Family Spotlight: Esther Dennis
Esther and her husband Mike don’t have biological children of their own. Mike has biological children that are now adults. With a background in early childhood development, Esther has interacted with several foster and kinship kiddos and families. She’s always felt a tug on her heart to foster, and seven years ago, Esther and her husband Mike felt they were at a place to open their home to foster children.
“Without really thinking about it too much — I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing — we just jumped right in. We went to the county’s website and registered for the program. Back then (seven years ago), there wasn’t an orientation. We just signed up for the training, and the rest is history.
We weren’t really anticipating adopting. It was something that I had in the back of my brain, not on the forefront. But the very first kiddos that we started fostering are actually our adopted children now! It was very much a roller coaster start to this life of foster care, a very amazing and wonderful start to the unexpected. And since then, we’ve continued to foster.”
Becoming foster parents is just the beginning of the journey. Once that first placement comes, reality hits and most foster caregivers say that while their friends and family are there for them, they don’t truly understand the daily emotions, struggles, and trauma the children are dealing with.
“When you’re first-time foster parents, you’re in this weird, funky haze. This is a brand new thing. I don’t care how much training you get, the emotional side of foster care is something you can never prepare for. During that first year of foster care, it felt like I was on a deserted island by myself. My friends and family, even though they were supportive, really didn’t understand the toll of foster care, what it takes to be a foster parent, and what those kids and families are going through. I was really struggling and I needed a community, a group of people who I could connect with on that level.”
Esther started to ask around, looking for additional support. Within a week, she received an email about Finally Home’s Family Strengthening Conference and registered immediately!
“This was actually the first foster care conference I had ever gone to. It was the first organized foster care group that I had ever joined. And I remember sitting there for the first time, feeling like I wasn’t alone. These people spoke my language and I could vent to them in such a different way. It was so healing. Foster care takes you on this journey that is so unexpected and you just cannot prepare for it. People who have not done it and are just watching from the outside can’t really understand the work that we do. Being in a room of all these people and listening to them talk was a sense of relief, because their words were my words. That in itself was incredibly empowering.”
As foster-to-adopt parents themselves, Finally Home co-founders Mark and Kristin Orphan knew that this was a support network that families desperately needed. While many other agencies and government programs offer training for families, there was always one key thing missing: What do the caregivers do with their children while they’re attending these trainings? Especially knowing that many of these children have special needs that need to be accounted for. This was a key component from the start. Mark and Kristin knew that in order to have an impact, they would also need to provide quality programming and trained volunteers to care for the children so that parents and caregivers could take in all of the training and support.
“One of the reasons that we couldn’t do a lot of the other foster family events was lack of childcare. It was always the struggle of deciding whether I’m going to go or my husband’s going to go, because we can’t go together without childcare. And so for my kids, and my husband and me, to all be able to do this together was incredible. That was such a weight off my shoulders because it’s not always easy to find somebody who’s able to take care of foster care kiddos on the level that they need, because other parents don’t always understand trauma and its effects. Sometimes my kids’ behaviors seem odd to people or make them uncomfortable. Finally Home is an organization that checked that box for us. Knowing that I’m leaving my kids in the hands of trained professionals who understand my kids and their needs allowed me to relax and absorb what was being offered to me. It really was an amazing experience for us and at a time that we really needed it.”
The October 2023 Family Strengthening Conference was Esther’s and Mike’s third event with Finally Home. Attending the 2023 event was the breath of fresh air that they needed to reconnect with each other and recommit to fostering.
“The life of a foster parent is really unique. One of the struggles is that my husband and I get stretched in different places, and we’re not always connecting on the same level. And sometimes I don’t know if we’re on the same page, because he’s going one way and I’m going another. Sitting at this last conference, my husband and I looked each other and had this moment of ‘Oh, my goodness, we’re connecting on a very different level.’ The stress of finding childcare was taken off of our shoulders, and we could have really genuine conversations with one another as we’re going through the training. We’re discovering new things about each other, and for me it really brought to light that my husband and I are on the same page about foster care. We really do want to do this journey together. And we really want to strengthen our family so that we can be the best foster care parents and the best parents that we can be to our adopted kids.
For me, it’s not so much about the information that’s being shared at the conference as it is about the connections that I’m making with my significant other and with other people around the table. There’s so much power in connecting with somebody who understands you to your core! That’s what brings me to these events over and over and over again, because I’ve had that experience every single time. I need to rejuvenate! If you go a year or two without doing this, you forget what that feeling is like. To get that back, you have to go be around people who understand you. You can connect with that significant person sitting there next to you, who’s learning along with you, so you can have helpful conversations later.
I would never say this is a ‘once and done’ situation. If you’re planning on fostering for any length of time, you and your partner really need to make plans to attend these conferences each year. You’re going to find that attending is more than just learning strategies to cope with difficult behaviors. It goes a lot deeper, into an emotional connection with your partner and a connection to community. This is such a significant experience that it need to be repeated over and over and over again throughout your journey.”
While parents are learning and growing at the conference, children participate in SuperHero Academy and youth participate in Solid Rock Students. These programs introduce participants to one of our SuperHeroes and teach them critical life skills — such as “Kindness is Cool”– and how to recognize them and embrace then. Children do this through arts and crafts, stories, dance classes, and more. Solid Rock Students do this through activities like rock climbing, community service projects, and guided activities.
