There’s always room for one more
Away from home. If reports from the Children’s Bureau under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services are any indication, more than 400,000 kids nationwide fall into that category each year, forced to depend on foster care during childhood.
And between the Anderson and Peterson families in Blue Earth, 11 of them are right in town.
Eleven children away from home.
Supported through Kindred Family Focus, the largest private foster care provider in the state, they are divided between Mike and Marilyn Anderson and Scott and Lisa Peterson eight with the Andersons, three with the Petersons.
If all the local foster children, both past and present, are to be counted, the two families have actually hosted more than 35 kids over the years.
In any light, it is a hefty number. A burden so unimaginable to some, so trying to both the kids and families at times and, yet, so incomparably rewarding to the little boys and girls who have been cast aside or left without love early in life those raised by someone other than their parents.
“There’s always a need,” says Marilyn, who also has two biological children of her own, plus a son from Mike. “And I can’t say no. These girls just want to be loved. They may make you want to tear your hair out but they teach us things every day.”
The girls she is referring to, of course, are eight of the 11 foster kids that the Andersons and Petersons take pride in raising: Allie, 9; Heidi, 16; Izzy, 14; Jessica, 12; Katie, 15; Kylie, 17; Marina, 16; Mary, 13. And in the Anderson household, not one of the girls is considered a mere number from the Kindred program, which specializes in serving youth who have everything from traumatic pasts and behavioral issues to self-harm and substance abuse problems.
“We don’t use the word ‘foster,'” Marilyn says. “They’re just our kids.”
The open-arms approach was perhaps best exemplified when the family earlier this year opted to expand its roster of children on, literally, a moment’s notice.
“At the beginning of the year, we had three (foster) kids,” recalls Marilyn. “But one time, the county called and asked if we had any extra room, saying, ‘We have a girl that needs to be placed in the next 15 minutes,’ and we took her and have had her ever since.”
The total of children, then, blossomed from three to eight rather quickly, and that bunch does not even include Kris, 19, who grew up with the Andersons and is now in her freshman year at Minnesota State University, Mankato.
“Some people are foster parents for the money or the publicity,” says Kris, who was adopted by another family from Russia at age seven but now calls the Anderson house her home. “But Mike and Marilyn treated their own kids just like they did me, so I never felt like I was in a foster home.”
It is no wonder that Lisa Peterson, mother to three of her own foster kids, stays close with the Andersons in her own push to better the lives of the children she has embraced.
“We did the same agency together,” Peterson says, remembering when she first explored foster care 16 years ago. “Then you have that go-to person to talk to, to vent to.”
Like Marilyn, Lisa has children of her own: Cooper, 10; Ty, 13; Blake, 19; and Slater, 23. So blending biological relatives with three new daughters Destiny, 12; Jacque, 13; and Taylor, 16 is not only a perpetual exercise of patience but, on a larger scale, an opportunity to make a difference in the way three girls are raised.
“This is what I feel is my calling,” Lisa says. “It can be trying. There are lots of emotions. But you keep pushing because I just see potential in everybody we’ve had.”
Everybody, she explains, includes the trio of girls she now calls her own on top of at least 15 others from years past.
“You look at them and see the goodness in them,” she says. “We can help them make better choices, help them realize they don’t need drugs, don’t need alcohol, and the ultimate goal is reunification with their families.”
The process, from adjusting to a new home to dealing with potentially unfamiliar family values, is often a rigorous one for the kids and parents alike.
Taylor, the oldest of Peterson’s three foster children, admits as much.
“I didn’t like it at first,” she says. “I didn’t like anyone.”
A blunt, albeit understandable, statement from a youngster caught in a balancing act of biological and unofficial guardians.
“But then I finally realized they care,” she says, motioning slightly to Lisa.
The immersion of Kris, the Andersons’ 19-year-old college student, into her own new home in town paints a similar picture.
“Going through orphanages and treatment, I learned that in order to move forward in life, I have to put my trust in some people,” she says. “I chose to put my trust in Mike and Marilyn, and they have yet to fail me, and I know they won’t because of the relationship we built.”
That type of connection is exactly what the Andersons and Petersons hope to forge with all the new members of the household they welcome. In fact, all the hardships of raising someone else’s kids, let alone the usual conflicts of teenage girlhood, are worth it if the youngsters take even the slightest step forward in their personal journeys.
“They just want to be loved,” says Marilyn. “When they write their bio down and get past that part of their life, it’s big.”
Some girls have remained under the wings of the two Blue Earth families longer than others. Some have been in and out, returning for visits with biological parents. Some had trouble adjusting to foster care altogether.
All of them, though, are welcomed, and that branches beyond the time constraints of temporary foster care.
“When they come back and see you, it’s special,” says Marilyn. “We’ve been doing this for 18 years, and all of them are coming back for Christmas.”
Lisa recalls a homecoming for her first-ever foster kids, now in their 30s with children of their own, with just as much appreciation.
“The first year after they left, she (the girl) sent me a Mother’s Day card,” she says. “And the boy, who said all of six words to me while he was here, came back to visit and called me Mom.”
When it comes to the kids currently in the homes of Lisa, Marilyn and their families, there is no shortage of diversity or activity among them, both in their varying backgrounds and everyday lives in and outside of school at Blue Earth Area.
Some, like in Kris’ case, are from overseas. Most are from all over Minnesota. Others are from North and South Dakota.
Kris played volleyball, and now Mary is doing the same. Ditto for Destiny, with the Petersons. Kylie is a published artist. Izzy is a Scrabble genius, according to Marilyn. Taylor plays cello, does track and gymnastics. Destiny plays the flute in between sports. Katie is an avid animal lover in a house where lizards, snakes and goats are among the pets. And Jacque, with the Petersons’ two young boys by her side, prefers “hanging out with the squad.”
All of them, of course, in some sense or another, are still away from home.
Another reason the two local families jump at the chance to take care of the kids?
“Nobody else will,” says Marilyn, conveying the cold reality of not only the widespread demand for mentors of troubled youth but the situations that led to that need in the first place.
And yet, to some of those same girls residing with the Andersons, the Petersons and perhaps the thousands of other foster-care families across the state, things are a little brighter.
A sign in the Andersons’ house, hanging on the entryway of a living room stuffed with more pets and Christmas stockings than a scene out of “Cheaper by the Dozen,” reads, “Blood doesn’t make family.”
It was a gift from the children, a token of appreciation picked up during one of the family’s many out-of-town excursions.
And, in a way, a signal that maybe the kids are not fully away from home.
A signal that maybe they are home.
And until they are told otherwise, the parents have not a single problem with that.
“They’ll always have a home here,” says Marilyn. “We’ll keep them all as long as they let us.”