opportunities than just what they had."
Since then, Leesa and her children traveled extensively throughout Alaska and the Lower 48. And now that her boys are older and thinking about the future, Leesa is working to instill a strong work ethic. They've connected with a mentor who is a college professor and home remodeler to help them plan for life post-graduation.
Helping teenagers grow into self-sufficient adults is front of mind for many foster parents. Tom and Deborah, who garden and raise chickens, have made it a point to teach their kids how to grow and cook whole foods.
"I really enjoyed teaching them how to do things," Tom said. "Most of them came from backgrounds where they didn't have the chance to learn how to do things. But we got to watch them flourish here and when they left had skills."
Besides homemaking skills, Tom said he and Deborah did their best to model what a strong home looks like so that their fosters have a chance to be good parents themselves.
Their first foster daughter, Deborah said, still routinely comes over on weekends with her husband and dog to catch up and help Tom around the yard.
For Amanda, she wants all her foster kids to know they do belong somewhere. "When I was in the system, I had a lot of shame associated with that and it wasn't something I talked about," Amanda said. "I think people have a biased view that you've done something wrong. I hope to give my fosters a sense of belonging."
That's not to say there weren't difficulties along the way. Each family said navigating emotional hurdles and what can feel like mountains of paperwork from the state can take all the patience you have as a foster parent.
"It's difficult because you want to be a normal family, but you don't always have the authority to make the decisions," Amanda said.
Tom said those limitations often turn off potential foster parents. Deborah added, "When we went to the orientation, I asked what percentage of people who come to orientation actually become foster parents. I was told about one percent."
Amanda said currently there are record numbers of children in need of foster parents in Alaska—over 2,800 children in need, but only about 1,400 homes.
"They need a stable home," Tom said. "They need to know that they're a part of something."
Bailey Berg writes for the special content department at Alaska Dispatch News. She got into journalism to combine her two great loves: writing about interesting people and drinking a lot of coffee.
This article appeared in the February 2016 issue of 61°North, a publication of ADN's special content department. Contact 61°North editor Jamie Gonzales at firstname.lastname@example.org.