God’s Blessings on a Full House | Spring 2011 Spotlight |
UPDATE: The Howards adopted Talmadge and Tashawn in December 2010 and Charlie and Ricky in July 2011. Amanda Faith was adopted in March 2012.
Saturday mornings are always lively at the Southport home of Jayne and Richard Howard—but this one is electric. After three weeks of design and construction, “Fort Howard” is ready for play.
Four boys in matching camouflage wait for permission and, getting their signal, launch onto the backyard playset like an invading army. Jayne and Richard supervise with the alert eyes of field officers, evenly repeating safety rules discussed earlier but forgotten in the heat of the moment.
Don’t swing too high.
Watch where you’re walking.
We don’t drop toys from the top.
Use your helmet on the climbing wall.
Let your brother come down the ladder.
Jayne is patient, a natural nurturer, guiding the boys with a voice like calming, cool water. Richard is all energy and efficiency, inspecting the fort, pushing a swing, enforcing rules with timeouts on the steps. Together, they operate as a team, managing a platoon of children who are learning a new definition of family.
The Howards adopted brothers Tashawn, 8, and Talmadge, 5, in December 2010, and they hope to finalize adoptions soon for Charlie 6, and Ricky, 4—and they hope to finalize adoption soon for 13-year-old Amanda, who came to them in October. But even before these relationships were formalized with adoption decrees, the boys considered themselves brothers, two brown-skinned and two white. Amanda is already their sister, and Jayne and Richard are “Mommy” and “Daddy.”
“People think these children are blessed, but it’s really us,” Jayne says. “We’re blessed. God brought them to our doorstep and has their plan in front of them.”
The plan must have been God’s, because it certainly hadn’t been the Howards’. Not originally, anyway. With three grown children and four grandchildren, they hadn’t conceived of building forts and refereeing snack time at this point in their lives. But all that changed about three years ago with a period of soul-searching and prayer. Jayne and Richard had been working on their New Year’s resolutions for 2008, taking stock of their lives—their happiest moments together, their strengths. They’d been running a nonprofit, traveling the country teaching hydrogen fuel cell technology at high schools and middle schools, and some colleges. But the unfolding economic crisis was sapping their contracts and, at the same time, Jayne’s beloved mother was in failing health. They were at a crossroads, wondering whether to take the business abroad, where opportunity was greater, or find a way to stay closer to home.
So they took the question to God: What’s next for us? Within weeks, in January 2008, Jayne opened the Wilmington newspaper to a Methodist Home for Children ad recruiting foster parents. Her grown daughter Tamara had seen it too, and emailed her immediately. By August, Jayne and Richard had gone through training and earned a license as foster parents. Their pastor, Skip Williams, had a connection to Methodist Home for Children through his own parents, who had grown up at Methodist Orphanage in Raleigh, and the Howards were anxious for him to bless their newly licensed home. So on a hot, late-summer afternoon, Williams stood in their foyer to ask God’s blessings. Jayne remembers that within minutes of Williams’ “amen,” the phone rang and foster care specialist Laura Mayer was on the line with a request. She wanted to know if the Howards would take in Talmadge, a 3-year-old boy.
Jayne and Richard had prepared themselves mentally for a teenage girl or two, maybe sisters, since they were accustomed to working with older kids. But they were open to any child God brought them, Jayne says, and so they stepped faithfully to this new chapter of their lives with potty training, teaching letters and numbers, and nurturing children who’d known mostly neglect and loss.
What they couldn’t foresee at the time were the myriad medical and behavioral issues that would test them as parents and advocates—and also bless them in ways they could not imagine.
Parenting has always come easily to the Howards. They raised three kids together, worked with teenagers in schools and led church youth groups and Sunday school classes. Their home was always open to young people—friends in need or teens in trouble. On their honeymoon, they took a youth group whitewater rafting, so they figured they were ready for anything as foster parents.
Then they met Talmadge. A sweet-faced bundle of nerves, this little boy had been in 14 homes before coming to them. Talmadge suffered from reactive attachment disorder and, perhaps, seizures related to his undiagnosed epilepsy. Afraid to be touched or to be left alone, he’d scream 12 hours at a time until collapsing from exhaustion. “He had been turned away from home after home because no one knew what to do with him,” Jayne says. “Richard and I couldn’t leave the room. He’d get so upset if he couldn’t see us. One of my neighbors came over during a screaming episode and I remember her saying, ‘Jayne, how can you stand that noise?’ I replied, ‘How can I not?’ No one had ever listened to this little one.”
