We Are Their Village

A series on Foster Care

In Australia we have a very sad statistic. The number of foster carers is going down and the number of kids in care is going up. What’s wrong with that picture? In my mind, I think a lot of this has to do with the way in which we are connected (or not) to each other.

One of the most common things I hear from people when they find out that I am a foster carer is ‘Ohhh I don’t know how you do it! I could never give them back’. It’s funny isn’t it, because these same people, when they are aunties & uncles, grandparents or just friends say things like ‘the best thing about looking after these kids is that I can give them back at the end of the day’.

In reading some of the blogs written about foster caring or about families who do things like heading off to Africa or China to volunteer at orphanages, hospices and the like, I’m struck by the outpouring of emotion in the comments. It’s clear that we like to see ‘good’ being done. And yet…it’s not enough to spur most people to action.

I know very well, that foster caring is not for everyone. Most people are busy raising their own kids, they have their own challenges and may not be in a position to be able to care for others as well. Some people are just not suited for the job.

However…there are so many small things you could do and endless ways in which you can be a part of making your community reflect the kind of values you strive to grow in your family. Letting your own children see you act on this and allowing them to be a part of it will raise you up in their eyes, helping them to understand one of the most important things in life – that we are in this together.

Whatever the circumstances may be in your life, I really encourage you to think of ways in which you might be able to help those children in your community who are most vulnerable. These children are ours. We are their village.

 

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The Goalposts Just Shifted

Day 23: Autism Awareness Blogathon

I know that as a parent, you spend most of your time dealing with the practical aspects of parenting. When your child has autism we do the same thing, but we don’t have the assurance of the future that you do with a neurotypical child. We don’t know what our/their future will look like. So we focus on the day to day and try not to get disappointed with ourselves for dreaming about this mystical, clouded  idea of a future hoping it will be full of happy, meaningful independence. Because, seriously, we have NO idea what it will actually look like.

On the weekend I attended a really fantastic conference session presented by Michael McDowell of the Childhood Development Network – one of our local private multi-disciplinary clinics here in Brisbane (Australia). And now I know why this Paediatrician has had his books closed for some time! Here’s the rundown from the session:

Our goalposts as parents need to be on our child’s transition to adult life. If we frame what we do as our children are growing with that pivotal point in mind, then we can effect great change. Most importantly our decisions can be made with this child & family focused outcome in mind rather than what the therapists/teachers/specialists etc. might think, however good their intentions may be.

There are four main areas to consider:

  1. Mental health and happiness
  2. Social participation
  3. Vocation/meaningful daytime activities
  4. Independence to the greatest degree possible

Using these four categories, look at constructing a plan which focuses on the next 6-12 months but with the bigger goal of transitioning into adulthood with all four areas optimised always in mind.

McDowell suggests developing a ‘team’ drawn from our community. Look to your extended family, work, sport and social groups, teachers, kids in your child’s class and within the broader school. Identify who you might like to include in your child’s team then look at how you might bring them into the team.

Develop a simple profile of your child remembering that you are controlling the message and the information you are sharing about your child. The profile should include the positives – what your child is good at, likes and what is likeable about them; the difficulties – what is unexpected or hard for your child and how they adapt; and the reasons it may be difficult for your family, the challenges you face in caring for your child.

Communication needs to be parent driven, keeping the team informed, bringing them together to share ideas and celebrate successes with your family. The team can be fluid with roles and goals delegated appropriately, but are all committed to working with your family to assist you in achieving the best possible outcomes for your child.

It’s important to keep in mind that we want our children to enjoy being themselves. Their positive self awareness, how they think about and manage themselves as adults, stems from feeling safe and loved within their family and wider community and this in turn builds resilience.

I don’t feel like I’ve really captured the spirit in which this information was delivered. It was actually quite empowering whereas what I’ve written above sounds a bit clunky. I really like the idea of planning with the end goal in mind and I feel like I already have the makings of a ‘team’ – people who love and care about my child. I know I need these people in my life whether I formalise their roles or not. I had to call on quite a few of them just to be able to attend the conference (3 different babysitters on each of the two days!). 

