Some may assume you have to be middle-age with a well-established family unit to foster, but today’s guest reminds us God can use any age, stage and season of life to impact kids who are hurting. Join Lynette Ezell and Tera Melber as they interview Jess Freeman about her family’s experience fostering—in their 20s— a five-year old girl. She unpacks how to discover the meaning being your foster child’s behavior, continuing to date your spouse in a chaotic season and the village it takes to foster well.

Discover ways you can support foster families and their children at www.sendrelief.org.

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Transcript

Announcer: Welcome to The Adopting and Fostering Home podcast. Whether your family has been on this journey for years, or you’re just getting started, we’re here to support and encourage you along the way. And now your hosts, Lynette Ezell and Tera Melber.

Tera Melber: So Lynette, you and I know that the greatest need in foster care is always more families.

Lynette Ezell: Absolutely.

Tera Melber: Jesus calls us to step into the hard and be a living, breathing, walking example of his love and care. He’s very concerned about the young souls in desperate need.

Lynette Ezell: He is.

Tera Melber: And He commands us to care for them.

Lynette Ezell: Yeah.

Tera Melber: And what we’re really seeing is this call is being embraced by the 20-somethings in the church.

Lynette Ezell: That’s right. I’m always amazed when I do trainings, and I see these young couples come among all these 40 and 50 year-old couples and they place their “yes” on the table. And I hear over and over from these Gen Z couples that, “We have an extra bedroom and we’re just trusting God to fill it.” They amaze me, they really do.

Lynette Ezell: I met such a couple about a year ago, and I was so encouraged by Jess and Aaron’s faith and their compassion to help children in their own community. Jessica has been married to Aaron for six years, and they share life with their super dog, Morgan Freeman.

Tera Melber: That’s so funny.

Lynette Ezell: I know. They enjoy traveling and adventuring together. You can be around them, Tera, just a few minutes and you will quickly pick up that Jess and Aaron are truly best friends. They share the importance of dating your spouse through their ABCs of Dating on her Instagram account.

Tera Melber: That’s amazing. And they’re also authors.

Lynette Ezell: They are.

Tera Melber: They authored a children’s book in 2015 called “Frank The Chair Visits Kansas”. And in 2018, Jess released her first book called “Type 1 Life a Roadmap For Parents of Children With Newly Diagnosed Type One Diabetes”. And both of those are available on Amazon. But it’s really pretty amazing.

Lynette Ezell: Oh, it is. But what we really want you to know about Jess Freeman is that she and Aaron, these adorable 20-somethings, took their first foster placement this year. And I’m not going say any more. I’m going to let Jess tell us more.

Tera Melber: That sounds great. So, welcome Jess. We’re glad to have you.

Jess Freeman: Yes, of course. I’m so excited to be here.

Tera Melber: Well thanks. We would really love for you to just share your foster journey, and tell us a little bit about your first placement.

Jess Freeman: Yeah. So, if you ask Aaron why we started fostering, he will always tell you it’s because of the show, “This Is Us”.

Tera Melber: Oh my word. That’s a cry fest every week.

Jess Freeman: Yes, every single week. But really we started considering foster care about two years ago. And then we just kind of pushed the idea aside. We were like, “I don’t know, are we too young to do that? Do we know what we’re doing?” And then last summer we moved into a new house, and we now have three spare bedrooms and no biological kids.

Jess Freeman: A lot of our friends were like joking all the time after we moved, “Oh well, God will do something to fill those rooms.” And eventually, and by eventually, I mean about a month or two after we moved in, Aaron and I were talking. It was like, well we do need to be good stewards of what God has given us in this house. And so maybe we should consider foster care again.

Jess Freeman: Shortly after that conversation, we got an email from the church, “Hey, there’s a fostering orientation coming up.”

Tera Melber: Well, isn’t that just like the Lord?

Lynette Ezell: Exactly. Exactly.

Jess Freeman: Yeah. So, we went to that. Decided, okay, we’re going to do this. And went to the training, which we got to have Lynette as one of our teachers. So, that was awesome. And got our house ready, and we were approved and everything in two months.

Tera Melber: Wow.

Lynette Ezell: Jess, wow.

Jess Freeman: Yeah, from orientation to approval was two months. So, we got approved January 3rd. And then our first placement, who we call “Munchkin”, came to our house January 31st.

Lynette Ezell: Wow.

Jess Freeman: So, she’s been with us for four months. It has definitely been a huge learning experience and a roller coaster. And I’ve reached out to Lynette a few times like, “I need you to pray for me. I don’t know what we’re doing.”

Tera Melber: Well, everyone I’m sure would assume that because you don’t have biological children, that your first placement would be an infant. But that wasn’t the case.

Jess Freeman: No. And we actually intentionally chose to have our age range be like grade school level. We were not really interested in babies, and we feel too young to take on teens right now. Because it’s like we might be just like an older sister, older brother kind of vibe. So, we were like let’s do grade school.

Jess Freeman: And then we found out that grade school kids have some of the highest needs because so many people want to take in infants. So, we were like, “Okay, well perfect. If that’s a really high need in our area, then that’s what we’ll stick with.” So she’s five years-old and all girl, all sass.

