You don't have to raise
a foster child
to raise him up.
You just have to raise
your hand and
say you'll help.
A rocking bear given by Kilfoil's family is one of Marley's favorite toys.
As the mothers of special needs children, Angela Guyre, left and Kristy Kilfoil share many common experiences.
Talk of feeding tubes and delayed motor skills fills the comfortable Tigard living room, where two mothers sit cross-legged on the floor with their daughters. As mothers of children with special needs, the women quickly bond during their first meeting.
"Letting go of the milestones is huge," Kristy Kilfoil advises her new friend, Angela Guyre. Their daughters will make progress, Kilfoil reassures her, "just not in the timeframe you read about in Parents Magazine."
By reaching out as one mother to another, Kilfoil is proof that volunteering comes in many forms and that you don't have to become a full-time foster parent to give a child a better future. Through the Multnomah County Commission on Children, Families and Community, Kilfoil had already provided Guyre with kitchen supplies, towels, children's clothing and toys. Today Kilfoil makes a personal visit to offer the most special gifts: her friendship and support as Guyre prepares to regain legal custody of her two daughters the following week.
Oregon agencies – the Department of Human Services, Judicial Department and Commission on Children and Families – have joined with Casey Family Programs to safely and equitably reduce the number of Oregon children in foster care. Community involvement and volunteerism are key to the partnership's success and at the core of the Raise Me Up campaign, an advertising and social-media effort that began in March to educate and mobilize Oregonians.
Guyre's older daughter, Marley, was taken into state custody while her mother was hospitalized during her second pregnancy. On March 10, 2010, Guyre gave birth to Jane at 31 weeks. The infant suffered from cardiac, kidney and spinal abnormalities associated with VATER Syndrome. After six months at Doernbecker Children's Hospital, Jane was placed in medical foster care at her mother's request and later returned to the hospital for heart surgery.
Guyre, who had left her job and apartment in Eugene when she was hospitalized in Portland, was homeless and had struggled with drug addiction. As part of her case with the Department of Human Services, she completed court-ordered drug treatment and found housing with the help of Hope Springs, a program of Lutheran Community Services Northwest. Health care professionals, including the medical foster mother, helped Guyre learn to meet her daughter's need for specialized care.
Guyre and then-18-month-old Marley were reunited in November. The young mother had decided to leave her infant daughter in foster care longer than required so that she could become more stable in her recovery before taking on Jane's care full time. She also needed to settle into her new apartment – which was bare except for their beds. A network of supports went to work helping her create a home for the two girls. DHS caseworker Gina Connors contacted the Multnomah County Commission on Children, Families and Community and explained Guyre's need for furniture and household goods. Amanda Thompson, a commission volunteer and Portland State University student, began contacting people who had listed items for sale or to give away on Craig's List.
Kilfoil was one of the people she contacted.
"She asked about the Baby Bjorn I'd listed for sale," Kilfoil recalls. And when Kilfoil learned it was for a mother with a special needs child, "my heart went out to her."
Kilfoil's daughter, 8-year-old Mirabella, has a genetic disorder called Wolf-Hirschhorn Syndrome, which causes global delays and seizures. She started walking at 5 and hasn't yet learned to speak.
With two other children, boys ages 5 and 2, Kilfoil understands the parenting demands Guyre faces and that her lack of financial resources puts Guyre at a tremendous disadvantage. That's why Kilfoil was glad to help: "It was the right thing to do."
"Kristy (Kilfoil) gave above and beyond," says Thompson, who believes it's the community's responsibility to help keep children safely at home whenever possible. By January, when Jane came to live with her mother and sister, Thompson's efforts and donations from the Community Warehouse filled Guyre's apartment with everything from a couch and lamps to a vacuum cleaner to food and diapers to clothing for both girls.
Mary Geelan, early childhood coordinator, supervises Thompson's volunteer work. She also oversees a blog at http://fosterchange.wordpress.com/ and Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/home.php#!/pages/Foster-Change/120082934716183, where the commission lists things that struggling families need. She's seen first-hand the needs of families and knows that state agencies can't solve all of the problems. It's part of the commission's mission, she says, to bring the community to the table and make people aware of what they can do to help keep children out of foster care and with their families.
Guyre's two daughters, 1-year-old Jane and 2-year-old Marley, show off their new Easter dresses several weeks before their mother regained legal custody of the girls.
Caseworker Connors credits people like Kilfoil for helping to put Guyre in a position where she can be a successful parent. When the community donates goods to struggling families, she says, state funds are more available for things that can't be donated, such as rent and utilities.
While the material goods Kilfoil has provided make life better for Guyre and her daughters, it's clear from their reaction that the more experienced mother's friendship and advice are welcome, too.
On the day the two mothers meet, their conversation travels through memories of their daughters' diagnoses, experiences at Shriners Hospital for Children and struggles with simple daily tasks. Soon Kilfoil is using a doll to demonstrate exercises she does with Mirabella to help strengthen her core muscles.
Later the two women embrace. "I'm just so glad to meet you," Guyre tells her new friend, with whom she's exchanged phone numbers and email addresses.
Guyre is grateful for the help she's received from Kilfoil ("she's a blessing to me"), Thompson ("she's just wonderful") Connors, ("she's really, really great") and many, many others.
She's applied to Portland Community College and wants to become an X-ray technician. Eager to become more self-sufficient, she's set ambitious goals. "I need to spend as little time as possible in school and come out and make as much money as possible to support my girls," she says.
"I know I've made mistakes," she says, "but I know I'm a good mom."