One of the most important messages this guy had was to focus on the family as a whole, not just the child. Our children need their families to be strong and happy, not worn out parental wrecks who are angry or divorced and sullen, resentful siblings. So go now, get off the computer and give your partner a warm cuddle and tell them that you love them. 

Island Life: part 2

The family I lived with in this island paradise consisted of the grandmother – an enormous woman who slept and spent most of her time in the kitchen, the grandfather – a skinny & fit guy who gardened and fished most days and kept himself generally busy. Their youngest daughter Salome and her husband Bale a young, couple who became good friends, and two teenaged grandchildren. There were other relatives on the island, but these were the people who I spent every day with.

Living on Yanuca (pronounced Yanutha) was a very simple and healthy existence. Food was mostly fish, caught each day, rice, some vegetables – eggplant and a delicious green leafy vegetable called bele, a lot of coconut milk and a huge amount of casava – a bland root vegetable that is a staple throughout the pacific. Every now & then a chicken or pig would be killed, but this was rare. I learned to bake beautiful bread on an open fire and would occasionally cook something to entertain everybody with the strange things that we eat in Australia.

Being the only white girl provided endless amounts of entertainment for everybody. I was the butt of everybody’s joke in the nicest possible way. As they explained it, I gave them something different to talk about and in a small, isolated community, that difference made a big impact. I got used to people laughing at me, so used to it that as I started to learn the Fijian language, I was able to have a laugh too. I certainly gave them a lot to laugh about as I learned about island life.

Everybody had to work, though it took them a while to let me truly make a contribution on a daily basis. Most of the work was done in the morning between breakfast and lunch. After lunch was reserved for a lie down. Oh how I loved that nap. It took me approximately 5 seconds to go to sleep and I’d wake about 2 hours later, ready for the next phase of the day.

Every afternoon as the sun went over the hill and created a beautiful shaded area between the bures and the water, we would start a game of volleyball. If you weren’t playing, you were watching. After a number of intense games, we would head back to the kitchen to prepare the evening meal – scraping the coconut, tending the fire, shooting the breeze. After the evening meal, everyone would gather again to drink kava, play music, sing, dance and tell stories.

I had some amazing experiences – seeing the annual spawning of the mbalolo coral worm where a flotilla of dinghies headed out pre-dawn to harvest these multicoloured headless worms as they rose from the coral and turned this corner of the ocean into a seething, wriggling wormworld – mind-boggling.

I saw quite a few sharks and I’m not talking about those friendly reef sharks I was initially worried about. One in particular silenced the boat as we passed it swimming in an area where they guys often went diving. The distance between dorsal and tail fins was easily 8 feet. It was a true Jaws moment.

One day a few of us took a boat and travelled around the island fishing, diving, picnic’ing and having a lot of fun. In the afternoon we were in the beautiful little bay where the yacht had first dropped anchor, when a friend said ‘oh, look, the big fish are coming’. I was in the deep water hanging onto the boat – I need more information. What do you mean big fish? You know – the ones with the (they made the shape of a dorsal fin). I started trying to hook a foot into the boat – trying to hoist myself out of the water in an extremely undignified and desperate manner (more laughter). I wasn’t keen for a close encounter. Of course, it turned out to be a pod of dolphins who stayed and played with us for the rest of the day.

It was my sad duty to have to tell everyone that Elvis had died (this was 7 years after the fact) – they were horrified. They were equally amazed when I told them about washing machines – that was simply too much to take in – inconceivable!

Eventually I had to head back to Australia. I had spent my $800 (mostly on flour, rice & tea) and had been there for close to a year. Christmas & New Years had come & gone and we were now in 1985. Time to go back to my home country and get on with my life.

The time I spent on Yanuca changed me. It gave me the chance to spend some time reflecting on what was important to me. I had no idea that was what I was doing but when I returned to Australia I poured all my energy into music and I know that this time had made me feel that was possible. I loved the freedom of having no expectations on me and in some ways felt that my time there was like a second chance to be a teenager, without the angst.

I cried like a baby as I left the island, everybody did. I stayed in touch for a few years, sending boxes of clothes and fun things for the kids. But as my life moved on that connection waned. I don’t think I’ll ever get back there but the people who took me into their home and their hearts will always have a place in mine. My dumb idea turned out to be one of the best moves I made.