By Jeanne M. Phelan
“Jeanne, do you think you could care for a 7-year-old boy with special needs?” asked our caseworker.
“What kind of special needs?” I asked.
“Patrick is blind, has cerebral palsy, epilepsy, and intellectual disabilities.”
As she ticked off the list, my apprehension grew. Living as an orphan until age 8 gave me a strong desire to help children stuck in the revolving door of foster care. My husband understood my longing; we applied for our license as foster parents. When our firstborn son, Michael, turned 6 months old, our social worker had called with an emergency placement. Eva, the mother of 3-month-old Sean, brought him to social services. Her plans revolved around celebrating her seventeenth birthday. She placed Sean’s car seat on a desk and walked out.
We had been in the process of leaving Michigan to drive to New York for a family reunion. When our friends heard about Sean, they lent us their RV for the trip. The two babies gurgled and reached for each other, except when they cried and then reached for me. We had “twins” for a year. I never regretted taking Sean, but I did hope for an easier situation this time.
“It’s only for six weeks, Jeanne. Just while his single mom recovers from her operation. Did I tell you she only speaks Spanish?”
Relieved, I said, “We don’t speak Spanish.”
“Oh, that’s OK. Patrick probably doesn’t understand it anyway.”
Fearing the Challenge
Caring for my toddler along with a special needs child seemed like a recipe for exhaustion. Besides, what if something went wrong? I’d worked with special needs teens at a boarding school as a recreational director. Seizures occurred regularly, but a nurse was on duty. Now I’d be left with no safety net. Yet those thoughts didn’t square with Deuteronomy 31:6: “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid . . . for the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.”
Needing information, we spoke with Dennis, our friend from church who taught at Patrick’s school. Dennis and Ann invited our family over for dinner. The three of us squeezed in at their long table, along with their 8 children and a few guests in wheelchairs. Animated conversation, punctuated by jokes from the kids, filled the room with laughter. Looking for information, we found willingness and hospitality!
Dennis made difficult things seem feasible, as he walked me through Patrick’s school, dedicated to children with special needs. Ann showed us that love always could do more. After this encouraging time with our friends and praying more about it, we decided to say yes.
When Patrick arrived, his bus driver showed me how to operate his wheelchair. A soft quilt graced the cot in the corner of the living room, so Patrick could relax and be included in family activities. He spent the first few days sobbing into the quilt. In our son’s eyes, Patrick did have a special need: he needed comfort because he missed his mama. Singing to him helped, but his countenance lit up when Michael gave Patrick his beloved bear to hold. Two boys, the older one with black hair, lustrous brown eyes and olive skin, the younger with fair skin, blond hair and blue eyes, snuggled together with the big golden stuffed bear listening to Winnie the Pooh. We might have missed out on Michael and Patrick’s adventures in the Hundred Acre Wood without Dennis and Ann’s help.
Six o’clock in the morning found my husband, showered, dressed in his shirt and tie, suit jacket laying nearby on the chair. As he tied a large towel around them both, he cradled the boy’s stiff, slim body in his arms, and fed him. When Patrick jerked and the spasms caused his food to land elsewhere, my husband patiently wiped him off. Then he handed Patrick off to me. The six weeks sped by and our son cried when Patrick left to go home. We all missed him.
Meeting the Challenge
Some time after our second son was born, we received our next placement. Dana was diagnosed with cri du chat syndrome (cry of the cat.) This disorder, characterized by intellectual disability and delayed development, left her family hopeless. Keeping interaction to a minimum, they did custodial duties only and gave up their rights.
When Dana found herself smack-dab in the middle of two rambunctious little boys in our house, she languished in her crib, unresponsive. Out in public, heads turned when people heard her high-pitched cry. She sounded like a kitten meowing. A simple explanation usually helped.
Our friends took turns holding her and playing peek-a-boo. Soon comfortable in the presence of others, Dana flourished. When she got older, however, mealtimes brought tantrums because she disliked the taste and texture of most foods. After a long, arduous struggle, she began to eat finger food. Then the day came when she actually picked up her spoon and fed herself. Victory! Despite her learning difficulties, Dana advanced, and as a toddler, her walker careened around corners on her quest to keep up with the boys.
Our family fell in love with this blue-eyed little pixie, with her blond ringlets and charming smile. My husband and I discussed adoption, but after long talks and prayer, the reality of the approaching birth of our daughter caused us to say no. Updates from a friend who worked in her facility tempered the pain of her leaving. Dana’s affectionate nature drew others to her.
Upping the Challenge
After our daughter’s birth, our caseworker called again and said, “Jeanne, do you think you could take in a teenage boy?”
“No! No teens!”
“Yes, but it’s only for six weeks and besides Art is 13, going on 7.”
I groaned. A “throwaway kid,” Art sheltered in an old bus in the junkyard. When the Lord brought this hurting young man to us, Art experienced the truth of Isaiah 25:4: “You have been a refuge for the poor, a refuge for the needy in their distress, a shelter from the storm.” Astounded by this good news, he put his wholehearted trust in Jesus.
Art had smiling eyes, he longed to be a cowboy, and he made friends with all of our friends. Art also liked to help me. Once after he watched me paint the bathroom, he offered to clean up the mess. Afterward he urged me to see the good job he’d done cleaning the paint brushes and roller. Outside, I stared at our yellow stucco house now streaked with blue paint. I handed Art the hose.
Often during our noisy dinners, we would hear Art’s frequent refrain: “I need to talk.” With a nod to the boys and baby in my arms, he added softy, “It’s personal.” My husband’s smiling blue eyes met mine, as he put his arm around Art and walked him outside—where all emergency meetings occurred. Art’s questions: “Should I part my hair on the right or the left?” or “Do you think I look good in this color?” or “Check out these sunglasses. Don’t they look cool?” Moments later, content with his “me time,” he happily strolled back into the house ready to interact with the family—until the next question!
Embracing the Challenge
When our fourth child entered the first grade, I taught as a substitute and enjoyed being in my children’s schools. However, because of my experience as a foster mother, I preferred special education assignments, even though my degree is in elementary education. I taught preschool through high school for 30 years and loved the variety of working with various abilities, including students on the Autism spectrum.
If I had followed my first inclination—to avoid the challenge of fostering special needs children because of fear—my availability to mentor hurting people would have decreased. The knowledge of special needs I’ve obtained, along with the competence and confidence to serve in this area, would have diminished. Another loss would have been the chance to interact with amazing families and dedicated staff, bound by a common goal to accomplish the impossible with disabled children.
Though I feared taking on the special challenges, embracing them enhanced my life with treasured relationships. Because I said yes to the Lord’s leading, he rewarded me and brought these special people into my life and blessed me with precious memories.
Jeanne Phelan is a freelance writer living in San Antonio, Florida.