“From the first time my son said ‘you’d make a good forever Mommy’…I knew I was going to adopt him. I went to work and informed the staff at work that I was going to adopt him. Less than a year later that became a reality with Sierra Forever Families. I am now the proud mom of 6 kids.”
Ramona (not her real name) and her siblings were in and out of foster care for most of their young lives due to their parents’ domestic violence and inability to rehabilitate from meth use. Ramona was only three years old when she first entered foster care. Her three younger siblings were adopted early on by one family and, for a while, there was some contact with them.
As Ramona grew older, the more wild and angry she became. By the time she was 13 years old, she had been in seven placements. Luckily for Ramona, the seventh placement was with a supportive foster family with experience working with angry, traumatized girls. Here was a healing environment and where social workers noted while Ramona always talked tough, she was kind and gentle around animals.
Since this foster home could not provide a permanent home for Ramona, she was referred to Sierra Forever Families in August of 2012. We began working with her to help her understand her grief and loss of her bio-family. We also began looking for an adoptive family who had animals. We also realized that even a hint of being adopted other than returning to her bio-parents would trigger trauma reactive behaviors.
Sierra found a family interested in helping Ramona. The family had horses and one was ready to foal. An invitation to visit the farm and meet the mare was the first visit. While there, the Mom taught Ramona how to hypnotize a chicken! Plus, a barn kitten eagerly came to Ramona to be petted. Well, longer and longer visits ensued. She learned to ride a horse and was there when the foal was born. A few months passed before her first overnight – it was successful. Ramona “adopted” the barnyard cat and anxiously awaited her next visit to see the kitten. She wanted to stay all weekend. After two months of weekend visits, she declared, “Why don’t I come live with you?”
Now was the time for Sierra to explain permanency to Ramona without using the word “adoption”. They told her other families were interested in providing her with a permanent home. She said, “I’ve already picked my Mom! I’m moving in with her!” So by honoring her journey from foster care to a loving home, the 16-year-old’s adoption was finalized in June 2014.
In March 2005, Heidi* and I began our first Wonder Journey together. She was nine, had been in foster care for three years. I was 60, worried that I was too old to be a Guide, and terrified that I might do something wrong. It was an unlikely pairing, but it worked. Over the next nine years, we went to plays, parks, and museums; played in the snow and at the ocean; went to San Francisco, Yosemite, and Camp Wonder… and talked and talked and talked and talked.
Heidi turned out to be a charming, outgoing, well-behaved young girl (but later I learned that she would return from our outings exhausted at having to be “good” for so long!). We got along beautifully, had fun, and laughed a lot.
When Heidi was 12, her mother, through perseverance and lots of hard work, regained custody, and the family was reunited. Fortunately, Judith*, the mom, is a generous person who welcomed my continuing involvement with her daughter, and we were able to stay in Wonder together.
The years passed quickly. Heidi is now 18, and this year, I took her on a different kind of journey.
Travel is my passion, so I told Heidi if her mother permitted, I would take her on a trip anywhere in the world she wanted to go when she graduated from high school. She decided she wanted to go to Germany, to the Bavarian Alps with their fairy-tale castles, so we did, and we took her older sister, Gretchen*, too.
Yes, it was expensive. Most of us couldn’t afford trips like this without giving up other things, which my partner, Bud, and I have done for the past couple of decades. We live fairly frugally otherwise so that we can afford several trips a year. Consequently, Heidi has been exposed to a steady stream of postcards, photos, and souvenirs from exotic places around the globe. I love to travel, and I love showing Heidi new places, and so we did it up big and went off to Europe!
Judith was quite apprehensive about letting either of her daughters, much less both of them, go so far away. Having lost her children to foster care before, she was understandably reluctant to see them go. But she put their best interest ahead of her own fears and saw them off with a brave face.
At the airport the morning of our departure, Judith was determinedly cheerful, smiling as she brushed away tears while saying goodbye. Both girls said they had been too excited to eat any breakfast that morning. Heidi wasn’t quite sure what would happen or what she would do, but she was ready for the experience. Gretchen was more worried. She said, “I don’t think it will feel real until we get there. I have always felt that way about new things or big changes because I am not used to having much of a guarantee in life.”
On arrival in Munich, both girls were nervous, so many new things, and they stayed close to us at first. By the second day, they felt able to be out on the pedestrian street in front of our hotel without us. But each day they gained more confidence. By the last day, they could travel together around the city, taking taxis or the subway, being aware of the urban environment, of course, and fully independent.
We stayed at the same hotel in Munich the whole time, which gave us a secure and familiar base to come back to, and we did day trips out from there.
