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By Intisar Seraaj

Richard “Rusty” Kays has been involved with the foster care system for most of his life. He says he grew up in foster care since he was 3 days old and aged out of the system when he was 18. But he had a consistent foster family. He’s been paying that love forward for the past two decades as a foster parent himself with Seraaj Family Homes, Inc. (SFH).

Kays, who parents for the Oxford, Alabama region of SFH, has fostered numerous children and adopted five kids. He says it’s been amazing helping kids who need it, providing them with a safe place to stay and unconditional love. “It means a whole lot to me, because they come from places feeling that they’re just on their own,” says Kays, a lieutenant and fire instructor for the local fire department. “It’s up to us to help change that. If we don’t change that then they end up going down the wrong path.”

Kays knows the feeling well, but what made the difference in his life was that his parents never gave up on him, he says. He says his family moved around a lot—he’s also lived New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio several times—and each time they fought the state to take him with them, doing all the necessary paperwork and working around all the “red tape.”

“Just by them doing that proved they were there for me and we were one unit—we were family,” says Kays. “Family is love, it’s encouragement, [and] it’s being there. It’s just having the security of knowing if you have a problem, you have a place to go. It’s if you get sick, you know somebody in the family is going to be there, no matter how old you are. Family is there for each other. Doesn’t matter what color you are, what background you have or what race you are, family is family. We all bleed the same color.”

Kays tries to make sure each foster child feels like they’re family. One way he does this is by having each new foster child, who’s allowed to have their picture taken, take a family photo where they are in the center. He says he wants them to feel the “security blanket” of being part of the family.

Being a part of Kays’ family means a foster child will automatically have older siblings to look out for them, as well. In addition to his five adopted kids, Kays has two biological children—a 27-year-old daughter who lives in Florida and a 15-year-old son who lives with him. He says he’s witnessed his children talk to their foster siblings about their conduct, if they see them exhibiting familiar behavior that reminds them of how they used to act. Kays’ children share their foster care stories, what it was like growing up with Kays, and what to expect if they continue making poor decisions. He says it’s helpful because his kids “keep it real,” and “not all teenagers are going to listen to the adult.”

But those that will listen to him, he tells them his story too. Even then, he says they make him “prove it.” They test his authenticity. But because he is genuine, he knows exactly what behaviors to look out for. “A lot of them get mad because I know what they’re going to do before they do it,” says Kays.

Besides honestly sharing his story with his foster kids, Kays says he’s also a good listener. “A lot of these kids have so much to say [and] so much built up inside but they got nobody to tell anything to,” relays Kays.

That kind of attentiveness is why many of Kays’ foster and adopted kids have been able to create healthy lives for themselves. They’ve graduated from high school, some attend college, while others have gotten married and started families of the own—Kays is now a grandfather of four. And they’re able to pay their own bills, get a car, and maintain a job, according to Kays. He says he receives regular calls from some of his former foster children and sometimes random visits from others, expressing how he’s made a positive impact in their lives and how appreciative they are for having him in their lives.

One example of how Kays is promoting growth and wellbeing in the lives of foster youth is of his current placement, a 17-year-old boy whose father was also involved in firefighting. The teen told Kays his biological father was a volunteer firefighter and sometimes took him out for rides on a fire truck. “I took him with me to the station and he just lit up,” Kays illuminated. Although his foster son isn’t old enough to be a firefighter yet, Kays wanted to get him involved sooner than later.

Kays remembers getting involved in firefighting in Ohio when he was only 16 years old. He said the local fire department had a cadet program that prepared him for the actual job without putting him in any real danger. So, his foster son joined the fire department’s junior program. But Kays wanted to do better for his foster son, so he organized a cadet program for their local fire department with the help of other officers and the fire chief. This program is more in-depth, preparing students for the job by teaching them about the equipment, how to run the pump on the fire trucks and timing them with putting on gear, and the program gets them ready for the certification tests they must pass. Kays’ is also helping his foster son get his GED and finish high school faster.

This is an example of how Kays and other foster parents are helping to shift the foster care system—by being active cheerleaders, mentors, and guides to their foster kids. He says he remembers when he turned 18, he received a card in the mail that basically said, “Happy Birthday! Good luck!” “And that was it,” says Kays. “It’s a big change from then to now. We try to make sure that they have all the support they need.” Kays, who’s also an instructor that trains new foster parents, says foster care agencies—at least SFH—now throw parties for the adolescents aging out of care, make sure they have the assistance they need to complete school and pursue higher education, make sure they have a place to live, and can survive on their own. But Kays says no matter where his foster youth end up, they always have a home with him.

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