Letting GoBy Pat Sullivan

Natali Plourde has been a foster parent for 12 years, and seven children have lived in her home during that period. She is trained to provide therapeutic foster care to children with high needs such as severe ADHD, autism, fetal alcohol syndrome, mental retardation and behavioral challenges, as well as administering psychotropic medications and the effects these medications may have on a child's behavior. She currently has two foster children living in her home along with three children of her own, the youngest of whom is six. She is an articulate, passionate advocate for foster children and speaks on their behalf before a variety of groups.

What would motivate a busy mother of three to take on such responsibilities? "From early childhood, my goal was to help desperate children," Natali said. "My grandmother lived with a doctor's family when she was a child and was forced to clean and do laundry to 'earn her keep,' and that has always bothered me. I wanted to make a difference in as many kids' lives as I could and make them happy while they were in my home."

Natali stressed that the entire family has to be on board to make it possible to care for foster children. Her husband pitches in to take foster children to appointments when she cannot or cook while she is taking them somewhere, and her teenaged children are very involved in mentoring the foster kids who come to their home. They model appropriate behavior, teach them how to ride bikes and skateboard and help give them the confidence to get involved in sports. "We had one foster child who had very low self-esteem and would never have had the opportunity to play sports or become involved in community activities in her birth home. We encouraged her to play sports, and she had amazing natural abilities. Her success in this area really helped her feel so much better about herself, and it was so gratifying to see her confidence grow," Natali said.

Having children with special needs in the home can be taxing work, and Natali says that dealing with their crises takes precedence over birthdays or planned evenings out. The typical stay is about a year, although she has had a child for as long as three years. In Maine, where Natali is a foster parent through KidsPeace, biological parents have 18 months to prove that they can adequately care for their child before rights are terminated.

Making a Difference
No matter how long a child is in her home, Natali believes that she may only hold his or her hand for a short while, but she holds a place in that child's heart forever. "I like to think that each child looks back and sees me as a pivotal person in his life, a chapter, if you will, who made a difference, stood up for her in a school meeting, said his first good-night prayer with him and encouraged her dream for what she wants to be when she grows up," she explained.

One of her former foster children wants to become a foster parent and writes about how Natali helped her. "I will always remember your magical hugs," the child told her." Natali experiences great joy from making a difference in the children's lives. "It is an amazing feeling to help heal little wounded souls and give them hope and breathe light back into their lives. I hope that what I do will have a ripple effect, and that these kids will touch others' lives and give them hope and happiness as well," Natali said.

The Plourdes have contributed to many success stories. One of their foster kids was adopted by an uncle, one by another family, and two went back to their biological families and did extremely well. Many of them keep in touch with her, and she receives invitations to their graduations or other important events in their lives.

The Hardest Part
Obviously, the most difficult part of foster parenting is letting the children go, whether it is back home or to adoptive homes. "It is hard on you because you have poured your heart into working with this child and grown to love him. I think of them on their birthdays and really miss them, but I know that I have helped them and there will always be more kids in need," Natali said. She had one youngster for only about eight weeks, and she worked with him to think about what he wanted to do when he grew up. "He drew amazing pictures, mostly very detailed drawings of cars. We talked about how he might be able to work in the auto industry when he got older, and no one had ever asked him what he wanted to do before. It gave him such hope," Natali remembers fondly.

Natali describes the feeling of saying good-by to a foster child as "excruciatingly painful." She grieves for the loss of the child she has helped heal and given a second chance and feels that she can never do it again, but, when she gets a call about a child who has no bed and no place to go, she always says yes and opens her heart to the new child immediately. She focuses her attention on the new child and how she can make a difference with him, and the cycle begins again.

The Pride
"In my life, one of the greatest things I have ever accomplished was to be a foster parent. I have spoken to different groups and at functions as an advocate for foster parenting," Natali said. She explained that most people do not think that advocating on behalf of foster children is such an important piece of the job, but doing so can have an impact on society. Foster parenting rescues children who are in desperate situations and, according to Natali, reduces the risk of these kids becoming involved in the juvenile system by 75%. Foster parents need support groups so they know they are not alone, and they need to advocate to people who can make a difference in the system. "That is why I love KidsPeace so much," Natali added, "because they offer so much support, especially for high-need kids. They help us advocate politically and offer so many services to treat the many special needs these kids have. I never feel alone, and that makes a huge difference."



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