Talmadge was joined shortly by his 5-year-old brother Tashawn. Jayne remembers Tashawn struggling to adjust to a new home and, within two days of arriving, the start of kindergarten; he went to school unable to identify letters or numbers or correctly hold a pencil. Since they weren’t planning to adopt, Jayne and Richard accepted a second set of foster children nine months later.
Brothers Charlie and Ricky, ages 4 and 2, had just been removed from a family that passed them around like luggage. No one had noticed, until he arrived at the Howards’, that Charlie had a dislocated hip or that he fell over a lot, a symptom of an undiagnosed neurological disease. Jayne and Richard set out to right the wrongs in these boys’ lives. “I remember one of the family specialists from Methodist Home for Children telling me that if I can give just one happy memory to a child, it may be the one thing he clings to for the rest of his life,” Jayne says.
Methodist Home for Children specifically trains foster parents to take in children like these—children imprinted early in life by neglect, substance abuse and chaos. A national study out of UCLA shows 50 to 80 percent of kids in foster care have mental health problems associated with neglect and abuse. In North Carolina, about 8,000 children are in foster care annually.Foster care specialist Brian Wylie works with this population of children, and he’s seen a lot of difficult cases in 13 years with Methodist Home for Children. The Howards, he says, have done amazing work as foster parents: “Children learn to know when they’re loved and appreciated versus when they are not. And there was just something about the Howards. They instantly connected with Talmadge. They are extremely structured and, over time, the boys began to conform. It’s unreal how well they did with structure.”
But in their early months with the Howards, the boys’ behaviors had been bizarre. All of them had special needs and medical issues—none diagnosed. Three had eating disorders, retching at the table as they tried unfamiliar foods, and two needed therapy to chew. Two had epilepsy, one had autism symptoms and three didn’t talk. Three had been drug addicted at birth. And so the Howards began their crash course in advocacy and mastery of an alphabet soup of therapies and diagnoses—PT, ST, OT, ADHD, PTSD, OCD, RAD, PFS, CMT and others.
“Nothing got by the Howards. Nothing,” says Mayer, the specialist who placed Talmadge. “They took detailed notes about what they were seeing, and they’d come back, saying, ‘This isn’t right. This isn’t normal.’ They pursued the medical issues, they pursued the diagnoses. God bless the two of them.”
And God has.
The children in their home have blossomed beyond expectations and Jayne has co-founded a nonprofit, AWAKEN (A Working Alliance for Kids with Exceptional Needs), to help parents access educational services for their exceptional children. In April 2010, they decided to adopt and, with the fall arrival of Amanda, the teenage daughter they’d prayed for, their family was complete. “We just pray now for good health so that they can have happiness,” Jayne says.
These are the faces of happiness.
Jayne believes these children, especially the boys, will form bonds that endure for life. Even at their young ages, she sees them filling in for one another, offering a strength to cover a weakness.
“We have those who are academically challenged and those who are physically challenged. They’re all emotionally challenged,” she says. “So I think they’re going to nurture each other along. I see in the future that perhaps [Charlie] won’t be able to carry his bookbag, but Talmadge will. And perhaps Tashawn can’t understand his math homework, but [Ricky] can.”
Back at Fort Howard, Ricky is hurtling across the monkey bars and the other boys line up for a turn. Amanda steps outside to say goodbye before leaving on a church trip, and the sight of her sets off a round of shouting from the boys:
We already tried the fort.
Do you want to play?
We have yogurt raisins, too.
Are you using my sleeping bag?
Bye-bye. When will you be home?
What are you going on?
Are you going to fall asleep on the bus? Are you going on the bus or the train?
With patient answers to each and four tight boy-hugs around the waist, Amanda is ready to leave.
“She is so sweet and so nice with the boys,” Jayne says. “Every now and then, Rick and I do a reality check. We step back and say, these are nice children. The average person doesn’t know the challenges they have. They don’t know the abuses or the problems they’ve had to overcome.”