Erika Sanchez was looking up at the night sky in Irmo, South Carolina. She was gazing at the moon and stars with a foster child, and the two shared a moment of compassionate connection as she assured him that his abuela and abuelo and other loved ones in his home country were under the same moon and stars.
Sanchez and her family have learned over the past several years that such moments are important, moments perhaps made sweeter by the knowledge that the time with their foster child – whose goal is reunification with family in this country — will be short.
Even before they were married, Erika and Lenny had talked about their shared desire to foster or adopt. Years later, even though they had a houseful of biological children, they still felt the pull to care for children who needed someone.
“It was always in the back of our minds, after all those years,” said Lenny who is a professor at the University of South Carolina.
The family moved to Irmo several years ago from Columbia, Missouri, and that transition prompted them to reexamine their life plan.
“What goals do we have for our family that have taken a back seat?” they asked themselves.
One important goal was fostering or adopting a child.
“If we don’t do it now, when will we?” Lenny and Erika asked themselves.
In the spring of 2018, Erika called Lutheran Services Carolinas and was soon signed up to go to a meeting to learn about the Transitional Foster Care program. They were immediately drawn to the program and felt compelled to fill out their foster parent application immediately.
The process was facilitated by the program staff, including Becky Gibson and Christy Chavis.
“They walked us through every part,” Erika says. “They are extraordinary at what they do.”
They know that they can also call LSC at any time if they need support or advice.
Erika and Lenny spoke to their children before embarking on their foster care journey, since Lauryn, 14, Cailyn, 12, Josiah, 10; and Eliana, 7 would be part of that journey as well.
Lenny’s father is Costa Rican, and he liked the idea of integrating more Hispanic culture and learning into their lives because of his heritage. Erika liked the idea that their children would gain a different perspective on the world.
Erika, who used to work in international business, speaks Spanish fluently and is a high school Spanish teacher. Speaking Spanish helps with the foster parent role, but Erika says it’s certainly not necessary.
“It’s more important to show love for them,” Lenny says.
“That’s something we all can do. Love transcends any language or cultural differences,” Erika says.
Also transcending differences is play. The Sanchez children and the children in their neighborhood have been happy to engage the foster children in play, whether it’s swimming, scootering or skating through the neighborhood.
“Me and Cailyn taught Bridget to ride a bike,” said Eliana.
“They all have something they love,” says Cailyn, noting that one boy loved football; one girl loved painting nails, and another loved to ride bikes. They also help the children learn some English.
The LSC foster program’s hashtag, “#EveryoneUnderstandsLove” resonates with them.
The Sanchez’s dog, Cassidy, can also help the children feel welcome and has been therapeutic for some of the children, Erika says.
Since they began fostering in 2018, the Sanchez family has welcomed 10 children temporarily into their homes, with the shortest period only a week and the longest five months. Most have been from Honduras and Guatemala.
The family understands that the children will be with them for only a short time, and Erika and Lenny prepared their children mentally and emotionally for that reality.
“With this program,” Lenny says, “You have to have a different mindset and heart-set.”
Welcoming these children, who have been through crisis and trauma, has heightened the awareness of the Sanchez children.
“I feel bad for them,” says Lauryn, adding that there is a reason the children make the arduous journey to this country. For a school project, Lauryn researched the conditions at the detention centers, which was eye-opening to her.
Their first foster son had been a shelter-based program for 79 days before he was awakened at 2 in the morning and put on a plane for South Carolina.
Knowing that the children are frightened and may have significant trauma in their past, the Sanchez family sees it as their role to make the experience with them as comfortable as possible.
The first three days are difficult, but, she says, there is “something magical about the third day,” when the children typically come to a visceral understanding that they are in a safe place, that their needs will be provided for, and they do not have to be constantly on guard.
Having a routine is important, Erika says, and may include reading before bed. One child would not go to sleep until Erika or Lenny read him a chapter of Psalms in English and Spanish.
The resilience of the children is amazing, Erika says.
“I never considered it a job,” Lenny says.
Erika agrees. “It’s this amazing privilege.”
Before the children leave their home to be reunited with a family member or sponsor, the Sanchezes give them an album of photos taken during their time with the family.
Even though the family understands when a child arrives that a departure will inexorably follow, it can still be difficult.
“The hardest part is saying goodbye,” Erika says. It helps. She says, to remember that after the children leave their home they will experience a joyful reunification with family or loved ones.
“It’s an honor to step in for these moments – because it’s not a long time—to be able to help make the transition,” Erika said. “Their journey is unfolding in beautiful ways that we can’t forsee.”
For more information, call 803-849-4009 or email UCinfo@lscarolinas.net