A child on my doorstep

Wendy’s story

By Wendy Robinson

After church on Boxing Day, Karen, Bob and their two girls came for lunch. There was much excitement, especially as we opened presents. Karen was proud that her youngest was already reading in kindergarten, just as her older child had. To Karen, learning to read is such a special gift. When the family had left and the house was quiet again, I remembered back to the day when Karen had come into my life.

Karen arrived at our home one July, when she was nine years of age. As I welcomed Karen and the social worker, I noted that Karen looked “lost” and a little dishevelled. The buttons on her shirt were not done up right; her hair was tangled and in her face. There was no smile or any sense of playfulness about this quiet, reserved child. We sat in the garden together, watching the other children play. She did almost smile when I gave her an ice cream cone.

When the time came for the social worker to leave, Karen looked reluctant.

“Do you want to stay?” the social worker asked.

Karen looked at her ice cream hard, and I thought she was about to cry. Was she afraid that, if she left, she would have to give up the ice cream? Could food be that important to a nine year old?

I gently told her that she could take the ice cream with her if she wanted to. Tears slid down her cheeks and she simply nodded to her social worker that she would stay.

How can a child be so willing to stay with strangers? I wondered, with tears in my own eyes.

Karen’s mother had died and her father was unable to cope. She had been living in a shelter, but didn’t want to return there. So Karen stayed for supper that night – and for another ten years after that.

Initially, Karen was a little girl who did not play; she had to learn how. We started by scooping sand in the sandbox, chalking on the blackboard and racing in the garden. She was awkward and forgetful. Perhaps she was working hard to forget the sadness of the past.

Karen worried that there may not be enough food for her, so she sometimes ate too much. We picked apricots that summer, and she ate so many that she cannot eat apricots to this day. I always kept a plate of muffins or fruit available in the kitchen; eventually the time came when Karen would walk up to it, realize that she wasn’t hungry, and walk away.

In the early days, Karen barely knew her alphabet. We read to her for hours and taught her reading with our six year old beside us, so they could learn together. There were six other children in our home, so including another child made it more fun, and less like teaching. It was a huge challenge that took over a year, but Karen eventually learned to read.

The rewards were huge. Karen loved to read, working her way through everything we had in the house, the small library at our church and the school library. School was difficult initially, but as her confidence grew, so did her ability at school. She loved Sunday school – the stories and the activities. She participated in everything, and soon accepted our faith as hers.

When Karen had been with us about six months, her social worker asked if she could begin visiting her father. I struggled with what that might mean. What if he didn’t want her involved in church? Would he support us as her parents? Would he take this little girl we loved so much from us?

He came to the door one Sunday afternoon, took Karen for a few hours and returned her on time, thanking us for caring for her. Over the years, he did that many Sundays and we became fond of him, too. I knew that his life was different from ours, and that one day Karen would see it.

That day came when Karen was 13. As she came in the door from a visit with her dad, she heaved a big sigh. I asked her what had happened and, to this day, I remember her words:

“I love my dad, but when I grow up, I want it to be like it is here – peaceful, loving and we go to church and know about God.”

Karen blossomed into a typical Christian teenager who loved to go to youth group. Years later, she was married in our church and we encouraged her father to give her away. He was thrilled. She wore my old wedding gown and church families helped with the reception. She was truly a part of our church family.

Today Karen helps in the nursery. Her husband is in the choir, and her children were the best readers you can imagine before they started school. The joy of reading, a love of God and a sense of family are the gifts she received from growing up in our foster family. Now the gifts are all mine: grandchildren painting me pictures and a daughter who knows the Lord.

When a foster child comes into your home and your heart, they can stay for a month, a year or a lifetime. You are never sure how long it will be. But one thing you do know: no one can take away what you are able to share with them – security, a sense of family and love for God.

Wendy Robinson has retired from her position as director of Christian Adoption Services in Calgary, Alberta. She and her family fostered dozens of children over 25 years. Although none were formally adopted, many still consider her "mom."