SHERIDAN — “Mom” is a sacred role but not one defined by biology: All kinds of people fill the role of "mother" to children, from grandparents to older siblings to fathers, foster parents and adoptive parents.
“It’s so important for all youth to feel safe and loved, and to have a connection with at least one permanent adult,” said Lindsay Kaeding at Raise the Future, a Rocky Mountain nonprofit that focuses on connecting children in foster care with stable adults. “It only takes one person to completely change the future for a child or youth. Sometimes they just need a mentor or a friend. What they need is just one adult they can rely on to always be there for them.”
As of April 1, the Wyoming Department of Family Services had 1,030 total children in foster care, according to Foster Care Program Manger Tom Kennah. Carla Trier at the Sheridan Foster Parent Exchange said she’s seen family, friends and community members step up to be that person for children in need.
“I have a single grandpa with a special needs granddaughter he is raising. His wife is deceased, so he is it for the child. Another one is 77,” she said. “From what I’ve seen, these children just need someone to show up, because their parents have not been able to. There are people who have said no to them, and they just need someone to say yes.”
Foster parenting, adoptive parenting or serving as a court appointed advocate or volunteering with Big Brothers Big Sisters can create a mentorship in children’s lives, which is crucial. According to Kaeding, youth that age out of foster care at age 18 without any type of adult connection have an increased risk of later homelessness, experience earlier pregnancy, work in lower wage positions and face a lack of education, as compared to their peers.
“It is a different kind of mom-ing, but it’s someone who shows up,” Trier said. “I take them to church on Sunday, or I go visit them in jail, or I know that it is their birthday and I follow up. I have a list that I do for Christmas stockings, and I know where every one of those kids have gone.”
There’s always a need for good foster parents in Wyoming, Kennah said, especially homes that are able to care for older youth or harder to place kids, such as kids in sibling groups and those who have experienced trauma or those with other higher needs.
“Foster care is a support to families, not a substitute for parents, and with that in mind the best place for children is at home,” he said. “Foster care with a relative or kin is the preference.”
Sheridan residents Christa and David Jensen have been fostering for a little more than a year and had a crash-course in parenting during the COVID-19 pandemic. When schools closed, they worked together to cope, relying on family, friends and local support services and resources.
“My mental health as a mom is so important because I’m modeling how to handle stressful situations. Knowing that the children in my care see how I react to life stresses, and that what they see can shape how they cope with stress now and later in life, really helps to remind me how important it is to regularly check in on my own mental health,” she said.
Jensen works for Compass Center for Families as a parent educator, and said she and her husband may be unique among other foster parents in that they have not yet had their own biological children. She hopes to one day, but Jensen said she will continue to support foster children no matter what the future brings her family.
“There can sometimes be a stigma associated with infertility and a general lack of awareness. In an effort to destigmatize and raise awareness, I am choosing to be more open about our journey,” she said. “Sometimes dealing with infertility and pregnancy loss, both of which I have experienced at this point, can feel very isolating and very lonely, especially with Mother’s Day coming up."
She has loved each child she has cared for as a foster parent, she said.
“While I hope that someday soon we can welcome a child through birth, I'm still so grateful for the experiences we have had as foster parents,” she said. “It's a really unique experience, because just because they don’t need me forever doesn’t mean I don’t put 110% into parenting them. It just means that I know I won’t have them forever.
"But when I have them, I can plant seeds. I can show love and affection, and I can give them affirmations about themselves and their family. I can be a part of that while I have them," she said.
Sandy Thiel at Big Brothers Big Sisters of Sheridan said that while her volunteers don’t take on the role of a parent, they do supplement the family in times of need.
“If it’s a single parent situation, or a father-son event and there is not a dad available, our Bigs have gone to fishing events or to the Pinewood Derby. The same with the other mother-daughter things that can happen in single-parent households,” Thiel said.
Often parents work multiple jobs and can’t be present for their child’s events, and a Big can fill the gap. Some families worry that a Big will replace a parent, but that is never the goal.
“We’re never going to replace that motherly role, but we tell our Bigs they can be a partner to that family. If the mom says, ‘I have to work, can you go to this event? If I take off work, I don’t get paid and I can’t pay the rent,’ and if they have to make a choice about putting food on the table or attending, that’s where the big can step in,” Thiel said.
The cliche that it takes a village to raise a child is true, she said.
“No one takes the place of a mom or dad, but I will use myself as an example. My son is adopted. I’m not his natural mother, but I’m his practical mother. He is aware of that. We never want to replace that role, but you support it. You supplant it. You celebrate with them, that role,” she said. “So maybe your natural mom can’t be here with you, but she still loved you by having given you up.”
Days like Mother’s Day, she said, can be lonely for so many reasons.
“We do hear from our kids, when you have a single mother and it is Father’s Day, it might feel bad that you don’t have someone to celebrate,” Thiel said. “Both my parents are gone, so every Mother’s Day, I grieve. Family Day would be fabulous, because we could celebrate all relationships.”