First, foster care and adopting children out of foster care should be part of the Church’s pro-life agenda – and you don’t have to adopt or open your home to a foster child to be of immense service in this area. You’ll be surprised how easy it is to help!
Second, whether you are having a hard time adopting or you’ve never even considered adopting or fostering a child, please take the time to pray about it. “People don’t realize that, right now in our country, there are over 100,000 children who are legally free to be adopted. So many children are waiting for homes. People say it’s so hard to adopt. It’s really not if you know where to go. If you want to build your family, there are children who need homes and who are waiting.”Wheeler and her husband Timothy have fostered many children, as you will learn if you watch the two episodes of “At Home With Jim & Joy” on which she appeared. (Watch http://bit.ly/LisaWheeler1 and http://bit.ly/LisaWheeler2.) Of the five children the Wheelers have at home, two are adopted out of foster care. In addition, for the past three years, she and her husband have been fostering a group of three brothers, whom they are trying to adopt. This is a woman who knows of what she speaks! So let’s begin with this foster/adoptive mom’s own story. Wheeler says the first four or five years of her 21-year marriage, she wasn’t worried about the fact that she hadn’t gotten pregnant because she and her husband were traveling and enjoying their personal time together. “It wasn’t until I was around 33 or 34 that I started saying, ‘We’re not doing Natural Family Planning or using any form of contraception [Wheeler is a devout Catholic so this wasn’t an option], and I’m not getting pregnant so something is wrong.” So began the doctor’s visits in an effort to fix the problem. “That’s when I found out I had severe endometriosis — ovarian cysts – that were likely the reason I couldn’t have kids. I had surgery. Months went by, years went by, and I still wasn’t getting pregnant.” Wheeler says it wasn’t until years 10 and 12 of her marriage that she started to get desperate. That’s when she began talking about adoption, but to her surprise her husband was adamantly opposed to it. She would later discover this was not because the children would not be theirs biologically. It was the idea of paying for a child that struck the wrong cord with him. “So flash forward to around year 14. We were sitting in Church and there was an announcement from the pulpit about an information meeting about foster care and adoption at the local Department of Children and Family Services. I perked up because when I was in college, I had done some work advocating for children in foster care, but I had always been on the side of helping reunite families – so I wasn’t putting it together [that this could be a way to build our family.].” Wheeler and her husband went to the meeting and he surprised her again by saying, “‘If this is the way we can build our family. I’m in.’ My husband has a servant’s heart. To him, it was not only that he could potentially be a dad, but he could be helping kids in difficult circumstances. We went through hours and hours of training with lots of intrusive questions and psychological evaluations. Our daughter came to us on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception in 2011. She had just turned 3.” There’s a lot to be learned from her story – and Wheeler doesn’t shy away from the hard issues. She admits: “Not everyone is called to this. If you really feel you HAVE to have a biological child, your option, as a Catholic, is to utilize a method that is morally acceptable in order to get pregnant. If you still can’t [conceive], then you face a lifetime without a child.” That wasn’t a choice for Wheeler, who was desperate to become a Mom. “I never questioned – for me – that I wouldn’t be able to love a child who wasn’t biologically mine. What I’ve learned is that God has given me the ability to love these children more than I ever thought possible. My heart has grown so big parenting them that I don’t know how it could be better than this. I experience all the same fears, anxieties, hopes, and dreams that I would have experienced had I been able to give birth naturally.” But what happens if a foster child is reunited with his or her parent, and there is no path to adoption, which is a real risk and a common objection to foster parenting? “We’ve gone through this 15 times,” says Wheeler, in explaining how she has personally been able to do this. “But when you think of what the alternative is for this child… Isn’t sacrifice the essence of parenting? It’s at the very heart of cooperating with God in the creation and culture of life. And so how can we, in our selfishness, say this is too much for me to bear? When you think about that child, life is too much for them to bear without a parent, without a family unit. To me, that’s a much greater pain than the one I experience from their loss.” Wheeler says the foster children who have passed through her home will always be a part of her family’s lives. She keeps in contact with the children, if the parents allow it, and she maintains a wall with photos of every child. In some cases, she is able to post a current photo of the child next to the one she took years ago, and she talks to the five children she has now about all the children who have passed through their home. What Wheeler doesn’t discuss, until pressed, is the faith that underlies both her words and her actions. ”I had a priest very early on introduce me to the devotion of Mary, Undoer of Knots. This was way before Pope Francis made it popular. I really feel like, under that title, Mary has a special devotion to children who are in desperate situations. I have sensed her working miracles through that devotion. She is invoked daily. Each of my children have an image of her in their rooms – a small painting, as well as crucifixes and rosaries – we are very sacramental in our home. My own personal spirituality is around the Carmelite communion of saints. We have images of the Blessed Mother everywhere. You can’t get around my house without running into her somewhere!” She’s also clear about how important a faith-filled perspective is to her success. “When my mother was dying, I said, ‘I don’t understand how people can go through this type of suffering and not believe in God.’ I feel the same way about foster care. I know there are people who do it who aren’t religious. But quite frankly, I’m flabbergasted at how they are able to manage the stress and to deliver the right portions of virtues that I think are necessary for raising kids to pivot towards Goodness. Virtue is based on understanding what a perfect Good is; we believe that to be God. If you don’t have a Godly worldview, how do you teach a child to pivot towards the Good?” But what if you have prayed about it and you don’t believe you are called to parent a foster child? Can you still help? Absolutely, says Wheeler! “I think priests [and laity], especially those who are not only in a pro-life ministry but in religious education and faith formation, need to be aware that in their pews are likely foster families who have welcomed children into their home and who are parenting them in sometimes really difficult circumstances. It would be a great extension of the pro-life work of the Church to have the ministry include support for foster families.” So what does she recommend parishes do on a practical basis? Here are a few suggestions:
- Set up a closet in the church or the church hall with the basic supplies a foster family needs in a crisis. When Wheeler got the call about the girl who would eventually become her daughter, it was 3 p.m. and she was told she had to be ready to accept the child in two hours. She had no diapers, no sippy cups, no clothes, nothing. “If parishes can accommodate just a small closet that parishioners could restock time and time again, that would be a huge help!”
- Provide a meal. Foster children often stay in a home for only a weekend or a few weeks. These transitions are hard on the family. “Meal help is such an easy thing to do and it’s a real benefit to families fostering children.”
- Babysit – or provide some other type of respite care.
- Help drive children to practices or games. Wheeler says four of her five children are involved in sports and they all have to be in different places.
- Help with homework, or tutor a child in a particular subject.