For Lesley Field, spending time as a mentor led her to discover a real passion for helping children. Despite her concerns about balancing a demanding career with being a foster parent, she decided to move forward. Taking one step at a time allowed her to test out being a foster parent and eventually led her to make a decision that changed her life in ways she had never imagined. Read on for the full story.
Foster Family News: How did you get started as a foster parent?
Lesley Field: I volunteered through Fairfax County’s BeFriend-A-Child program. It was terrific and I was paired with two sisters. I got exposed to the programs that Fairfax County offers. I thought I was ready for a little bit more. I had a new job, that was crazy busy, but I really wanted to do this. So, I talked to my team and my supervisors and told them that I wanted to take the classes to be a foster parent. Since the classes are in Fairfax and I worked in D.C., I was required to leave work a little bit early. I decided to just keep going from step to step – go to orientation, then fill out the paperwork, and then take the classes, then finish the paperwork, etc. When I got certified in 2013, I decided to just do respite care to see how that went. I’d never been a parent before, so I wanted to see how well everything worked.
I was matched with a young lady for a week who was inspiring. She was so grown up and put together, and I learned a lot from her. Joel Choi came to me as a respite for a week. He is still a part of my family and living on his own nearby which is so exciting. Then Mikalah came to me in November of 2013, and it was just supposed to be respite for a couple of days, maybe a week or a couple of weeks. In the end we rewrote her story and mine. She became available for adoption in 2015, and I adopted her in the beginning of 2016. She is terrific.
You start down these paths and you are not sure where it’s going, but you feel called to do it. I am so fortunate because Mikalah is a super great kid. She just got back from her sophomore year at Virginia Tech where she is studying nanoscience, chemistry and Japanese. She is a stellar kid. She has a very long list of achievements including captain of the cheerleading squad, National Honor Society, first violinist, and the Girl Scout Silver Award. She has been a real joy to parent.
FFN: How old was Mikalah when she came to stay with you?
LF: She was 13 when she came, in her eighth-grade year, which seems like yesterday. She will turn 20 in a week. I am not sure where the time went.
FFN: What was your motivation for wanting to foster/adopt older youth?
LF: That’s a great question. Sheila Donaldson (currently the FC&A Resource and Support Program Manager) was my home study caseworker, and she also led the PRIDE orientation training when I took it. She had as a much younger person adopted a teen, and she said a lot of people are nervous about adopting older kids because they’re not really sure how they’re going to bond. The teenage years are hard for everybody, so they are not sure what that will look like.
So, I started to think about it. I have a crazy responsible job, and I have all these other things, and I think probably that an older child fits into my life. I am very interested with helping kids get scholarships and internships and really setting them on a path to success. Those are things I like to do, so it really made sense that the older kids were an area that needed attention and I thought, “I can do that.”
FFN: There was that ad campaign just last year about adopting teens.
LF: Yes, I cried every time I saw the ad by the Ad Council, where the teen comes and looks at the photo of a family that is a different race, and different everything and at the end they are all bonded. He sees the new family picture with him in it, and he hugs his foster mom. I get goosebumps just thinking about it, and I told them when we were talking about this year’s campaign that they really hit a nerve with people.
I think what they did with the Mother’s Day campaign was important. You can become a mom even if you thought that you would never have a family, right. I mean there are so many ways to make family, and I don’t think people understand. I think there is a lack of awareness that there are 500,000 kids in foster care and 100,000 teenagers waiting for adoption.
FFN: So if I am following correctly, you have fostered three children over the years?
LF: That was it.
FFN: So have you ever thought about continuing to foster in the future?
LF: I have, and I would love to do it now that Mikalah’s in college and I have a little more time. I have certainly seen more need for foster families and for support for some of the kids who might be aging out in a bad climate. There are lots of ways people can get engaged. If you feel like you can’t be a foster parent. There are organizations that can help kids get set up in an apartment. They can mentor or help kids find jobs. There are lots of ways to help even if they can’t foster themselves.
FFN: What has been the most challenging part of being a foster parent?
LF: Finding the time to do everything. As a single, busy person sometimes, you are as busy as you make yourself out to be. I thought, can I fit anything more in? As soon as Mikalah came to me, she asked, “What’s for dinner?” Then she asked again the next night. I realized that I needed to learn how to do that every night, right? (laughs)
FFN: I think all parents can understand that feeling even if they have been parents for years. (also laughing)
LF: Making time for all of that structure was new. I was really lucky in that I did not have a ton of challenges. Mikalah came from an unhappy family, and she was ready for structure, guidance, love and encouragement, and I had all those things in spades. I think one of the great opportunities I had, because I had terrific parents myself, was a chance to reflect the parenting that I received in my parenting of her. I would find myself saying things, and I was channeling my mom or dad’s lessons from years before.
