Story and photography by Lauren Hollon Sturdy
The Arroyos’ home is marked by love, literally. On the wall just outside their front door they’ve painted a big red heart surrounded by multicolored handprints belonging to each member of the family. One handprint is noticeably smaller than the rest. It belongs to Valeria, the newest addition to their home.
Francisco Arroyo and his wife, Monica Alquijay, became foster parents almost by accident. They attended a parent meeting at their daughters’ school and came across a brochure about a new program being developed in Guatemala in partnership between the Secretaria de Bienestar Social (Secretary of Social Well-being), Buckner and USAID.
Buckner International received a $1 million grant from USAID in 2013 to build an alternative to institutional care for vulnerable children in Guatemala by developing foster care and kinship care. The philosophy behind the Semillas de Esperanza (Seeds of Hope) program is that the healthiest place for a child is within a family.
Francisco and Monica expressed a polite interest in the program while talking with the government representative who was distributing information at the school meeting. They left their contact information with the woman, but didn’t really think anything would come of it.
Soon, a social worker called them almost every evening to follow up and discuss the certification process in more detail.
“To be honest, I was afraid in the beginning,” Monica says.
She and Francisco didn’t commit right away, but did what they
always do before making any big decisions: discuss it as a family.
They had a meeting with their daughters, Elisa, 17, and Allison, 12, and spent several days discussing their thoughts and feelings, things that might change and challenges the family would face if they agreed to foster.
Ultimately, they all agreed to take on this big adventure. The feeling that their family was incomplete was influential in their decision.
“Monica always wanted to have three kids,” Francisco says. “Unfortunately, because of health issues, we couldn’t. So we always had this thorn in us about not being about to add to our family. When we got more information from the social worker, we believed it was an opportunity – ”
“That God had orchestrated,” Monica cuts in.
“Exactly,” Francisco says.
As soon as they made the decision to move forward, Monica felt the same emotions as if she were pregnant. There were exams and tests, interviews with psychologists and lots of nerves in the meantime.
“We were nervous, and it was like expecting a child and waiting for the delivery,” she says.
Eventually, they were asked to foster a 9-month-old boy. While they were considering it, they got another phone call a few days later asking them to instead take a 5-month-old girl who had been abandoned by her biological mother at birth.
“We hadn’t met the baby, hadn’t seen photos or anything, but they called and said we had to make a decision about whether we were going to take her,” Francisco says. “We didn’t have a clue what she was like.
“Originally we wanted a boy because we already have two girls, so we didn’t know what to do. Then we talked to each other and said, ‘Why are we doing this? We want to do it to help and give a child the opportunity to have a family.’ So we decided to take her.”
They picked Valeria up from the courts in a district two hours away the next day. The whole drive there, it was as though Monica was going into labor – she was nauseated and dizzy and overcome by nerves. The moment they saw Valeria though, they both fell head over heels in love.
They returned to a big welcome home party with their extended family. Everyone has accepted Valeria and treats her as if she’s related to them by blood. Monica’s cousin gladly supplied the couple with the crib her baby had slept in, and Monica’s mother bought new baby outfits. One of Francisco’s aunts, a devout Catholic, is working on getting permission to have Valeria baptized in the church even though the Arroyos aren’t in possession of her birth certificate.
Signs of love are everywhere, including Valeria’s little space that Monica proudly shows off in one corner of their master bedroom. The walls above the crib are brightly decorated with Valeria’s favorite characters and a colorful, glittery cartoon painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe. She and Francisco brag about how well Valeria is doing with her fine motor skills, how she loves to dance, how intelligent she is and how she imitates her sisters when they do their schoolwork by pulling out her own storybooks or painting pictures alongside them as they work.
They have been fostering her since June 2014, and as doting parents are wont to do, they have spent the past months diligently recording memories both big and small of her life with them. A green clothbound photo album revisits Valeria’s first bath in her foster home, her first taste of pureed carrots, her sisters helping her brush her teeth, her first Christmas tree.
Though they are well aware that Valeria could be taken and placed elsewhere at any moment, Francisco and Monica are committed to loving and cherishing her as much as they possibly can in every moment they have with her. They treat her like their own.
“As long as she stays with us, she’ll have the same quality of schooling as our daughters. We won’t compromise in how we care for her,” Francisco says. “She’s part of our family. She has the same rights as our daughters, even if she’s not legally ours.”
“Now we’re grateful to Valeria’s mother for giving us the opportunity to know and love Valeria,” Monica adds. “We know that any moment someone could knock at the door and say Valeria has to go somewhere else, but in the meantime we will give her all the love we can as part of our family.”
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