By Intisar Seraaj
Charlene Armstead, a resident of Hueytown, Alabama, was introduced to fostering through her best friend Bernadette Rush, a foster parent for Seraaj Family Homes, Inc. (SFH). Armstead says she was exposed to youth in foster care when visiting Rush’s home, but she didn’t have the time to foster yet herself because she was still working fulltime.
“Once I came off of work, it afforded me the time to actually do the things that I wanted and fostering was one thing I really wanted to do,” said Armstead, who’s been with SFH for almost 3 years.
Now they’re both foster parents for the agency’s Birmingham, Alabama region. Armstead mainly does respite care for the agency, providing temporary care for foster kids when their official foster parents are unable to or need assistance. However, she has had one fulltime placement before, but she took a break from fostering. Now that she’s back, she’s decided to never take another break from fostering again. She says can’t take a break from being a biological parent, so why take a break from fostering. She believes in loving her foster kids just like her biological kids and claims them as her own. She badly wants to be a fulltime foster parent again.
“I love kids,” Armstead, a mother of three, said smiling. “I really do. I’d like to make a difference. It’s close to my heart to want to deal with kids.”
Armstead remembers having a house full of kids. She made her children and their friends feel them comfortable and at home. She had an open-door policy and attests the adolescents under her roof were able to talk about whatever they wanted. She’d give her input without them being offended and sometimes they’d ask for her opinion; They were receptive. She tries to create the same accepting and attentive atmosphere with the youth she provides respite for.
“You don’t ever want that child to not feel they have somebody to come to and talk to,” emphasized Armstead. “The problem is when we fail to be able to identify that there is a problem because whether it’s big or small, you want the baby to come to you. Kids are killing themselves.”
Armstead advises that all parents build a bond with their child(ren). She assures once you “learn a child, you’ll be able to work with them.” You listen to them with your ears and your eyes, she says.
Armstead relays that the techniques taught at SFH are helpful with connecting with her foster children. Sometimes she’ll pull out her books and review the information and her notes while the kids are sleeping, so she’ll know how to handle a certain situation and know what to expect. Armstead takes meeting her foster kids’ needs and consistently improving her parenting skills seriously.
Although she spends short periods of time with her foster kids, whether it’s a few hours or a weekend, Armstead still bonds and makes memories with her foster kids. She likes to plan fun outings like skating, park excursions, library visits, swimming, and trips to the zoo. Plus, she tries to pay attention to everything about the child so she can do thoughtful things like having their favorite snacks and food available when they stay or visit with her.
“I want these kids to be kids, and to experience something that they may not have experienced before—to just have something to look forward to and it not be where we just go to school and come back,” Armstead heartfeltly said. “A lot of these foster parents work, balancing being a parent and working. As a respite [caregiver], I like to try to look at it as I’m giving [the kids] an opportunity to do something that maybe they can’t do all the time.”
She also wants to teach her foster kids how to succeed in and navigate life. She says the only time a parent fails their child is when they’ve neglected to prepare them for life. Because fostering situations are usually temporary, Armstead wants her foster kids to feel prepared when they leave her home. So, she puts in the time, priming each child for success.
Children don’t want your material things, they want your time and attention and to make memories they can hold onto, expressed Armstead. But that doesn’t stop her from buying them things. She has two bedrooms and a full bathroom decked out in kid-friendly décor and toys. She has closets full of necessities and frivolities ready for any child who comes to stay with her.
“My husband tells me, ‘Every time you get, you spend it on your kids. Why don’t you do something for yourself? The kids have everything,’” tells Armstead. “Everywhere I go, they’re always on my mind.”
She says it’s a blessing to shower the kids with love and give them things sometimes they might have never had. She remembers the last time she fostered fulltime. She took her foster son to see his room when he arrived to her home. He was hesitant and just looked at her.
“I could have cried because this child said he’s never had a bed before —something we take for granted,” Armstead said emotionally. “He was about seven years old. It hurt my heart. It’s the small things that make these kids happy.”
Other times, Armstead deals with kids who don’t know how to react to such love, and instead they act out. “Sometimes I bump into situations where I just say, ‘Lord, some of these kids can’t stand to be blessed,” Armstead said amazed. “You know why? Because they don’t know how.”
Although she knows the kids coming to her home are dealing with adverse situations, she advises them to “allow someone to love them until they can get back to their biological family.” She says although we can’t control what happens to us in life, we can control how we react. She tells her foster kids to “give it a chance” when someone is offering to open their home and love them.
But it’s not just on the foster child. Armstead encourages foster parents to find a way to connect with their foster child(ren). The key is to make them feel secure and safe, she relays, and to give them lots of love, “then everything else will fall in place.”
She’s speaking from experience. She’s been connecting to children and being a trusted confidant since raising her biological children and acting as a sort of communal mom. She says, no matter what, a child should be able to come talk to a parent or guardian about whatever’s happening in their life. She divulges she mostly listens to her kids and has nonjudgmental conversations with them.
“I always say, if you really want to know how a person’s heart is, go to the child because the child will always be drawn to you if you’re good to them,” reveals Armstead. “If you’re not, you’re going to know that too, and that it’s just how it is.”