On a Sunday morning this past spring at a small Methodist church 21-year-old Andrea stepped up to the pulpit to read an open letter from a mother about her children. Deliberately, Andrea read the mother’s words:
“I was the last person you’d think would become a foster parent. I was successful, middle-aged, the mother of three young men, all in college… our hands-on parenting days were over. My husband and I were making retirement plans and had built our dream house in South Carolina. Our family expansion plans in weddings. But God had a different plan – a plan that would bring us unexpected, unimagined joy.”
Andrea continued to read the letter, captivating the congregation with the story of how twin sisters, who had been in foster care since they were infants, became part of her family at the most unexpected time and under the most unexpected rcumstances.
“I was no social worker, nor a do-gooder, but here I was about to add two children to my family because I felt God calling me to make a difference. My husband and I realized we couldn’t change the world, but we could have an impact on two precious children and change their worlds for the better.”
When Andrea finished reading, she looked out into the congregation and said, “This story is not make-believe. It’s not about imaginary kids in some far-off place. My mom wrote this letter this morning because she knew I’d be speaking to you today. This story is about me and my sister Amanda.”
Andrea, who serves UMFS as a recruitment volunteer, uses her experience growing up in foster care to bring awareness to the ongoing need for parents like hers. Leanne Hill, foster parent recruiter for UMFS, says Andrea isn’t trying to be the poster child for foster care. “Instead, she wants to show what can happen when you give a child a chance,” Leanne explains.
Foster youth “age out” of the system at 18. Suddenly out in the world without a supportive adult, a job, or even a high school diploma, many youth in foster care often do not get the help they need. Studies have shown they are more likely than those in the general population to not finish high school, be unemployed, and be dependent on public assistance. Many find themselves in prison, homeless, or parents at an early age.
With grit and determination, Andrea and her sister beat the odds. “We can’t even count the number of times we were told we would fail – that we wouldn’t graduate high school without getting pregnant, we wouldn’t go to college, and that we’d end up in subpar jobs,” Andrea explains. Despite having attended four different high schools while bouncing between foster homes and group homes, they both received bachelor’s degrees from Longwood University in May. “Both my sister and I are graduating from a four-year college with dean’s list grades – things we were told we would never accomplish, we have.”
Having grown up in the system, Andrea and Amanda become fiercely independent and self-reliant. They emancipated from foster can when they turned 18. Andrea said, “We’d been on our own for a month or two, and we expected we’d manage on our own.” That’s when Tammy and Jim entered their lives.
“Over my life, and over our married lives we’ve had things that have happened that we felt we were called to God to do,” Tammy explains. Tammy and Jim knew of Andrea and her sister through their youngest son, Thomas. Over the years, Thomas and Tammy had numerous conversations about the sisters and had always wanted to help them in some way.
Armed with two cell phones as a “welcome to the family gift,” Tammy and Jim drove from North Carolina to Virginia to meet the girls for the first time. “We’d never seen a picture of them, and had no idea if they were short, tall – no idea about the color of their hair or eyes, about their personalities, their likes, their interests,” Tammy says. “I only knew that my son said they were good kids who needed a home.”
The sisters were skeptical. Jim said it was clear that Andrea and Amanda had thrived in the foster care system. “While we were offering them help, we had to be sure that it was the kind of help they would accept. The girls made it very clear that they didn’t need any help and that they could figure this out on their own,” says Jim.
After raising three sons, Tammy and Jim suddenly found themselves enjoying being the parents of girls. “Andrea became Jim’s sous-chef,” Tammy explains. “They’ve shared a lot of time together doing that.” “Being around them has made my life richer and will forever keep me young,” says Jim.
This is more than a story about empty-nesters helping two children in need. “They’ve opened our eyes to things we would have never been exposed to, and they see things differently than we do,” says Tammy. “Our family is unique. Mom and dad do not consider themselves as foster parents. They’re simply a family that offered us an opportunity to have a forever home, a place to always belong and a place to be loved unconditionally,” says Andrea.
Empowered by the support of a stable and loving family, Andrea and Amanda are both headed for success. Amanda plans to attend graduate school in the fall to study special education. Andrea turned down a job in New York City to stay in Virginia. She wants to continue to advocate for the foster care system. “I’m working with Leanne to come up with new and creative ways to recruit foster families,” says Andrea. “Having someone from inside the system gives me a real advantage – a real opportunity to have an impact.”
Currently, there are about 1,500 kids in the Virginia foster care system awaiting adoption. The Fostering Futures bill that became law in Virginia this year extends the age for foster care benefits to 21.