Foster Parenting, the President Way
Tara and Eric President have been Intensive Foster Care (IFC) foster parents with CFCS for the past ten years. Tara and Eric have always fostered teenagers 16 and older, an age group many foster parents can be wary of. We sat down with Tara recently to talk about her perspective on being a foster parent. Tara discussed the skills she’s developed and lessons she’s learned along the way through fostering youth from many different backgrounds.
During the time a teenager stays with them, Tara and Eric always prioritize meeting them where they’re at and working with them to achieve their own goals, rather than trying to teach that youth how to fit into a prescribed mold for success. One of the first things Tara and Eric President do when a new youth joins their family is sit down with them and ask what their goals are. Tara and Eric don’t care what that goal might be – whether it’s going to college, supporting their little siblings, getting a job in an office, or just being able to sleep in a place where they feel safe – as long as they have one. Then, Tara and Eric spend every day they have with that young person trying to help them reach their goal. Every night, they check in with each other about how the youth is doing, where there might be challenges, and different ways they can be better foster parents.
This is the framework Tara and Eric, who won the Vivienne Campbell Award this year, use to make the time youths spend in their home as comfortable, productive and supportive as possible. But it is also a framework that keeps Tara and Eric in check, so to speak – it ensures that their experience with each person in their care is about the person, not about them. They view each youth’s time with them as an opportunity to move that youth’s life forward, not a time to hit pause while they’re waiting to see where they’ll move next.
After Tara and Eric learn their goals, the Presidents take time to get to know the youth and see what areas they need help with in their development. Once they’ve built that foundation, Tara and Eric think about what goals they have that CFCS can help with; for example, if a youth wants to learn to drive, Tara is sure to ask her CFCS social worker Hannah to hook them up with information on driving lessons. They work closely with social workers to regularly advocate for the wants and needs of the youth in their care.
Because they’re under 18, youth in the foster care system need the same support in learning valuable life skills they can carry into adulthood that any other kid might need. The life skills Tara and Eric focus on teaching those youths are saving money, being humble, learning appropriate hygiene skills and learning to develop their own voice. They also teach them that simply being nice to people can help them grow as humans. And of course, they teach them critical thinking and goal setting skills.
“I treat all the kids the same way I would treat my best friend,” Tara says. “I’ll tell them when to get on and get home. I’m not gonna lie to them. I’m not going to sell them anything. But I do give them a pep talk sometimes, a little story, because it feels good. It feels like they’re not alone.”
Sometimes, teaching those life skills can take a great deal of persistence. When “Alexis” first came to Tara and Eric’s home, she didn’t want to go to college. But every time Tara asked her what she wanted to do after high school, Alexis would answer, “I don’t know.” This wasn’t an acceptable answer to Tara, who believes that everyone should have an idea of where they want to go in life. These repeated interactions with Alexis made Tara reflect on the importance of believing in the potential of young people, even when they maybe aren’t so sure of their own potential yet. The more Tara got to know Alexis, and the more she kept asking Alexis about her interests, the more she learned that Alexis was actually interested in social justice and helping immigrants like those in her family. So Tara suggested that Alexis might go to law school and become a lawyer, to defend immigrants’ rights. As a result, Alexis applied to several colleges while she was staying with the Presidents, and was accepted to nearly every one.
Tara talked Alexis through her plans when she wasn’t willing to think through it. Tara got to the idea of what Alexis really wanted to do by first talking to Alexis about what she could do. Tara encouraged Alexis to aspire a little higher; then their conversations opened up.
Tara and Eric make a good team: Tara is the planner, and Eric is the communicator. They each know their strengths and weaknesses, and rely on each other to make their whole greater than the sum of their parts. But their top priority is always to support the youth in their home and help them grow.
“This is a home where we want them to be happy and to get whatever they want to get out of life, whatever they want to do,” Tara says. “This home is not the home that’s going to keep you from your family, from your dreams. We ask, what is your goal? What is your dream? What do you want?”