Laina Julier and Mike Albert are one of the first host families for MARE's Weekend Family Connections program. The program, which families commit to for a year, connects youth in residential foster care with host families in the community for two weekend nights a month. The goal is for the child to experience family life and build connections in the community that may lead to an adoptive home.
Laina and Mike had some previous experience as foster parents, and have two biological children. For them, the decision to begin fostering again through the Weekend Family Connection program was not one they took lightly. “Our kids were approaching graduation from high school, and we didn’t know if we could do the whole job of full-time foster parenting again,” said Laina. “We’d gotten used to the independence of high school children, and so we asked ourselves if we were prepared to give up some of that freedom.”
For Laina and Mike, fostering involves the whole family so they wanted to be sure their children were supportive of the commitment as well. “This is a family decision so we needed them to be on-board. Though they would be away at college for much of the time, they would play an important role when they came home on weekends and during vacations.”
After getting started with the program, their family was matched with a boy named Ethan. The program asked Laina and Mike to make a short video introducing themselves, and talking about their family and their interests. Ethan would watch the video and then decide if he wanted to meet them. He decided he wanted to, and their first meeting was done over Zoom. “It was a quiet, awkward experience to meet a child over Zoom but we all made the best of it. ”The next visit was in person. “Because of COVID, we met him at his program with masks on, sitting six feet apart at a table in the gym. We played Connect Four and Uno with him and his DCF worker. That led to visits off-ground at a playground and to get lunch. Once COVID restrictions were eased further, Ethan was finally allowed to visit Laina’s and Mike’s home for a full-day, and then they began to get together on most weekends. “Mike and I have a background in Special Education,” Laina said, “so we’re comfortable with the unexpected and enjoy the challenges of figuring out what individual kids need and trying to help them grow at their own pace. We also have great friends who let us share our experiences and help us problem-solve.
Laina and Mike work to emulate real family life in their time with Ethan. They try to create a natural experience in their home rather than planning flashy, expensive activities for the weekends he spends with them. “The plan is to create something like what home was like for our kids,” Mike said. “We make breakfast together and then wash the dishes and clean-up afterwards. We walk around the neighborhood, say hi to some folks, pet a dog or two and maybe go for a bike ride. We’re not regularly going to the trampoline park, the movies, or Chuck E. Cheese. A lot of times that happens in group homes out of necessity, but we try to keep the weekends more low-key. We try to just do regular activities that any family needs to do during our time together, like raking leaves and doing home repairs, but we do them together. Many times, our case worker will ask what plans we have for the weekend, and for the most part, we say we aren’t doing anything special. We think it’s our job to have Ethan with us for all the simple things he missed out on when he was younger. Swimming in a pond, playing basketball in the driveway, going for a bike ride around the neighborhood, and roasting marshmallows over a fire pit.”
The first weekend Ethan stayed at their home required some adjustment. “We were really tired after that first weekend,” said Laina. “We were “on” full time, and we needed to go to bed earlier than usual to be our best the next day.” In the beginning, Ethan was anxious about sleeping in his room alone. We had a monitor set up like walkie-talkies if he needed us during the night., We’d say “Goodnight, Ethan. Over and out.’ ‘Okay, over and out.’ ‘Laina?’ ‘Yes, Ethan?’ ‘What time can I get up?’ ‘No earlier than seven a.m. sounds good.’ ‘How about 6:45?’”
At first, Ethan struggled to sleep in a new place, and Laina or Mike would leave lights on and sleep on the couch in the next room in case he needed them. Now, he’s much more comfortable in their home. “I remember the first few weeks, he was quiet and appeared unsure of how or where to be, '' said Laina. “He’d pause at the front door and look as though he was wondering, ‘What do I do now?’ Now he comes in, offers a big hug and immediately settles into his routine.”
Ethan doesn’t talk much about his life before entering the foster care system, so Laina and Mike do everything they can to help him create new memories to hold onto “We got him a few photo albums,” said Mike, “and each time we see him, we take a few photos and print them out so he can build his story.” “Ethan loves sharing his photo album with folks who visit. It’s a great way to connect with new people and build language skills”, said Laina.
“Ethan needs calmness, predictability, and the safety to make mistakes,” the couple explained. “He’s getting so much better at being vulnerable,playing a board game that’s new to him or trying something he’s never done before. He used to get really annoyed with himself, but now he’s a bit more flexible and patient with himself. Our job is to slow down, be in the moment and to let Ethan know that we’re here no matter how he presents himself. We’re here for all of it.”