What's Gonna Happen To Me?

What’s Gonna Happen To Me?

A Haunting Question for Kids in Foster Care

We like to think that kids pretty much live in the present. They have adults to worry about them and their future. Their job is just to be kids. Nah! Not true for a lot of kids and definitely not true for kids in foster care. The nagging question in the guts of all of them is “What’s Gonna Happen To Me?”

Susan Patron wrote a gem of a book (“The Higher Power of Lucky”) about a ten-year girl who lived in a mobile home on the edge of the Mohave Desert in California. She lived with her guardian, a woman who had agreed to take care of the little girl until a foster home could be found for her. Explaining to a younger friend the nervousness she felt about being dependent on a guardian, the girl, with the brutal honesty of kids, said “The difference between having a mom and having a guardian is that a mom is supposed to stay with you forever; a guardian can leave anytime.”

The kids in the foster care system have good reason to feel insecure. They might be re-united with their parents some day but they can’t be sure. Will their parents do all that is necessary in the eyes of the court to be deemed competent to take care of them? Or do mom and dad really want them back? Ouch! That one hurts. If their parents are unwilling or unable to take care of them, they could be adopted into another family. What will that be like? Brand new family, schools, neighborhood, and friends. Or maybe a social worker will find a foster home for them. But foster parents can change their minds. RETURN TO SENDER. Putting myself in their place, I’d be nervous, too.

Coping with uncertainty is one of our biggest challenges, even as adults. How often have you heard of a person living with pain for a long time but not knowing the cause? Finally, even if the diagnosis is cancer or some other debilitating disease, he or she is actually relieved because now she knows what she is dealing with. Foster kids want a resolution to their issues too but there are no easy answers. All they do know for sure is their own future is in the hands of adult guardians who may be here today and gone tomorrow. They wake up one morning to find themselves feeling less than other kids, devalued somehow by the neat little pigeonhole, “wards of the court” into which they are thrust. They hunger for some answers, some control over their lives.

Kids living with us at the Children’s Village are not immune to the uncertainty experienced by other foster kids. Because we are part of an imperfect foster care system, we can’t guarantee that each individual child in our care will live securely within the womb of our Village until he or she is 18. A child at the Village can still be adopted or reunified with their parents. In many cases this is desirable but not always. We have had kids sent back to us after failed placements.

What the Village can do is remove as much uncertainly in their lives as possible. We commit to the kids in our care that we will make every effort to keep them together with their brothers and sisters. It’s bad enough to be separated from parents. We feel it’s critical to keep them with their siblings. The other thing we strive for is to make the Village as home-like as possible. Childcare workers who live with our kids are called Village parents not staff. The parents are encouraged to give hugs and tell bedtime stories to the Village kids. We try to create an atmosphere in the homes that is based on relationships rather than on the more institutional model of awarding points for good behavior. And then we have our own secret weapon, the presence of grandparents who live on-site at the Village and who bring their own style of grandparent love to the mix.

We know that foster kids will still wonder what will happen to them but by fostering this nurturing, family-like approach, and keeping siblings together, we can at least assure them of a safe place to live now and give them guidance for their future lives.

Pupfish and Golden Canyons…Death Valley, CA

Pupfish, Golden Canyons and the Pure Desert Air

Death Valley has an undeserved bad name. In reality, it teems with life and a raw clean beauty.

Death Valley was supposedly given its ominous name by gold seekers looking for a short cut to the California gold fields. They lost their way in the desert and were fortunate to escape with their lives. When they finally made it out of the Valley, one of their party, looking back over the wilderness that had given them so much grief, was heard to exclaim “Goodbye Death Valley.” The name stuck.

The real Death Valley does not deserve this rep. The largest National Park in the lower 48 is home to over one thousand species of plants, three hundred forty-six types of bird life and fifty-one species of native mammals. Dead? No way. From the tiny pupfish in the salt marsh to the Big Horn sheep that graze on 11,000 ft high Telescope Peak, this valley teems with hidden life.

