I have been involved in foster care for many years—first as a youth in the foster care system and now as an adult working as a foster care advocate. Throughout the years, I have seen ways in which I feel like the marketing for the foster care system can be improved. We see billboards and Facebook advertisements encouraging us to jump off the high dive into the deepest waters by becoming foster parents. Understandably, to many people that is intimidating. Why aren’t there places to dip your toes in the water or wade to figure out if you can even swim? The reality is, there actually are.
Many people want to serve in the foster care system but don’t know how outside of being a foster parent. While foster parents are needed, we do not all have to become foster parents, and we can all do something to improve the lives of those involved in the foster care system right where we are with what we have. As 1 Corinthians 12 explains, we are the body of Christ. Each one of us is a part of it. We each have different gifts and talents, and they are all needed in foster care to serve the orphan and the widow.
The people who changed my life the most when I was a youth in foster care were mentors—one being my track coach.
Growing up without a father, I had few male figures to look to, but Scott, my track coach, met me at the track almost every day with encouragement and another workout. Despite people telling him I was “trouble” and he should “wash his hands of me,” he saw my potential and continued to pour into our relationship. To his credit, I eventually became a five-time state champion in track and field, which allowed me to get a full-ride scholarship to college and become part of the three percent of foster youth to graduate with a bachelor’s degree. My mentor and track coach changed the trajectory of my life because he simply showed up where he was called with what he had and invested in the one.
You can get plugged into a mentorship program such as Big Brothers Big Sisters to help encourage kids coming from hard places. Or if you are already working with kids as a coach, minister, or teacher, do what my track coach did and meet just one kid right where you are with what you have.
Errands and Day-to-Day Help
For a while, my husband, Jacob, and I were foster parents, and it was challenging to say the least. I was blown away when other foster parents from different parts of the country would talk about the support they had when we had none.
One of our foster parent friends in another community said she had a “Laundry Fairy.” She simply put her dirty laundry in a basket on her porch. The Laundry Fairy took the dirty laundry, washed it, folded it, and left it back on the porch. Another foster parent friend had someone from her church clean her house once a week. And another had free babysitters so she and her husband could go on a date night once a week!
The trick is not just to ask foster parents what they need but to tell them. When we ask people what they need or if we can do anything for them, they will typically say no or dismiss the question, not because they do not need help, but because they do not know what they need or they are not comfortable telling others what they need.
Try to be more specific. For example, say, “I am running to the grocery store today. Give me five items I can pick up for you and a time I can drop them off at the door.” Or “Can I watch the kids this Friday for you two to go on a date night?”
If you don’t know any foster families to help them, go to your church and simply ask. If your church does not know of any families, you have at least taken the first step in making them aware. Many agencies also have meetings and foster parent groups. I asked to be a part of one when I moved to my town before I was a foster parent so I could serve the foster care community in my area.
From my experience, foster parents can be closed off. They have vulnerable children to protect from trauma and triggers. So be willing to be patient and intentional when building the relationship.
My CASA, which stands for court appointed special advocate, was another person who was influential in my life and inspired me. In some states, this is a paid position where you must receive a law degree, but in many states being a CASA is a volunteer position.
If you have a social justice streak and advocating in a courtroom excites you, being a CASA is for you! CASAs get to build deep relationships with foster children while advocating for what are in their best interests in the courtroom.
My CASA planted a seed in me for what advocacy was, and she inspired me to be an advocate myself.
You do not have to rewrite the script or start something new to have an impact on those who are impacted by the foster care system. You simply must look at what you have, right where you are, and ask yourself, What do I have to give?
Tori Hope Petersen (named Mrs. Universe in 2021; track and field All-American) is a former foster youth letting her Abba be known. She is passionate about foster care reform, adoption advocacy, vulnerable populations, and seeing the love of God change people’s lives! Tori speaks across the nation sharing her powerful story, but her favorite form of art and communication is writing. Tori and her husband, Jacob, have the three sweetest kids: a biological son and daughter, Leyonder and Ezzeri, and an adopted adult son, Sar. Follow her on Instagram @torihopepetersen.