Given time and nothing else to do, sometimes men will say a lot.
As we waited in the August sun for our children to take their driving tests, a fellow dad told me about his daughter who works at night and had phoned him after another establishment had been robbed. He said he had told her, if threatened, to shoot the assailant and call him. It would be OK because there would be “one less black.”
I think I checked to make sure I’d heard him right, and he repeated it. He then quickly added, “I’m not a racist, but …” and explained that news reports about crimes usually involve blacks and Hispanics.
On May 16, an awards banquet was held where no one really cared who won.
That was the day the Arkansas Foster Family of the Year and 10 regional winners were honored by the state Division of Children and Family Services (DCFS). They were honored for doing what foster families do: giving loving homes to children removed from their biological families, giving those biological families a helping hand during difficult times, and giving the taxpayers a heck of a good deal.
Foster families temporarily take care of many of the 5,200 children whom the state has removed from their homes because of abuse, neglect and other reasons. The arrangements can last from days to years. Sometimes the foster child is ultimately adopted by the foster parents, and sometimes the child is adopted by another family, but in most cases that’s not the goal. The goal is to provide support services to the children’s biological families so they can be reunited.
Here are some of the ones who “only” won regional awards. Ben and Lora Yother from Greenwood, two nurses, have cared for 13 foster children, including medically fragile ones. Steve and Ruth Hale from Conway started fostering in 2012 after they already had eight grandchildren. They’ve fostered 53 children and adopted their first one, seeing her through a teenage pregnancy that produced their ninth grandchild. Charles and Ginger Blue of Nashville have opened their home to 75 foster children in seven years. Terra Cobb of Texarkana, a single mother, has fostered 66 children since 2012. Meanwhile, she’s adopted three children ages 3,4 and 5 and cares for her 80-year-old grandmother in her home. Shantel Moore of Sherwood, another single mother, specializes in fostering teens and teen girls. Tate and Tammy Pfaffenberger of DeWitt have fostered 20 children since 2014. Last year, Tammy continued to care for two foster children – along with her own – despite undergoing radiation treatments for breast cancer. Then, while still undergoing the treatments, she accepted a third foster child.
As someone wrote about her, “Through chemo, losing her hair, staying up all night with babies, going to sporting events, you name it, she never complained.”
That’s some tough competition.
That said, somebody had to “win,” so the Foster Family of the Year was Andrew and Amy Baker of Searcy. He’s a leadership in ministry professor at Harding University, while she’s a speech pathology professor there. They were selected not because of the number of children they’ve fostered (nine long-term over three years) but because of their efforts to reunify the children with their biological parents or other relatives.
The Bakers learned to care about these kids during their own upbringings. When Amy was a child, her parents hosted weekend visits for young people living at the Southern Christian Children’s Home in Morrilton. Andrew’s parents in the state of New York opened their home to what he called “pretty hard core” teenage detainees, some barely avoiding prison and some being loved for the first time in their lives.
Like all foster parents, the Bakers experience grief when the foster children they’ve grown to love leave their home and return to their families. As Andrew explained, “If it doesn’t hurt, you didn’t do it right.”
But reunification is still their goal, as it is the system’s, and so they work with those families throughout the process and stay close to them afterwards. No one wants to be a bad parent, they say, and if circumstances had been reversed, maybe they would have made the same mistakes. If for whatever reason their children were removed from their home, they would want the foster parents to be striving for reunification, too.
“Mercy triumphs over judgment, and I think that’s our role is to be a voice of mercy in a very complicated system,” he said.
Want to try to beat out Terra Cobb or Tammy Pfaffenberger for next year’s title? Contact DCFS at http://www.fosterarkansas.org or 501.682.8770. Another avenue is The CALL in Arkansas (thecallinarkansas.org, 501.907.1048), a ministry focused on recruiting and training foster and adoptive families. Project Zero (theprojectzero.org) helps foster children who are eligible for adoption find permanent homes.
Superman was adopted. So were Batman, Spiderman, and Kenneth and Miles Spann.
You probably haven’t heard of Kenneth, 8, and Miles, 7, yet. But someday you might. They might seem like the ordinary children of Little Rock parents Jeremy and Elizabeth Spann, but they’re already developing their superpowers.
“We’ve had a lot of first birthday parties, first bike riding, first vacations, just seeing them grow into individual people, and they’re just amazing,” Elizabeth Spann said. “They’re the most resilient kids ever. They’re so bright, so funny.”
Spann made those comments on the football field at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock May 6 shortly before the family participated in the Walk for the Waiting.
That’s the annual event that raises funding for three faith-based organizations that serve children in the foster care system: The CALL in Arkansas, which recruits and trains foster and adoptive parents; Project Zero, which links prospective adoptive parents and children; and Immerse Arkansas, which serves young people who are aging out of the system without finding a permanent home.
This year’s Walk for the Waiting drew a couple of thousand participants and so far has raised most of its $300,000 goal. Its other purpose was to raise awareness and recruit people to serve the state’s foster care population, which ballooned from 3,806 in 2015 to 5,209 by last September but has leveled off and stood at 5,155 as of May 5.
Foster children are those whom the state’s Division of Children and Family Services (http://www.fosterarkansas.org) temporarily has removed from their biological families because of abuse, drug abuse and other issues. The goal is to return the children home as soon as their parents are ready to take care of them. When the courts determine they cannot be returned, parental rights are terminated and the children become eligible for adoption. About 500 foster children are eligible, 200 of whom are already in pre-adoptive homes.
