BIG CYPRESS — Gratitude was served in hefty portions of homemade meatloaf, armfuls of thoughtful gifts and plenty of applause May 13 at the Foster Parent Appreciation Luncheon on Big Cypress Reservation.
Hosted by the Family Services Department’s Family Preservation program, the two-hour event was a welcomed midday break for 60 otherwise very busy foster parents.
“Today is for you who bring stability and love to the children of the Tribe and to entire families when they are at their lowest. We appreciate you for all your hard work,” said Waitus Carter, a program coordinator who served as emcee.
Department director Helene Buster said about 75 children, from babies to teens, are always in some level of placement at any given time. Empowered by the Indian Children Welfare Act of 1978, the program enables Tribal members to open their doors to children of their extended family or other Tribal children.
“Without our foster parents we’d have to put our children in the outside foster system. We want them here, where we are, to grow up with Clan families and become part of our culture,” Buster said.
But, while Buster celebrated an impressive gathering of loving and generous foster parents, she grieved that more help is needed.
“I hate to say that because it means we have more children in need. We have substance abuse and other problems that cause kids to be removed from homes even if it’s just for a little while. That’s a fearful time for parents and children,” Buster said. “But that’s when you step up at a moment’s notice.”
Guest speaker Tara Robbins epitomized the event theme: Hand in Hand, We Can Work Together. Formerly a parent in need, Robbins is now a full-time outreach worker for the department and a foster mother. Near tears, Robbins spoke from her heart.
“My life was once a shambles. I lost material goods, self-respect and my kids. To my aunt who stepped in and my family who gave me another chance … today, I can be a better mother,” she said. “I am honored to be able to give back the love that was given to me.”
Buster said an eight-bed residential facility at Big Cypress will be open to youth tribalwide likely by the end of the summer. The building will provide shelter on a case-by-case basis and will be especially helpful for adolescents caught in bad domestic situations who may not require long-term fostering.
The facility may also be the answer to quelling adolescent behavior problems that can emerge when a parent, or both, cause family dysfunction.
“We have everything the child needs right here. School, a medical facility, a gym, community center, people who care. We have everything they need to become productive people and change the odds against them,” Buster said.
Dubbed “Foster Parent Survival Kit,” foster parents were given garden baskets filled with Band-Aids to mend hurt feelings; a toy bear to make life “bearable;” marbles for when foster parents lose theirs; Life Savers for all the times they are called to the rescue; and mints because they make the extra super commit-mint.
Family Preservation administrator Kristi Hill said the third annual luncheon, with food provided by members of the Seminoles in Recovery program, also marked National Foster Care Month.
“History shows that the Tribe takes care of their own children. Today, we honor that which is done in formal, legal placement but within a normal family life,” Hill said.
On April 25, during Child Awareness Month, Tribal members also gathered for simultaneous demonstrative walks against abuse at Big Cypress and Hollywood Reservations.
Buster congratulated the parents for always being the ones to take the extra mile for children. She recognized that giving homes to an extra child or two, or even more, requires more hours in the day, food to cook, beds to make, homework to check, baths to draw.
“Most people take those things for granted, but not you,” Buster said. “You do it over and over so that children are not afraid to come home. You give them love.”