May is National Foster Care Month!
“[Foster] children need and deserve safe, loving, and permanent families who can help restore their sense of well-being and give them hope for the future” –President Barack Obama in a president proclamation from the White House (May 2nd, 2012)
May is National Foster Care Month. In honor of this special month, we pay tribute to Holt’s loving foster families in Korea and China, India, Thailand and Vietnam who devotedly nurture and protect thousands of vulnerable children every day. When children come into Holt’s care in these countries, it’s the foster families who wrap them up and comfort them, giving them love for possibly the first time in their lives. They love and care for the children as if they were their own and provide for their every need until they go home to loving, permanent families.
Last year, two foster mothers from Korea visited Holt’s headquarters in Eugene, Oregon. Read about their visit below.
Holt honors two foster mothers from Korea. Since 1995, Mrs. Choi has cared for 67 children. Mrs. Lee has cared for 312.
by Robin Munro, Senior Writer
Mrs. Choi hasn’t seen Isaac in more than a decade. Back then, Isaac wore diapers, and went by the Korean name Dong-joon. Since then, Isaac has sprouted into a lanky 13-year-old boy who plays the trumpet and loves Star Wars memorabilia. He now lives in California with his parents and sisters.
Isaac may have been too young to remember Mrs. Choi, but Mrs. Choi sure remembers Isaac. As a Holt foster mother in Korea, Mrs. Choi, Yeong-sun cared for Isaac during the first five months of his life, before he joined his adoptive family in the U.S. and became Isaac Hughes.
Every year, Holt honors two foster mothers for their devoted service to children awaiting adoption in Korea. Holt Korea flies them from Korea to Holt’s headquarters in Eugene, Oregon, where we treat them like royalty for a few days. Every year, we also invite families of children they’ve cared for to a reception in Eugene. Isaac’s family couldn’t travel to Oregon for the event, but they wanted to do something special for Mrs. Choi. So they put together a picture collage of Isaac over the years, including a photo of Mrs. Choi holding Isaac as a baby. “I was hoping that would spark her memory of him,” says Isaac’s mom, Barbara.
They also recorded a video, in which Isaac takes Mrs. Choi on a virtual tour of his room. He shows her his Lego creations, his trophies, his Star Wars collection. She smiles, amused, as she watches the video during the Holt reception. As he begins to play the Korean National Anthem on his trumpet, Mrs. Choi sighs with joy. Although she can’t understand what he says, she understands this melody.
“Thank you for taking care of me when I was a baby,” he says at the end of the video, smiling broadly. It’s clear. Isaac has a good life and a loving family, and Mrs. Choi is so pleased to see that.
“This opportunity to see the kids I’ve cared for grow up so beautifully and strong brings me such joy. I’m so grateful to the parents who’ve love them so well,” says Mrs. Choi, in Korean, after both foster mothers are presented with awards for their service. Sitting beside Mrs. Choi is her fellow honoree, Mrs. Lee, Wol-seop, both of them wearing traditional hanboks.
Although Isaac’s family couldn’t make it, two families did travel to Eugene for the event – the Ellisons, from Springfield, OR, whose daughter Lindsay Mrs. Lee cared for as a baby; and the Gibsons, from Olympia, WA, whose son Noah was in Mrs. Choi’s care.
Today is a particularly serendipitous day for Mrs. Choi and Noah’s reunion. “We think that today is eight years to the day that he came into Mrs. Choi’s care,” says Noah’s mom, Christy, as Noah plays with a remote control truck – a gift from Mrs. Choi. Noah entered foster care the day after he was born. Yesterday was Noah’s eighth birthday.
Bill and Christy Gibson met Mrs. Choi once before, when they traveled to Korea to pick up their son a little less than eight years ago. “It was so heart-wrenching,” Christy says of the moment Mrs. Choi said goodbye to the little boy she had nurtured for the first five months of his life.
“To raise a child like that, knowing you’d have to give that child up, is something I don’t think I could do,” says Paul Kim, Holt’s director of programs for Korea. “Holt Korea loses the most foster moms after the first child. It’s too hard.”
Mrs. Choi confided to Paul that after saying goodbye to her first several foster children, she was ready to quit. But she couldn’t resist the opportunity to care for just one more.
One more turned into another one and then another. Since 1995, Mrs. Choi has cared for 67 children. Mrs. Lee, 312.
“The caring for these children is truly something that I love,” Mrs. Lee says after the award ceremony. “I’m thankful to all of you for honoring me in this way.” Lindsay Ellison, now 14, was one of the first children Mrs. Lee cared for as a foster mother. Her whole family remembers and ask about her, in particular Mrs. Lee’s two sons, who grew very fond of Lindsay during the months she spent in their home.
Through translation, Mrs. Lee shares the things she remembers about Lindsay. She remembers that she smiled a lot, and that she sunburned easily in the summer. At home, she has photos of Lindsay with her sons and family. “I always hoped to meet her,” she says.
Mrs. Lee’s mention of her sons’ fondness for Lindsay underscores a point made earlier by Paul. The whole foster family raises the children, he says. It’s often just as hard for the foster family to say goodbye as it is for the foster mother.
The love and care these families provide is truly in a category unto itself.
Over 40 years ago, Holt played a major role in developing the Korean model of foster care – a model of attentive, nurturing care later adopted by many other countries. In the U.S., the term “foster care” has such a negative connotation that the Korean system deserves a different name, says Paul. In Korea, fostering a child is considered an honor. Some families have been caring for children for 35 years. Some also pass the torch to their children who, seeing how wonderful it is, choose to become foster parents themselves – becoming, in a sense, “second-generation” foster families.
For the children, the value of foster care is both immediate and long-term. Foster families provide a nurturing attention that children rarely find in orphanage settings. When placed into the warm, soft arms of a Mrs. Choi or Mrs. Lee, they immediately feel safe and comforted. When they cry, someone responds – and with a consistency they can rely on. In an orphanage full of crying infants, caregivers are often too overwhelmed to attend to every child’s needs. Study after study has proven, however, that such devoted care is essential to a child’s development. In that way, foster care serves a lasting purpose in the lives of children. It helps them achieve developmental milestones, and to form healthy attachments – easing the bonding process with their adoptive parents as well.
“There is no point in their lives that they haven’t been truly loved – from their birth mother to their foster family to their adoptive family,” says Paul.
Although Noah was too young to remember Mrs. Choi, his parents made a point of imparting the significance of her role in his life. “When I said, ‘your foster mom is going to be here, do you know who that is?’ he said, ‘yes, that’s the woman who took care of me,’ ” says Christy.
Seeing Noah, Lindsay and Isaac happy, healthy and strong is enough for Mrs. Choi and Mrs. Lee. They don’t need recognition to continue fostering children. But they deserve it.
And even though letting go of children never gets easier, the joy is worth the heartache.
“Caring for the children just brings such happiness and joy to me,” says Mrs. Choi. “That must be why I keep doing it.”