It was also hard for me because I had missed out on her past. At her adoption luncheon my best friend and her family flew out from Ohio. One of the things that was sad for Mikalah was that she had none of her pictures or awards that she had won in elementary school. My best friend asked for the names of all of the schools she had attended. I gave my friend a copy of the adoption decree and she sent it to each of the schools Mikalah had attended, and they sent all of her yearbook pictures, from kindergarten up. So, we were able to turn them into a collage to hang in the hallway. It was as much for me, since I missed thirteen years. I mourn those years that I missed. Sometimes I think about times she was sad or scared during those thirteen years, and I wasn’t there. Having those pictures and learning more about her backstory has helped to bridge that gap. It’s a lifelong exercise.
FFN: What’s most rewarding?
LF: I get to brag about her because she’s so great. When I was growing up, I would hear parents say, “Gosh, you’ve made me so proud.” I would think, that’s just a word, but when you see your kids do amazing things, and succeed at something that they’ve tried, or overcome something that wasn’t successful. You really are proud in your soul. You are so excited for that individual and what they have been able to achieve or overcome. That pride is something that I wasn’t expecting. I knew I would be happy, but I couldn’t be prouder.
FFN: You’ve talked about what your experience was like fostering and adopting a teenager. How was the experience different from what you expected?
LF: I think when people think about adopting older kids, they are worried that they won’t share some of those iconic parenting experiences. First steps, etc. You fear that you’ve missed your chance to influence them, teach them things or experience firsts with them. I found that not to be the case at all. I was there for the first time she went on an airplane, the first time she went on a train, and the first time we went to the Pacific Ocean. We took pictures to document the moment she put her feet in the sand, and she didn’t really get why it was a big deal for us.
Teaching her to drive with my boyfriend up at our cabin was another first. Even my uncle came out and was trying to teach her. The whole family joined in parenting.
I think those firsts are just as valuable as first steps and first words and all those things. First prom, first car, first boyfriend – the teen years really are filled with a tremendous number of things people forget about. I loved being able to share those with her, and she was very open with asking me to help her with things.
One of my favorite stories is from when she was in middle school before the adoption. It was spring break and it was the Sunday night before she was to return back to school. There was a scholarship opportunity to GMU, and she was reluctant to apply. It is what I do, so I convinced her to apply. We wrote out the answers, and she got the interview.
Beforehand, we went through three or four different practice iterations of the questions, and practiced sitting down, shaking hands, and even threw in a couple of tough questions to see how she could pivot. Well, she did great. She won the scholarship for a full ride to George Mason. In the end she wound up going to Virginia Tech which was just a better fit for her. But I think winning the scholarship to Mason was important, because it was probably the first time Mikalah felt like maybe there is a future for me here and college will be in that future.
FFN: How were you supported through this journey, by county staff, family?
LF: That was one of the best parts of this whole thing. I can’t say enough about Fairfax County including the caseworkers, the home study folks, the people who did the training, and those who answered the phone when we needed something. Fairfax County did an unbelievable job, I felt supported every step of the way. There are lots of appointments, so for a kid who has recently come into foster care having to deal with all these people, there was always someone there.
My friends and parents are great. My boyfriend took the classes, because he was going to be a part of her life even though we don’t live together. Mikalah thanked him at her adoption lunch for that and for being a role model. It’s been great and Joel fit in too. We’ve traveled with them to Europe and Seattle, Glacier National Park and the Bahamas. We traveled as a family. Family can come from so many different ways, and I love the idea of promoting these different types of families whether through foster care or adoption or other ways.
FFN: Before you started this process, did you have concerns or questions before you began to work with the Department?
LF: I think my only concern was not having enough time. I am a member of the federal government's Senior Executive Service, so the job itself is time consuming and I work downtown. So, with traffic and all that, I was more concerned about balancing the responsibility, and I didn’t want to dive head-first into her care. So, I was trying to reprioritize my career to make adequate time for her to make sure that she had what she needed. It worked out that adopting an older child is good for that, because she was very busy and had a list of activities and after school sports. So, we were busy together.
FFN: I am sure that took some balancing with her having so many things going on.
LF: One of the great things about what we decided to do was keep her in the same high school pyramid because her teachers were so important to her. Her base of support through sports, orchestra and counselors were all in that space. While I am sure she would have been fine anywhere, there was so much turmoil for her going through this at the beginning, we didn’t want to make it worse. Fairfax was able to provide a car service so she could stay in her pyramid, and it was a lifesaver until she was old enough to drive. Fairfax is lucky to have those resources!
I also had friends who would pick her up, and she had friends that she has stayed with before to supplement that.
FFN: What’s your advice for people thinking about becoming foster parents or considering adoption?
LF: Yes, the first thing is absolutely, do it! It will change your life only for the better. I cannot imagine my life without her. Second, be very honest with the folks helping you through the process about what you think you can manage. Lean into it. If you think you can’t manage something, consider ways that you could manage it. If you are concerned about time, do you have other resources in your circle to help you. If you are concerned about what to do in certain situations, make sure that you have great relationships with your caseworkers and the child’s caseworkers so they can help you. The answers are there, the support is there. You know it’s absolutely worth diving in.
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