New experiences included using all sorts of different forms of transportation, some for the first time: planes, trains, trams, subways, buses, taxis, and even horse carts. They tried new food (all kinds of sausages, red cabbage, apple strudel, even sauerkraut pasta); rode the double-decker, hop-on/hop-off bus (“with the top cut off”) three times; and went to the Munich zoo twice. And yes, we went on a tour of the fairy-tale Bavarian castles, and Heidi said that it was her favorite part of the trip. She loved thinking about the people who lived there and their lifestyles, quite different from our own lives.
To their credit, Heidi and Gretchen wanted to go on a tour of the Dachau concentration camp, knowing that it would be a difficult experience, but realizing that it was important to do. This was the one time on the whole trip when we heard no laughter from them. We also went on a Third Reich walking tour of Munich, and received a straightforward, unvarnished account of the city’s role in the horrors of the Nazi era. It was a sobering and immensely valuable lesson in history.
It was a great trip for all of us. Bud and I especially loved watching the girls have fun and experience life-changing moments. And we did things we would not likely have done on our own, like take the train to Salzburg to go on a “Sound of Music” bus tour, which was a lot of fun and showed us the incredible Austrian Alps.
Both girls were great travelers, never complained, and appreciated everything. They were careful with our expenses, too. We had insist that yes, they did need to see the inside of the castles, not just the outside, even if we did have to pay an extra charge!
Among the long-lasting results of the trip is, I believe, a deeper bond between the sisters. Heidi and Gretchen had been fortunate enough to have been able to stay together during their years in foster care, and they were perhaps closer than most sisters as a result, despite the six-year age difference. This trip gave them an additional shared experience, an adventure that they expect to refer back to their entire lives.
The trip also gave them a tremendous gain in confidence that they can handle new situations. Never again will they be so afraid of going to new places. And they now realize while manners and customs may differ, people are much the same the world over.
At the end of the trip, Heidi and Gretchen gave us each a handwritten card, thanking us and expressing what the trip had meant to them. Heidi wrote, “This trip has been remarkable and a true gift that can never be taken away or forgotten.” Gretchen also thanked me for my continuing presence in Heidi’s life and said how much it meant to her. Heidi agreed. She said, “All the journeys that Dorene and I have taken have helped me develop into the young woman I am today. I have been exposed to culture and history, and an example of a strong, independent woman, and now world travel.”
Of course, what they don’t realize is they are two truly remarkable young women who have given me more than I have given them. They are good enough to consider me family now, which is a tremendous gift, and I hope we have more journeys together to come.
*Names changed due to confidentiality
“Thank you, Sierra, for connecting us with our wonderful son. We just finalized yesterday. You all rock (especially Becky)! Keep up the wonderful work.”
I am Tomas, married father of four of the craziest most amazing children on Earth. A few years into our relationship we decided to become parents. We chose foster-to-adopt because we wanted older children, children who were already in school and, because of that, we could keep the same work schedules. We also believed that with older children we would have less of a problem with communication. We began the process in 2010. After the multitude of interviews, modules, certifications and the home study, a brother and sister were placed with us in Fall of 2011. At the time, they were in 2nd and 1st grades, respectively. We thought we were prepared, but we weren’t. Honestly, I don’t think you really are until they are in your home. Words like “self-harm”, “defiance”, “aggressive”, “extreme anxiety” were all words we know, but had never seen in action. It took additional classes in trauma therapy and many, many, many emails and phone calls and hours of self searching and questioning this decision, to eventually be able to tell myself, “Yes, I made the right decision.” We finalized their adoption in July 2012.
In Fall 2013, we decided to further expand our family and try to adopt another sibling set. We again went through our paperwork and certifications. In July 2014, to the day we adopted last time, two brothers joined our home. Oh, snap! We did not expect to see yet another deeper level of crazy! Four kids vying for our attention with more challenging behaviors.
Help for these challenges have come from Sierra Forever Families Therapeutic Support Services. There is therapy for the kids with a therapist who cares and is working well with them. We also attend a group for families who have, or will, adopt. Our therapist from Sierra helped me by giving guidance and resources, thus keeping me from countless sleepless nights on Google looking for any answer, solution, program or whatever I felt I needed to overcome the most recent incident.
Through all of these problems, we have also had successes. A small one for us is finding out one of our kids is brushing ALL of his teeth and not just the bottom half, after many months of reminders! Recently another success was when one child came to cuddle during a movie and wrapped my arm around him. I should mention that this kid would yell, “Ouch” over and over whenever someone gave him a hug or touched him. We saw improved test scores and received glowing texts from teachers. They began making new friends, as well as playing together without disagreements and sticking together when one was being teased.
We are becoming a stronger family every day. We do have some set backs, but overall we are in a much healthier place and it looks only up for us.
“Fantastic agency. The staff are helpful and they have a lot of resources available to help families with and through the adoption process. The monthly support groups are one of the most helpful resources because you’ll get to hear from people who are at all different stages in the process, from just starting to those that finalized their adoption years ago. The agency is really on top of things.”