Melissa Ann Rodriguez of Springfield knew she wanted to be a foster parent ever since she was 11 years old and she met a family at church who had welcomed foster children into their hearts and home.
She finally got her chance a little over a year ago when she was able to welcome her first foster child into her home -- and the experience has been so positive for her family she just wants to shout from the rooftops her good news. But that would be weird. And a little alarming. So, instead, she recently started up a new Facebook group to encourage others in their fostering journey: 413 How to Become a Foster Parent.
"I really just wanted to get the word out that there are so many kids who need safe homes. I would love to see more discussions going on about the needs of kids in care," Rodriguez said.
She also envisioned a place where she can help dispel some of the myths about foster children -- about the stigma and stereotypes of how children who have been removed from their own homes behave. And she would know -- Rodriguez and her husband have had over 20 children in their home in the past year -- some for respite care which requires a short term stay of a few days and some for weeks or months.
"Not any single one of them has been anything but a typical kid dealing with extraordinary circumstances," she said. "They are no different than any other kids I've ever met -- they're just dealing with hard time. "
Rodriguez was inspired to start this group in her own research to find out how to best help the kids and also to help others who are trying to untangle the web of becoming foster families. She said the need in Western Mass is especially great right now due to the number of children being displaced due to the heroin epidemic that has gripped the area.
Rodriguez and her husband currently have two foster sons.
"They're such precious little pumpkins," she said. "The don't want much even though we always try to do fun stuff on the weekends. Most of the kids are just looking for the basics and they just crave being at home. They crave a home cooked meal -- just being a regular kid at home."
She's not naive to the concerns a lot of folks have about accepting a displaced child into their home.
"With some of these children their histories can be unsettling but with the right love, nurturing and attention they have done really well. You just have to find the way the works for them to help them soothe and heal."
Rodriguez also wants families to know that your house does not have to be perfect in order to host a child. She said the foster agency just wants to make sure it is a safe, stable environment. "They are mostly just looking for safety. That there is a working bathroom, that the water is right temperature, that children will have their own room with a closet."
"They are not looking for perfect people. They are just looking for people who are willing to give the kids a safe home and nurture them and help them grow. And the kids really just need to basics -- food, love, attention, safety."
If you're interested in finding out more about welcoming a displaced child into your home Rodriguez hopes you'll join the Facebook group which provides a good jumping off point about how to start the process, and can honestly answer questions from other families who are fostering or in the process of welcoming a child.
The process can take a long time -- between paperwork, background checks, and home studies -- in most cases it can take 3-6 months to be matched with a child. Once matched, there is a monthly or daily stipend given to the host families to offset the cost of taking care of the kids. And lots of support from the agency who matches a child with a family. Daycare can also be arranged if you work outside the home.
The point is, there is no magic formula and no specific set of requirements. And there is no limit to how the experience can change your life and the life of a child in need.
"The kids have been a blessing to me," Rodriguez said. "It is a beautiful experience. Not like the sad stories in the media. I just want people to know that."
You can find the Facebook group here.