Esther’s children participated in the SuperHero Academy. What did they think?
“They loved it. They absolutely loved it. As soon as we walked into the room to check them out, they were frantically trying to tell me everything that they had experienced. So of course, just being a superhero, right? My four-year-old twins thought it was the absolute coolest thing in the world that they were superheroes. They have the capes and the masks, and they wore those things for like three days straight.
It was just as amazing for my older kids, who we adopted out of foster care. One of the most important things is the human need to be around people who are like you. My kids need to be around other kids who are in foster care and adopted because that story is so unique, and it’s hard for them just to go to any social setting at school and find that same connection, it’s hard for them to go to a birthday party and find a connection like that, because normally they’re the odd ducks out. They’re the kids who have a journey that just isn’t the same as everybody else.”
At the conference, they experienced a sense of normalcy, a sense that they don’t always have in their day-to-day life.
“I seek those opportunities because I know how impactful they are, and I know that they will give my children a sense that this is okay. They learn that they’re not the only ones that have gone through this and that there are others out there who have the same questions, concerns, and feelings about being an adopted child or a child that has experienced foster care.
And then just the sheer joy of having their faces painted, being superheroes for the day, and being kind of spoiled on a level that they don’t get all the time. My kids lovingly refer this to as ‘camp’. For week straight afterwards they asked if we were going to take them back to camp again. And of course I said yes. It’ll probably be another year, but it’s something that my kids look forward to. And it’s something that they have enjoyed immensely. I love the concepts that are being taught during the conference. It’s really vital for our kids to understand kindness and caring, and what those things look like and how those things should be expressed, not only from others, but how are we expressing that to others as well. So it’s kind of full circle for my kids there.”
Attending the events is one thing…but do families really take what they learned and put it into action weeks later?
“Because you’re there for a good chunk of your day, you’re making all different kinds of connections throughout your day. You’re trying to absorb all the information that you’re learning, not just from presenters, but also from the people at your table. My style of learning is going home and implementing those things. And that’s what Mike and I did. It was really interesting, especially in the few weeks following the conference, that we really held a lot of what we learned in mind. We’re implementing things with our kids and implementing things with each other. And another thing we learned is that a lot of times the strategies that we’re learning for our kids, we actually can use for ourselves when trying to connect with each other on a deeper level. Sometimes it’s as simple as asking each other the questions we’re supposed to ask our kids. I really appreciate that.”
With everything Esther has been through, she hasn’t stopped with her own story. And while she leans on Finally Home and the foster community that has created for her, she is also giving back to foster families within Weld County, Colorado through Operation Foster Hope, a nonprofit established with her friend and co-founder Tierney Baldwin.
“As a first time foster parent, it’s eye opening. And one of the things that I realized is that I had three kiddos coming to my doorstep with absolutely nothing, literally the clothes on their back, and the clothes on their backs didn’t fit them. It was this moment of panic and scramble. My job is to connect with them and make them feel as calm and settled as they can during probably one of the most chaotic moments of their life. But also I had to provide not just for their emotional well being, but also their tangible things. I needed to make sure that they had clothes, toothbrushes, hairbrushes, and even a highchairs for my son who came to me at nine months of age. I had none of this stuff. My kids came to me at one o’clock in the morning, so it wasn’t a time that I could just pop out to the grocery store and get stuff either.
So it really dawned on me that I was not the only foster parent having this experience. And how valuable would it be to have access to a resource that understood the journey, really got it, and that has lived these moments? We know how important it is and how hard it can be when you say yes, but you say yes even when you don’t all of the resources you need to be able to provide for these kiddos. So our organizations want to be that resource that you could call at 1:00 a.m. I understand that our kids are not 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., they’re not going to come to us at 8:00 a.m. or 9:00 a.m. They’re going to contact Operation Foster Hope at 1:00 a.m. in the middle of the night. When you just need a crib or pack and play, something to get you to the next step, we really want to be there.
Organizations like Finally Home are there when you need a community around you to be able to do this for a long time. I’ve been doing this for almost eight years, and I think it’s sad that I’m considered to be a “senior” foster parent. But that also shows that parents don’t stick with fostering like they used to. I think resources have become slim for a lot of them, or they just don’t know that there are organizations out there to help. I wanted to become a part of that community that could hopefully support foster parents so they could stay with this longer so that kids had loving homes to go to when they need them.”
Esther started Operation Foster Hope as a community resource closet. The nonprofit organization receives in-kind donations including diapers, formula, clothes for children of all sizes, cribs, and more. While its emphasis is foster and kinship families, OPH also supports teen moms and teens aging out of the foster system. Check out the website to learn more about how you can donate resources to OFH’s community closet or share this program with families you know in Weld County, Colorado.
If you have any resources that are similar to Operation Foster Hope in your community, please share them with us. We’re working on a resource section of our website to help connect more foster, adoptive, and kinship families with local resources.
We’re thankful for Esther Dennis for taking the time to do this interview with us and sharing her story.
If you want to support families like the Dennis’s consider joining the Home Team so we can continue to provide direct support and group coaching to more families more often.