My husband and I were about to tip-toe into potty-training our toddler and decided that a cheery frog-faced urinal would be exactly what we would need to make the task fun and hassle-free. Leah, in what I came to recognize as her usual selfless, community-building way, offered us just such a thing free-of-charge and with it, oodles of encouragement and advice.
Leah Hunt and her partner are heroes. Before you think that I’m perhaps overly grateful for a free plastic urinal, bear with me for just a moment.
I’ve been thinking this week about heroism. As a child, I didn’t belief that heroes existed in real life. There were only a set of adults with carefully calibrated relationships with other adults and children. Everything was conditional. Trust was to be offered carefully only after painstakingly weighing all of the possible outcomes. Who I was – my personality, my likes, my dislikes – was negotiable and often in flux – dependent on which persona was most likely to keep me safe. It was about survival.
Leah is familiar with this feeling and far more intimately than I am. She was herself a foster child and the only one of her siblings who was never adopted. She met her youngest sister, adopted as an infant, only once. Her sister was 18 and pregnant with her own first child. When they parted at the airport, there were hugs, tears, and a promise from Leah: If you ever need anything, I am here.
Now by “anything” most of us fallible humans in the developed world, leading autonomous lives, don’t truly mean anything. Some of us mean that we’ll put ourselves at great risk, but briefly. We might grab you from a burning building or pry you out from under a fallen tree. Unfortunately, some of us mean only spare change, expired cans of food, or the clothes that we no longer want. Anything generally means anything that will enable us to step in temporarily, satisfied that we’ve helped, and then happily resume our lives as they were.
Leah Hunt answered a phone call years later and was asked to add her youngest sister’s four children, all under the age of 6, to her family. She was their last hope to avoid being separated as she and her siblings were. She was asked to change her life forever and to right a lifetime of wrongs.
For my money, real heroism is in hidden in the small, dark, unfriendly corners. It’s hidden in the daily grind of noses wiped on shirts, unwashed hair, and laundry. It’s getting up at 4:30-5:30 am to meet personal needs – because you know that it will make you better for them. It’s holding a tiny body in an immense amount of pain for which there is no cure, even after they do everything in their power to inflict the same pain on you. It’s viewing a broken mirror after the latest tantrum not as property damage but as the latest cry for help.
It’s imperfectly doing your best every day and apologizing when your best isn’t quite what they need.
On any given day, there are over 400,000 children in foster care in the United States, over 10,000 of them in North Carolina. Children often wait three years or more to be adopted, move three or more times in foster care and often are separated from siblings. The average age of waiting children is 8 years old.
Today, Leah and her partner are mothers to five children, including two four-year-old twins. This past year, they’ve balanced separate therapy appointments for all of their children, potty-trained three boys at once, confronted attachment disorders, and stared their own demons in the face.
Still, for Leah, there was never any other choice. “There will be days you want to curl up and die because you never thought it would be this hard,” she says, “But then, you will see an innocent face smile, you feel the warmth of a little hand in yours, you will see a sparkle start to shine in their eyes as they learn to trust, and then one day those arms wrap around your neck and you hear ‘I love you’ and it makes everything you’ve done, all the paperwork, all the questions, all the preparing, all the struggles and unknowns…each and every tear, and every sleepless night, worth it.”
Our foster care system makes it even harder for families like the Hunts to make the best choices for their foster children. Leah and her partner discovered that many resources available to North Carolinian foster children, such as guaranteed medical insurance, foster care respite programs, holiday sponsorships, and childcare services, are not available to foster children who are wards of another state but residing with NC-licensed foster families. Since foster children are wards of the state and not of the foster parents, there is no one to sign permission slips for things like field trips. Foster children live in a sort of purgatory – on the sidelines at best. Half of the children who age out of the system at age 18 will add prison, early pregnancy, and substance abuse to their life experience.
How can you help? Leah and other foster parents suggest working with Mercy for America’s Children, a non-profit organization that serves over 200 families locally with placement services and supplies while also advocating for reform. You can donate new and gently used duffle bags and luggage to children who would otherwise be moving their belongings from home to home in garbage bags. You can start a meal train for new foster families as they adjust to their new normal. You can support foster care reform, such as the Foster Care Family Act which will increase eligibility for foster care benefits to the age of 21 and give common sense discretion to foster parents.
Most of all, says Leah, you can support other parents, both known and unknown to you, by offering help rather than judgment.
Children have a way of bringing out the imperfect heroes in all of us.