By JAN LARSON McLAUGHLIN
BG Independent News
Some parents dream of becoming empty nesters. Quiet dinners, no pediatrician appointments, less hectic households.
But Chris and Melanie Feather, of Grand Rapids, felt something was missing when their four boys grew up and moved on.
So they took a bold step – bigger than buying an RV or a warm weather winter retreat – they became foster parents.
“We had empty rooms,” Melanie said. “We really felt that was something we needed to do.”
That was seven years and 19 children ago.
“I love kids. I could probably do this forever,” Melanie said, giving a sideways glance at Chris to check his reaction. It took a few seconds, but then her husband’s straight face broke into a big silly grin.
The couple, who was recently named Wood County Children Services Foster Parents of the Year, has taken in children ranging from newborns to 17-year-olds.
So they now have four adult children, one adopted, plus six biological grandchildren, and “a lot of honorary” grandchildren.
“I always think there’s somebody else out there who needs us,” Chris said.
“There are a lot of kids who need love,” Melanie said. “They come in as strangers and leave as family.”
“Or they don’t leave,” Chris said, referring to all the kids that stay in contact with the Feather family.
“It makes my heart happy,” Melanie said, smiling.
The Feathers readily admit the job of foster parenting isn’t easy. It ranges from fun and a blessing, to frustrating and nearly maddening – and that can be all in one day.
But they try to stay focused on the goal. They are in this to get kids through rough patches in their lives that are no fault of their own.
Some children don’t want to be removed from their families, no matter how bad that environment might be.
“Some of the kids are mad they are in foster care,” Melanie said. She and Chris explain to the children that they realize they aren’t their parents. “But we’ll be their mom and dad as long as they need us to be.”
Chris, a school bus driver and farmer, learned early on what many kids need.
“The kids just want an adult’s attention,” he said. They want consistency and unconditional love.
They have chores, like cleaning their bedrooms, setting the table, unloading the dishwasher.
“Some of them just appreciate having a regular meal,” Melanie said.
“They want somebody to talk to, who listens to what they say,” she added.
And they seem to appreciate the fact that the Feathers make a big deal out of the kids’ birthdays and holidays, Chris said.
Melanie, who works in the fiscal department at the Wood County Educational Service Center, at first struggled with handling girls after raising four sons. She would caution the girls that her hair styling skills were lacking, unless she consulted the Internet.
Over the years, the couple has learned to “never say never.”
“After the first teen, we said we’d never do that again,” Melanie said. But that didn’t last long.
“We said we’d never take more than two,” at once. But they now have four foster kids, ranging from age 4 to 15 ½.
There have been times that the Feathers have nearly given up on some kids – almost.
“We almost gave three back. We thought about it,” Melanie said. But they stuck by them, and were glad they did.
The Feathers can see the good in children, even if their behavior is challenging, said Shelby Smith, who coordinates the foster care program with Wood County Children’s Services.
“A lot of people think that foster kids are bad,” Smith said. But the Feathers realize the bad behaviors are a result of being abused, neglected or witnessing domestic violence in their homes.
“If you can stick through those difficult times,” it’s worth it, Melanie said.
Chris grew up with a sheltered life, unaware of the abuse that some children experience.
“I had no idea people did this to their children,” he said.
The Feathers realize that when foster children throw tantrums, they are being no different than their biological kids who did the same.
“These kids go through such hard times,” Melanie said. “By the grace of God, we can go through a little bit with them. We’re the adults. They’re the children.”
The Feathers are also there to pick up the pieces after the biological parents don’t show up for scheduled visits.
“The kids are heartbroken,” Melanie said.
Oftentimes, the Feathers get to be there for the children emerging from their pasts of hurt and abuse. As they sat talking about the progress being made by the youngest boy living with them, Melanie beamed about how the children at his preschool now want to hug him when he leaves. And he comes home covered in mud from playing outside. “That’s a good thing,” she said.
Several of the children stay in contact with the Feathers, and some continue to come back for family gatherings.
The worst part, according to Melanie, is saying goodbye, especially to those children who have been with them for years.
“I cry like a baby every time,” she said. “It’s hard to watch them go.”
The Feathers asked that the focus of this story be on the need for foster families.
“We’re a little uncomfortable with the attention,” Chris said.
However, Smith pointed out how desperately the county needs more foster families like them. The county currently has 16 foster homes, but would like to have 30, with at least one in every school district so children don’t have to leave their schools when they are removed from their homes. Currently, only four of the school districts have foster families, she said.
Children’s Services would also like children to not have to leave the county for care.
“We’d like to keep our kids in our own homes,” Smith said.
Foster families do get to select the children they will accept, and some only want younger children.
“We do need people who will open their homes to older kids, too,” Smith said.
Anyone interested in becoming a foster parent should contact Smith at 419-373-6956.