International Day of Families – May 15 2020

‘The best place for children is with their mom and dad’

Jenny Wray is a professional foster parent with SOS Children’s Villages Illinois. She and her husband, John, a math teacher, talk about the joys and challenges of being foster parents at our children’s village on Chicago’s South Side. In their two-plus-years as foster parents, they have cared for 14 children and youth, several of whom they have seen reunite with biological parents. Jenny and John are adopting three of the children.

Q: Why did you want to become an SOS Children’s Villages foster parent?

Jenny: When I was 12 to 15 years old, my mom was a foster parent. She was a single parent and my brother and I wanted to have more kids in the house. So, I grew up with four different foster siblings in that period. It made a huge impact on my life. It was something I knew I wanted to do at some point in the future.

John and I, when we got married, knew that we wanted to have a family. Then we actually weren’t able to have our own children. Fostering started as something we thought we would do later in life. Then it became a conversation of how could we do the fostering sooner and start our family in a more non-traditional way.

John: I didn’t know much about fostering but we had some good conversations about it and thought we would give it a shot. We went for it, and here we are.

Q: What do you love about being a foster parent?

John: What I love about being a foster parent is getting to know the kids, being able to experience the resilience that they have. You hear about the stuff that they’ve been through in their lives, and you think that they wouldn’t be able to overcome it but they still are able to and really thrive. We’ve seen so much growth in the kids that we’ve taken care of and it’s been remarkable.

Jenny: There’s not much that I don’t love about this job. Don’t get me wrong, there are so many challenges, but I wouldn’t want to be doing something that wasn’t challenging me to be a better person, to be a stronger person, to learn more about myself. I had not parented prior to coming here so I’ve learned so much about parenting, and I have so much more to learn. You fall in love with the kids. This job isn’t just about helping kids; it’s about helping families, so you’re working with adults too. You’re working with biological parents to get these families back together because it’s always the goal. I can’t think of a better way to spend my time and my life.

This job becomes your life. You have to put yourself whole-heartedly into it, 24/7. It has redefined who we are, but I love that I’m doing a job that is about social justice, it’s about love, and creating a positive change in the world. You do that every day in the smallest ways and at the same time in such a huge impactful way for these children.

Q: What is the most rewarding part of the job?

Jenny: I think you can imagine the biggest reward is that exchange of love between you and your kids, and that’s tremendously rewarding. What I didn’t realize I was so on board with is trying to get these children back to their biological parents. Since John and I have been doing this, we’ve had two siblings and one child from another home return to their biological parents. You’re there every step of the way with the parents. You’re going to the court dates and weekly visitations. Those visits start increasing as the parents are more and more on track.

Some of my most rewarding moments have been when you’re standing there in the courtroom. I’ve been holding my two year old’s mom’s hand, and when the judge told her that she could get her kids back, it is such an emotional moment to hear that these kids get to return home. You’re rooting for those parents just as much as you are for those kids to succeed. You know that the best place for those children to be is with their mom and dad. I think that that has been a huge victory to see those kids return home and to know that the love you gave them – the child and their parents – they are going to take that with them and you can feel good knowing that you’ve made an impact on their lives, however small it is.

Q: How does SOS work with biological parents to be ready to take their children back?

Jenny: We have to recognize that there’s so much injustice about who comes into foster care. A lot of times these parents that have their children taken away by the Department of Child and Family Services, they face a whole slew of their own challenges growing up. Maybe they never received the kind of help that they needed or never had a parenting model in their life, or they might be facing addiction. Judgment isn’t going to help get them anywhere. We need to make sure that we’re ready to embrace them and let them know that we’re coming from a non-judgmental place and that we want to do whatever we can to help support them.

Q: What are the challenges of parenting children coming from difficult backgrounds?

John: Patience is the number one thing a foster parent needs, and to not get angry. That is really hard to do sometimes, because these children are used to anger and they want to see how they can provoke anger.

Jenny: A lot of the children that have come into our home, we are their fifth or sixth foster home that they’ve been in. They are wondering ‘Well, do I just need to push a little bit more and then you’re going to give up on me too’. But they just need to know that you’re still going to wake up the next day and say ‘Good Morning’ and ‘I love you’.

Q: When they leave your home, what are you hoping they will take with them?

John: In the big picture, I would like them to know that they’re worthy of love and respect. I think that that’s something that they might not have felt before. If they feel better about themselves [and know that] they deserve respect and deserve to be loved, that’s probably the biggest thing I hope they take with them.

Jenny: When kids come into foster care, they have often been told that they’re bad kids, whether that’s directly or indirectly. What we’re trying to help them understand is that there’s no such thing as a bad kid, there are good choices and bad choices, but you are always inherently a good kid. We’re trying to give them the confidence to know that they can make mistakes or things can go wrong, and they’re still a worthy and deserving human being.  

Learn how SOS Children's Villages Illinois is shaping the future of foster care