Thursday, December 30, 2010

Make It a Happy New Year!

The sun had set into cold, dark skies on the night I had a fading suntan and a bright, shiny new diamond on my finger. My week long honeymoon had ended and days later, I was swallowed up into my Children's Services job as if I had never even left it.

On this particular night in 1995, I was thrilled to get a parking spot right outside the doors of my office in downtown Cincinnati. Snow covered the ground and it was freezing. Panhandlers dotted the city blocks surrounding the Children's Services building. I had three reasons for not wanting to walk far in the cold, dark, and sometimes scary streets. Their names were Alan (age 5), Marissa (age 4), and Christopher (12 months). They were inside the building finishing a supervised visit with their biological mother when I arrived to take them back to their foster home just before dinnertime.

After hugs and kisses from their very mentally ill mother, Alan put his coat on and turned to help Marissa with hers while I bundled the baby. Alan was forever looking out for Marissa and it both warmed and saddened my heart.

"Alan, thanks for helping. I'll tell you what. I'll do zippers, gloves, and hats, OK?" He nodded and smiled. "It's cold out, but we don't have far to walk. My car is right outside the front door." Good thing, I thought, as I remembered I had a car seat to carry out as well.

I grabbed the car seat and let the straps dangle over one arm while I put the baby on my hip and reached out to hold Marissa's hand. Alan held her other one. We took the elevator to the first floor.

A well-dressed crowd of Children's Services higher-ups, politicians, and local leaders stood in the center of the newly renovated building, preparing for its dedication. A security guard approached me.

"You'll have to exit the back of the building," he told me. I just stared at him. The large building took up an entire city block. It was cold and dark and I had three kids and a car seat with me. The back exit involved a dark alley and a much further walk.

"I can see my car from right here. It is right out front. They haven't even started yet. These people are just milling around. They won't even notice if we squeak through. My car is right there." I pointed out the front window. He was unmoved.

"Sorry," he replied. "Orders are orders. All employees must leave through the back entrance. No exceptions." Meanwhile, Alan and Marissa just held hands and stared up at me. I took a deep breath as I re-adjusted the baby in my arms and headed out the back door.

We walked around the building as the wind from the Ohio River kicked up and snow blew around us. "I'm cold," Marissa said with a red nose and piercing blue eyes. Alan held up his two hands as he climbed into my backseat when we finally arrived. "It's OK," he said. "Miss Holly did gloves." Marissa held her hands up too as she inspected them and thought this over.

"That's right, buddy. I did gloves. The car will be warm in just a minute," I said as I started getting them all situated. "Who wants to listen to Barney on the way home?" The big, purple dinosaur was their favorite.

"Me!" came shouts in unison from the backseat. I slid behind the wheel in time to see two news crews arrive to cover the event going on inside the building. But I knew I had the real story in my backseat.

I will be married 16 years next month. What has changed for foster kids during this time? Everything and nothing. Too often, they are still the untold story, the ones shuffled to the back of the society and cast aside when it is convenient.

But the arrival of 2011 gives us a fresh start and another chance to learn more about these precious children who live in every community across our nation. Maybe this will be the year we get it right when it comes to taking responsibility for these kids.

Get educated. Get involved. Spread the word. Make a new year's resolution to do something, however little, to help a foster child, family, or non-profit agency that serves them.

Make it a happy new year for a child who is frequently cast aside.