Recently I took a drive through the countryside and arrived at the charming Victorian home of Cricket, a foster mom for nearly 19 years.  Over 100 foster youth, all girls, have entered the doors of Cricket’s house, some to stay a night, some to stay for years.  In fact, in the past 19 years, Cricket has never had an empty home for even one night.  Cricket greeted me at the door of her immaculate home where the woodwork is all in the process of being stripped and refinished.  I admired the old intricate woodwork, now exposed, and was shocked to find that she had done all the stripping on her own – in addition to being foster mom and confidant to 5 young ladies at the present.  This diminutive woman is a dynamo.  She loves to be busy.  And her girls definitely keep her busy and happy.

Cricket became a foster parent unintentionally.  Nineteen years ago she was running a daycare when a call came from the local school stating that a child was waiting there with no place to go.  Her mom had not shown up to bring her home.  Back then, rules were more relaxed and Cricket was asked to keep little Grace at her daycare until Grace’s mom could be located or another plan made.  Grace ended up staying with Cricket for the next eleven years thereby introducing Cricket to her calling in life: foster parenting.

Soon, other little girls followed Grace into Cricket’s home and heart.  Cricket says, “After 2 or 3 more placements of 4 to 5 year olds, then a teen came and I never went back to the young kids.”  Cricket clearly loves these teenage girls.  She has many collages of their photos that she keeps displayed along the stairs and in the halls.  She calls them “butterflies”.  Cricket believes that she cannot expect the girls to change overnight.  And when the girls arrive she makes it clear that she will be there for them.  She knows they need understanding, patience and love.  But don’t let her small stature fool you – she is a force to be reckoned with!

When each girl arrives, Cricket brings her into the living room and explains the rules.  First, they will need to go through all of the young lady’s belongings together to check for contraband.  Then the other girls, and there are always other girls waiting, will excitedly show the newcomer to her bedroom.  Cricket has three bedrooms for the girls, two are private rooms with a twin bed in each and these must be earned.  Every girl starts out in the bedroom where there are 5 beds – a bunk bed and three twins.  It is huge and there is plenty of room for each girl but I am sure that many of them long for one of the coveted “singles”, a great incentive to follow the rules.  Cricket spends a long time talking to the girls.  She explains the chore lists, lets them talk and tells them to believe in themselves.  Many of the girls come to Cricket’s home after 5, 6, or 7 previous placements.  Some, she explains, immediately want to leave and some want to stay.  Many are from inner city homes and are nervous about being in the country.  A majority are shocked by the deer heads she has mounted on the wall – and are really stunned to find that Cricket shot these deer herself and will be feeding them venison.  One girl kept closing the shades and locking the doors so she would feel safe. Another stayed an hour and politely stated she was leaving.  Although she did eventually leave to be closer to the city, she still calls Cricket to let her know how she is doing.

Cricket smiles as she says, “I love watching the metamorphosis.  They start out in a cocoon and soon I can see a crack coming, their heads come out and they begin to smile.  Oh my God,” she says, “This is all worth it!  A butterfly will come out.  This is why I do this.”  She calls the process “climbing the ladder” and she says that is how she explains it to the girls.  “You have to climb the ladder to get to the top and you can always see the light there at the top.  Just take one step at a time.”  She says that knowing the behaviors will eventually change gives her the patience to see each girl through her tough times.  But Cricket does admit that there are times when a girl needs more than she has to give.  At these times, and they have been infrequent, she calls on her DCF case workers to planfully transition the girl to a higher level of care.  Cricket states, “DCF has been very respectful and listens to me.  If you do your part and work with them then they work with you and I do work with them.  I do what I can to bring the girls to visits with their families and medical and psychiatric appointments.  I have the girls’ families here, both parents and siblings in other foster homes.  The parents feel so guilty and then slowly come to realize that you’re just trying to be the best foster mom you can. It’s so important that they know connection.”  Cricket has even been known to pick up a child’s family and bring them to graduation.  Cricket gets choked up as she tells me, “Families have called me after a girl has returned home to thank me and some have said if it wasn’t for you, I don’t know what would have happened to my daughter. You saved her.”

Maureen Barber, a DCF clinical social worker, has worked with Cricket often over the past five years.  Maureen says, “I surmise that one of the reasons that Cricket is able to work so effectively with the teenage girls she fosters has to do with the “practice what you preach” lifestyle that she demonstrates. She is a tiny lady who is not only able to singlehandedly care for and renovate  her own large home but also cuts and stacks her own wood, hunts game, and takes the girls on outdoor adventures as well as dream vacations because of her budgeting expertise. The girls learn real life skills as well as what it means to care for family and friends by Cricket’s loving example. She is the epitome of what healthy feminism and a nurturing parent is all about.”

Taking teenagers is always a tough sell for recruiters of foster parents.  Many people believe that they cannot handle the baggage teens have accumulated.  Cricket says she often encourages others to become foster parents of teens.   It is so clear that she passionately believes that these kids can and do make good choices and better futures for themselves with support from an adult who believes in them.  She’s seen it.  She’s been a part of it.  She’s been mother of the bride and granny to kids who are now grown and have families of their own.  She’s cheered on kids who’ve gone to college.  And she’ll tell you, “There’s always that one kid that will call and say you’ve made a difference.  It takes a while.”  But this is one patient woman and she definitely is willing to wait.

This article was written by Deb Kelleher for Annie C Courtney Foundation. All rights reserved.