Superman’s human dad, Jonathan Kent, brought him home after he discovered the spacecraft that had carried the young boy from the planet Krypton.
Kenneth and Miles were discovered a little less dramatically. The Spanns, unsuccessful at having children even after infertility treatments, had decided to adopt and were looking through photos on Project Zero’s online “Heart Gallery” when they found their two future sons, whom they adopted at ages 5 and 4.
What drew them to those two?
“They have the prettiest smiles, and they look so happy, and their eyes, their eyes sparkle,” Elizabeth Spann said. “Still do.”
The parents have their own secret identities: Jeremy is a science teacher, while Elizabeth is a school psychologist. Creating a new family can tax the powers of any such mortal man or woman, but it hasn’t been too difficult for the Spanns. Among the challenges: They are white, and Kenneth and Miles are African-American. A few people stare at them in stores, but most are very supportive, and African-American friends have taught Elizabeth about hair and skin care. Meanwhile, the sons are not troubled by the cosmetic differences.
“It’s surprisingly not as big a challenge as we expected it to be,” she said. “They’re super understanding. They notice right away that they’re brown and we’re not. They’re super fascinated by it, especially like in the summer when they notice that I get browner. They love that. They’re like, ‘You’re almost as brown as we are now!’”
Unlike Superman, the sons know from the beginning who they are, where they come from, and what makes them special. Still, part of their parents’ job will be helping them make sense of it all. They’ve decorated their sons’ room with superhero references, including signs with messages such as “Superman was adopted.” Every member of the family wore a cape or another superhero-related article of clothing at the Walk for the Waiting.
“We do a lot of things with superheroes,” she said. “We always tell them, you know, Batman was adopted, Superman was adopted, Spiderman was adopted, so we always kind of talk about that. So talking to them about their origin story as a superhero is important. And they’re little, so we try to figure out how much to tell them at a time.”
Over the course of a three-month session, legislators make thousands of speeches at the Capitol. Last Friday, Rep. George McGill, D-Fort Smith, gave one of the most memorable – ever.
The issue was Senate Bill 519 by Sen. David Wallace, R-Leachville, and Rep. Grant Hodges, R-Rogers, which reserves each third Monday in January as a day to honor Dr. Martin Luther King.
This year, Arkansas was one of three states, the others being Alabama and Mississippi, that honored King and Gen. Robert E. Lee on the same day – the result of an unfortunate historical coincidence along with a lack of sensitivity. In 1947, Arkansas made a state holiday out of Lee’s birthday Jan. 19. King’s birthday was made a federal holiday in 1983, which meant there would be two state holidays at about the same time each year. Lawmakers did not want state employees to have another paid vacation day, so in 1985, Gov. Bill Clinton signed a bill combining the holidays.
It’s impossible to know every lawmaker’s intentions in 1985, but regardless, for some people it reasonably has felt like this once-Confederate state was unwilling to give Dr. King his own day. Visitors to the State Capitol on the holiday have been greeted by a sign saying offices were closed to celebrate both King, the civil rights leader, and Lee, the Southern Civil War general. For some, that combination was hurtful.
Two years ago, legislators made an effort to separate the holidays, but it failed under heavy pressure from opponents and fans of Lee and because of the Legislature’s general aversion to upsetting the status quo. For a mostly white Legislature, the combined holiday didn’t seem that big of a deal.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson, newly elected at the time, supported that bill but did nothing to pass it. This year, he announced before the session that a separate King Holiday was one of his priorities, and he testified about the bill before House and Senate committees – the first time he has done so.
The bill says Arkansas will now celebrate only King’s birthday on each third Monday in January while Robert E. Lee Day will be the second Saturday in October – a state memorial day, not a holiday, coinciding with the time of his death. Schools are required to develop teaching materials about the civil rights struggle and the Civil War corresponding to those days.
That arrangement felt to some legislators less like a separation and more like a demotion for Lee. On the House floor Friday, one said it appeared the state was ashamed of its past. Another feared the next step was to remove the star in Arkansas’ flag commemorating its membership in the Confederacy. There was some emotion in the room.
That’s when stately, gray-haired McGill sensed the mood and made his way to the well. “Good afternoon,” he said with a smile, and then repeated the greeting so the House would return it. He then spoke highly by name of his fellow legislators, including one who had vocally opposed the King bill.
Speaking off the cuff, he talked about his great-great-grandfather, also named George McGill, who had fought in the war on the Union side, and he wondered what it had been like for him when the war ended. Did they let him keep his weapon or give him rations? He talked about his own experiences at the University of Arkansas when he was denied a dormitory room because of his race. Looking back at his youth, he recalled his afro hairstyle, his use of the black power salute, and his vow never to return to the University of Arkansas – now, he said, “one of my favorite places to go.”
McGill told House members that Senate Bill 519 would be just one more piece of paper stuck in a big binder in a room full of other big binders. What mattered, he said, was legislators were giving educators space to teach about the past.
No way anyone was following that speech. The vote was 66-11, with 5 voting present and the rest not voting. Hutchinson signed the bill into law Tuesday.
McGill’s biggest accomplishment wasn’t the passage of the bill. It was going to pass anyway. His greatest achievement was bringing healing to what was becoming a racially divisive moment in a chamber that has seen many others through the decades. He reminded everyone listening that it’s possible, even necessary, to both remember and forgive.
He was a peacemaker. Someone once said such are blessed.
Note: Here is the speech. Great job, Brian Fanney.