Editor’s note: Barbara Houston retires in May after serving as a foster mother in Dallas for 21 years. The following is an open letter to her from Russ Dilday, associate vice president for public relations at Buckner.
Dear Ms. Barbara,
You were my first news interview at Buckner. July 1999. It seems forever ago! I was a new employee assigned to do a news release promoting the need for foster parents in North Texas, and needed some current foster parents to share their perspectives. I drove to your home in South Dallas to get a story. In addition to the story, I got inspired, too.
I knew I’d like you from the moment you opened your door. Grace. Hospitality. And an almost indescribable ability to make me and others feel like we’re family. I think it’s because everyone can see the mother in you.
Then you shared your story, and I knew why my co-workers had suggested you for the story. Do you remember telling me about the instant you felt called to foster? I do.
“It was on a Sunday morning,” you told me. “All my children were grown and in the military. I read a story on the need for black foster homes. I cut it out, folded it up and kept it for a year.” Then, one day, you were cleaning out the drawer it was in and found it, still folded, reminding you of that moment. You started researching foster care agencies, were led to Buckner and became a foster parent in 1992.
I remember you saying you were nervous at first. To bolster your confidence, you enlisted in respite care, providing relief for foster parents on weekends, during vacations or on business trips. But you quickly found out you were capable of foster parenting.
“My first respite care assignment was for two 12-year-old boys who were already six feet tall,” you told me. “After that, I knew I could do this.”
I thought it was a funny story. Now that I have 13- and 16-year old sons, I see that story in a different light. But you were the one who introduced me to the minds and hearts of the Buckner foster parents I would go on to interview for now almost 14 years when you said, “I want them to feel they are part of a family that loves them.”
I felt a sense of pride just a few years later when I wrote about you again. May 5, 2002. This time, our Dallas foster care staff was honoring you for 10 years of service. Amazing. Ten years!
One of my co-workers at the time, caseworker Melanie Skipper-Relyea, told me that you had, over the past 10 years, fostered 15 children – many of them “therapeutic” level – who were considered the most demanding children, behaviorally and emotionally, in the child welfare system. You’d also adopted one of your former foster children.
Melanie told me you have “a knack” for communicating love, concern and commitment to kids while issuing them clear rules and expectations – and she underscored this – that you “handle stress with prayer and a buoyant sense of humor that’s contagious” to all around you.
Later, when we opened our Dallas campus to group foster care and you moved into one of our on-campus homes, I was so excited to see you able to care for more children. More children who would have the blessing of having a mom like you. More children who needed a mom like you.
Then I heard a few months ago you are retiring after 21 years of providing a foster home for so many children. I admit feeling a little torn. On one hand, I couldn’t imagine a Buckner without Ms. Barbara. I couldn’t imagine foster children without Ms. Barbara. But then I couldn’t imagine the strength it takes to be a foster parent for 21 years.
So I sat down with you one more time to talk about your experiences. You’ve changed over the years as you’ve grown more in your knowledge and your passion for fostering children. As you said, “At the beginning, I kind of had the idea that it would be very, very easy. Before I cared for any foster children, I felt like all they needed was a little love and that’s it. I found out that they do need that, but they also need structure. And I kind of learned along the way, and I relied on God a lot, as I do today.”
What got you through? “I think I have said probably five or six times, ‘I’m going to quit,’" you answered. "‘This is going to be my last year.’ But I always get a kid that I said, ‘Well, I can’t leave just now.’ And so every year turned into another year and another kid and another year. And finally I realized – I was not doing somebody else a favor, but God had a mission for me. And so good, bad, ugly, I realized that and I know He empowers me to go through whatever I have to go through. So I stopped trying to quit and just do what He had me to do.”
I’m glad you stuck with it. And so are dozens of children. I asked Andrea Lawrence, our Buckner foster care and adoption director in North Texas, what kind of children have called you mom. Her answer was honest and reflects the need for someone like you.
“These kids are traumatized in so many different ways, in ways that you can’t even imagine,” Andi said, “and they have no consistency in their lives so they don’t know what tomorrow is going to hold for them. (But) the teens who leave Ms. Barbara, what we want to see from them is that they have goals and they know how to make steps to be able to accomplish those goals, and we get to see that here.”
I know the job never ends for a foster parent, but Sheree Scott, our Buckner home development supervisor in North Texas, told me you take your commitment to these kids to another level. “Barbara does so much work behind the scenes. When the children are at school, she’s out with former foster kids to help find housing, to help them with food and clothing.”
Ms. Barbara, one of the neat things I started noticing as we talked a few months ago was that your five current foster children – all teenage sons who could have been watching TV or playing video games – were intently listening to what you were saying. I asked you about your feelings about them and you started crying. I know they mean a lot to you.
You explained your emotions for them: “The kids don’t know all their feelings and you really don’t know yours either. I hurt when they hurt. I try not to – I don’t know why I’m crying today. I can’t keep my emotions under control. But I don’t cry around them a lot. I have to be strong: I’m the strong person here, and I keep telling them that ‘I run the shack.’
“So I stay tough with these boys over here, and many times I go to my room at night and cry about the situation. I have to push them as far as I can push them, even though they don’t like it, they don’t understand. But the years have taught me that – and God gives me direction.”
But how does He do that? You had a quick answer: “A lot of people ask me how I know what to do. I don’t always know what to do. I just ask God to order my steps and I try to walk in that pathway. And I’m not perfect. I make mistakes and I get angry at them and they get angry at me, but at the end of the day, we’re still family.”
And you’re still “Mom” to these boys, and a mother figure to a lot of us at Buckner, too. Sheree agreed: “Well, Barbara is like a mom to me. I’ve known her for 12 years and she stepped in and took that role as a mother figure for me. We’ve cried together, we’ve laughed together, we’ve shared stories together, and she has welcomed me into her family.
“On a professional level, we still are able to set those boundaries of me being with her professionally,” Sheree explained, “but on a personal level, she is just a great inspiration to me, she’s a role model to me, and again, like I’ve said, she’s been that mother figure for me.”
As we concluded our talk, I asked you if you had any final words you wanted to share on the eve of your last few days as a Buckner foster parent. As is typical for you, you chose to address your nearest, dearest audience: your foster sons.
You turned to them, looking away from me, and with a steady eye on each of them, said, “Keep going. Just keep striving for your dream and always keep Christ in the center. You’ll never go wrong if you keep Him in the center.”
You’re a great mother.
I hope this letter finds you well. Thank you for 21 years of loving children. Thank you for being a mother to children who might otherwise never know a mom’s love. Thank you for the inspiration you have been to your Buckner family. Thank you for inspiring me.
With greatest respect,
Russ Dilday is the associate vice president for public relations at Buckner International.
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