I have always been fascinated by survivor stories, so my friend and I began our exploration of Death Valley by taking a short drive from Furnace Creek Ranch to see for ourselves the legendary pupfish of the desert. We were not disappointed. Here, in one of the hottest, driest places on our planet, the ancestors of fish that once swam in an ancient lake that covered Death Valley still survive.

In their year of life, they fight the summer heat (temperatures frequently exceed 120 f), hide from predatory desert birds and flatworms, and fight one another to survive in briny water three times saltier than seawater. These tough little fish give new meaning to the word “survivors.”

We were fortunate to have the salt marsh to ourselves when we arrived so my friend and I took the half- mile boardwalk that circled the pupfish habitat in near solitary splendor. We walked in silence, respectful of this unique environment, feeling a bit like latter day Darwinians coming upon an awesome discovery. It was mesmerizing just standing there by the stream watching fish whose ancestors existed while mastodons roamed the earth. They were a study in constant motion, darting, flitting, burrowing in the sandy bottom. The pupfish haven’t survived by just lolling around the pool. Reluctantly we left these tiny studs of the desert carrying with us a new respect for life.

Our sense of history and wonder awakened by our visit to the Salt Marsh, we next decided to explore one of the ancient canyons that seem to be everywhere in the valley. Neither of us eager to test our stamina on a long hike, we opted for the doable two-mile trail up Golden Canyon. The hike turned out to be one of the highlights of our trip.

Soon after entering the canyon, we found ourselves swallowed up by its massive formations of multi-colored rock and sandstone. Mindful of the well-posted warnings about the danger of flash floods, we kept scanning the canyon walls and looking at the sky for any sign of rain but the skies were clear. So was the air. There is a wonderful aroma to desert air unlike anything else. It’s pure and clean and delicious. As we walked up the canyon, a canyon once covered by a deep fresh water lake, we could actually see on the canyon walls signs of the waves that once had splashed right where we were standing. We grew as silent as the place we stood, sensing that we were in the presence of something bigger than ourselves. This was holy ground.

The following day, we chose to ruin a perfectly beautiful day for a hike by going golfing. Yes, there is a golf course in Death Valley. At 214 ft. below sea level, it’s the lowest golf course in the western hemisphere. The course, as you might expect, is flat but the Panamint Mountain range in the background makes it interesting, that and the coyotes that have been known to steal golf balls on the unsuspecting golfer. Hey, if you’re a golf nut, that’s just one more hazard to overcome. Besides, a sign reminded us “Low score guaranteed.”

What did surprise us was the number of water holes on the course. The course is watered by the same springs that serve the upscale Furnace Creek Inn nearby and is open all year. Needless to say, with summer daytime temperatures hovering in the 120o range, it doesn’t get much play in the summer. The clubhouse is only open until noon during the hot months but, we were told, there are several groups of employees at the Furnace Creek Inn and Lodge that arm themselves with several gallons of ice water and play through the heat. Those are the real golf nuts.

We were astonished to find out that Death Valley National Park has more visitors in the summer when its temperatures are most torrid. Europeans take their holidays at that that time of year and seemingly are undeterred by the hot weather. Americans are more likely to visit in winter when the daytime temperatures hover between 65 and 72. More than a few locals told us that the best months to visit are March or April. It’s warmer then but not yet hot. Don’t bother bringing an umbrella no matter when you go. The Valley averages less than two inches of rain annually.

We found our January trip to Death Valley to be more than satisfying. Warm days, cool night, a gorgeous star-filled winter sky and it wasn’t even crowded. I’d take that combination anytime. Accommodations at this time of year at the historic Death Valley Inn will run you in the vicinity of $350 per room. You can be pampered at the Inn with its fine dining, heated spring-fed pool, afternoon tea and the amenities that come with a first class resort or you can stay at the Furnace Creek Lodge, where we found clean and comfortable lodgings for about half the price. If you are into camping, there are plenty of campgrounds ranging in price from free to $12 per night. For general park information, including directions, call 760-786-3200 or go online at www.nps.gov/deva.