“You gain more family…”
In honor of Foster Care Awareness Month and Mother’s Day, we are sharing the stories of seven amazing parents through foster care. These parents inspire and challenge us! We are so grateful for their dedication and love.
Initially, CeCe Smith got her foster care license to offer respite care for her Aunt and Uncle who were long-time foster parents. Since kids in foster care have to be in the care of state-approved caregivers overnight, she went through the licensure process to allow her Aunt and Uncle a kid-free weekend getaway from time to time.
It became clear early on, however, that CeCe had way more to offer than helping out from time to time for other foster parents. CeCe has now had an active foster care license for over 10 years, during which time more than 50 children and youth have received love, care, and support in her home. In addition to these children, CeCe’s family has also grown to include three children adopted through foster care and one biological child. The house is now full – so much for occasional babysitting!
In addition to her years as a foster parent, CeCe advocates for kids in foster care in other ways. She trains new foster parents through the required Caregiver Core Training class. She spent two years as a Fostering Together Liaison providing outreach and support. And as an original member of Amara’s African American Outreach Advisory Council, she’s helped build awareness of the need for more African American foster parents.
Part of the Family
Most of the children in CeCe’s home over the years have been young women who carry the label “BRS” (Behavior Rehabilitation Services) meaning they exhibit challenging behaviors such as trying to leave their foster home. Or, as CeCe puts it: “They’re runners.” But to CeCe, these young women are not labels, but are each unique individuals, in need of support and guidance. She sees them as an extension of her family – nieces joining the family for as long as they need her.
CeCe comes from a strong family tradition of caring for kids through foster care. Her Aunt Barbara’s house was always her “home hub” and the fact that it was constantly filled with tons of cousins – some cousins through foster care – was totally normal to her. At her Aunt’s house, if you needed a place to stay you were always welcome – and you were welcomed as part of the family.
So it wasn’t unnatural for CeCe to open her home to kids who needed her – which is not say it was easy – or immediately successful. “I’ve been a single parent this entire time,” she reflects. “When I started out, I had no experience…I didn’t know what it was to parent. I knew what it was to mentor but to have somebody you’re responsible for 24/7, that’s a whole different thing.”
A Village of People
CeCe credits her “village” with her ultimate success taking in and supporting kids going through some very rough times. “I had really great mentors that I could reach out to. Tess Thomas – I remember sitting in Miss Tess’ living room [before my first foster child came to live with me] and saying ‘I don’t know if I can do this’ and her saying ‘Nah, you can do it. You can do it.’
At one point, she posted a quote on social media with #MyVillage and tagged over 40 people – that’s how big her village is. Thinking of her Village, CeCe reflects: “It’s not always who is physically there; it’s who I can call and they can make a phone call to help me get something done; or it’s that person who says, ‘Oh you need diapers? – here I just left a case on your porch.’ Or maybe it’s that person who helps me to understand a 504 or IEP plan better. It’s not always just the people who will watch a kid.” She goes on: “As a single parent – I don’t even know what a 2 parent home feels like – but I’m thankful for having a village of people that I know I can reach out to or will just see there’s a need for something and just take care of it.”
Above and Beyond
And, in turn, CeCe offers remarkable support to the young women in her care; a type of support that is somewhat unique and very much needed: offering connection and support that extends beyond the traditional confines of foster care. One young woman came to CeCe with the expectation that she wouldn’t last in CeCe’s house more than a couple weeks. She was almost 18, had a history of running away, and was very savvy in getting where she wanted to go. And, indeed, after a few months this young woman stole some money and took a bus across the country to reunite with her mother.
But unlike many older teens in foster care, the story doesn’t stop there. This young woman knew CeCe was a trusted person who loved and cared about her, so she stayed in touch. “She texted me every day to tell me she was ok,” CeCe remembers. Soon the texts became less joyful and more worried. After a few months, CeCe received this text: “Auntie, I wanna come home.” And her faithful Auntie responded, securing funds for her to return to Seattle, offering a place to stay while she got on her feet, and helping her settle in to her new adult life on her own.
“All I wanted her to see was that she was worth more,” CeCe notes. “And she was able to get that: that she was worth more than she had been exposed to. She’s got her own place now and some months are a struggle and we talk about budgeting but she’s learning!” Having that opportunity to learn – with the help of a trusted adult – is something too often denied to young people who age out of foster care. In a system where 25% of all children aging out of foster care become homeless within a year, this long-lasting safety net CeCe offers her nieces from foster care makes a life-changing difference.
An Evolving Family
After 10 years, CeCe’s life has changed a great deal. When she started caring for kids she was in her mid-20s and she had just one room. Now she has four permanent children and even with more bedrooms, there’s only so much to go around! It was a tough decision to step back from fostering but as CeCe says: “Your family evolves, and you have to be willing to evolve with it.” Last year, CeCe’s 8 year-old daughter asked if they could take a break from fostering. So they did. “You’ve got to find the balance,” she says.
CeCe sees her journey through Foster Care as a way to extend her village even more. “Each one of my kids has a branch on that [family] tree that leads to different people. There’s some people that are in all the kids’ lives and then there’s some that are tied to a specific kid or a couple of kids and that’s what makes it work.” It’s a much bigger tree than many folks may think of when they think of family but to CeCe, it’s all family and it’s all beautiful and there’s no difference between a niece through foster care and a niece through biology. “This is what I was taught: there’s no lines; you gain more family.”
Thank you, CeCe, for your inspiring commitment to kids and youth in foster care!