Open hearts, open home

Published 5:26 pm Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Michael and Lauren Heath would like to possibly add five kids to their family.

They recently relocated from Surry County and bought a home in Smithfield to help make their dream come true. But as foster parents, they probably won’t have nine months to get ready for their family to grow. In fact, they might have just a few hours’ notice.

But they’re OK with that and stand ready to open their doors and their hearts.

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Married in 2009, the couple started their lives together in Smithfield. While residing in Surry, they began to consider adoption and foster care after infertility issues arose.

“Lauren is very on top of everything,” said Michael. “In 48 hours, she had all the information, she had packets of information, but it was so expensive to adopt a child.” They decided to focus on foster care.

“We have a great support system,” Lauren said. “Our family, our church family, when we told all of our friends on Mother’s Day 2018 that we were going to become foster parents and start the process and really dive into it, everyone was super excited for us.”

Following training and background checks, the couple received their first foster placement about a year ago. Originally, the Heaths wanted to focus on younger kids. But then the Isle of Wight Department of Social Services reached out to them with a question. They were like “I’ve got an 11-year-old. Can you help?” Michael said.

The only issue they’ve had, Lauren quipped, is that “he’s a 12-year-old boy,” so there’s some preteen-fueled intransigence. “It’s not all rainbows and sunshine,” she said. But “the problems that we have are not because he’s in foster care. The problems that we have are because he’s a 12-year-old boy and he’s testing 12-year-old boy things.”

The couple acknowledged that many children in foster care may have experienced some kind of unfavorable situation that’s significant enough where they need to live in a healthier, more stable environment for the time being.

“They just know that that’s normal and that’s family, and that’s normalcy,” Michael said. “And even when a child is taken out of an abusive situation, whatever that abuse might be, in their mind they want to go back to it because that’s their normal,” he said.

Michael and Lauren said the fun times definitely outweigh the struggles.

“I feel like in America, there’s this stigma that older kids are always trouble in foster care,” Lauren said. “It’s actually just the opposite. They’re the kids that are looking for love, they’re the kids that need someone there.”

Michael said being a good foster parent sometimes means providing the basics that many people take for granted — things like a clean, private room to sleep in that’s warm in the winter and cool in the summer, fresh clothes that aren’t hand-me-downs, and having healthy food on the table. It’s also providing some family structure and accountability — meals together, making sure homework is done and sometimes just being present to listen with an open mind.

“We did have talks with our nieces and nephews and our younger kids in our church,” Lauren said. “We sat down and chatted with them and just said when you see someone that you don’t recognize and they’re with us, it’s probably because they’re in foster care, and this is what this means and they just need a friend, so will you be their friend?

“I couldn’t imagine our life without our foster son,” Lauren continued. “He is just a big part of our day to day. We do everything together. If we had the opportunity to adopt him, we definitely would,” she said. “But our first priority is making sure that his family knows that we are just here acting as a buffer until they can get him back,” she said.

Sometimes simple conversations spark fun family experiences, Michael said.

Recently, “we were talking about Mario Kart and how great it was,” he said. Their foster son hadn’t played the game before. They went on Facebook Marketplace, found someone selling a Nintendo Switch in Northern Virginia and made a road trip out of it. In a few hours, the youngster had just about mastered the game.

But Lauren was quick to add, although tangible things are nice, “when we asked him what he’s missing or what he wants the most in his life he says, ‘A family.’ I think most kids in foster care would say the same thing.”

Michael, who works at Liebherr in Newport News, and Lauren, who is an insurance agent with State Farm, are remodeling their new home and anticipate being able to welcome more young people into their lives.

“There’s such a need in Isle of Wight and neighboring counties for foster parents,” Lauren said. The couple praised the county’s social services for providing ongoing support and guidance. Lisa Watson, who is a family services supervisor with the local agency, said there’s opportunities available.

“Isle of Wight Social Services is committed to promoting safety and wellbeing of children and families,” said Watson. “Children entering the foster care system deserve and need temporary safe, loving and nurturing homes, which is vital to their long-term emotional, mental and physical development.  “Recruiting, training, supporting and retaining dedicated foster parents is one of the agency’s top priorities,” Watson continued. “Foster parents’ dedication to the journey of making the difference bridges opportunities for children more than they could ever know.”
Anyone who would like information on becoming a foster parent may contact Watson at 757-365-0880.