Lynette Ezell: She is, she is. I love just the little things you share about her. When she first came, when Munchkin first came in the home, we trained you, you went through all that process, two months of getting everything together. But there had to be surprises.

Jess Freeman: Oh my gosh.

Lynette Ezell: Yeah, here you guys are in your 20s and you take this five year-old. What are some things you remember? Just kind of “this wasn’t in the book” kind of thing, you know?

Jess Freeman: I mean everything.

Lynette Ezell: Yeah.

Jess Freeman: The other kind of newness, we’re not around kids a lot. We have nieces and nephews, but they live in a different state. So, we don’t see them often. There was just a lot, everything was new. I mean, I remember being like, “How much food do we feed her?”.

Lynette Ezell: Right.

Jess Freeman: If she’s still hungry, do we give her more food? I don’t know. Do I use this? Do I do that? So, there was a lot of learning. And she is African-American, and so there’s learning how to handle her hair. So, I reached out to some friends and was like, “I need your help.” Like I’m not ashamed. I don’t know what I’m doing.

Lynette Ezell: I love it.

Jess Freeman: Please tell me … Make me a list. I will go to Target and write it down and buy everything you tell me to buy, and I will do what you tell me to do. So yeah, it was just a lot of learning. I can’t even think of certain specific situations because everything has been like, “Is this normal? Is this normal five year-old behavior, or is this trauma? Is this her personality, or is this a result of her being moved?” So we just have been winging it, basically.

Lynette Ezell: Yeah. And the answer would be both.

Tera Melber: Yes.

Jess Freeman: Yes.

Tera Melber: And I love that you said, “I’m not ashamed.” And not just about hair, but in anything, in any parenting question. Often, we have to just really swallow our pride and say, “We really don’t have it together. I honestly don’t know what I’m doing, but I’m going to seek out people who are doing it well and I’m going to soak it in.”

Lynette Ezell: And that means community.

Tera Melber: Right.

Lynette Ezell: It really does.

Tera Melber: So, what kind of support have you had? Have you had great family support, church support? How have you sought that out?

Jess Freeman: Yeah. The biggest thing that I’ve done is I created a Facebook group for any friends and family who wanted to be alongside of us during this journey. So, I will post in the Facebook group just like funny little quotes that she says. But also, there’s several times that I’ve posted and been like, “She had a major meltdown tonight, and I had to literally rock her to sleep.” And she’s like a 45 pound five-year-old. She’s tall, she’s not easy to hold and rock.

Jess Freeman: And there were several times that people would say like, “Well, have you thought about this? Have you thought about that?” I remember in the first week, one of our friends pointed out something about the tantrums. And we realized anytime we mentioned anything about the next day, whether it was good or bad, like, “We’re going to the park tomorrow. You’re going to school tomorrow,” it really wreaked havoc. It either made her too excited or too anxious. And having that outside perspective to point that out was really helpful.

Jess Freeman: So, first there was the Facebook group. Then our church also has a ministry where they connect volunteers, like respite family and mentors. So, we have a supporting mentor who has done meals and babysat. We also have a few friends who babysat for us a few other times. Yeah, it’s just been a large kind of community of people helping us a lot virtually. Moral support, advice, parenting tips, that kind of stuff. So that’s been really, really crucial.

Tera Melber: That is so good. And when we have kids that have come from difficult situations that we’re loving, we really do have to put on our detective hat and sort of write things down. When these big behaviors come to try to find a pattern so that we can see what the meaning is behind the behavior. So, just reaching out like that on your part was just so very wonderful. And the fact that people are coming alongside and helping you along the way is so necessary when we’re walking these journeys.

Lynette Ezell: Absolutely. Well, you shared about Mother’s Day and that really caught my attention. And Munchkin came home with a little craft. And I know that she’s really struggled with wanting to see her birth mom. Did you expect that to be so severe?

Jess Freeman: I mean in some ways I did because she’s a five year-old. I think that sometimes has grounded me in a way because she does have a lot of behaviors and meltdowns. I just have to remind myself sometimes when she’s like, “Who’s my mommy?” Or “Why do I have three mommies?” I’m like, looking past all the behaviors, she’s just a five year-old who wants her mom. At the end of the day–yes, there’s a lot of other stuff– but she didn’t ask her this and she just wants her mom.

Jess Freeman: That has been a struggle partly because she really struggles to voice her emotions or her thoughts a lot of the time. She can’t really articulate why she’s feeling a certain way. Really, most of the time when she starts to get angry about something, we’ll be like, “Why did you throw that? Why did you stomp away?” You know, whatever. And she’ll be like, “Well, I don’t like this house.”

Jess Freeman: And most of the time I’m like, “Well, I think you’re just mad because you lost your Barbie doll.” Or you didn’t want to go put your clothes away, or something like that. But I know deep down she also really does miss her mom. Yeah, it was interesting because I’m in some Facebook groups with other foster parents and-

Lynette Ezell: That’s good.

Jess Freeman: A lot of those kids … Yes, that has also been a huge help. But so many stories I’ve heard of kids, they instantly call their new foster parents, “mom and dad”. And that was not our experience. Munchkin does not call us “mom and dad”, which is fine. That’s totally fine. We want her to be comfortable calling us whatever. But it just was like it seems that some kids adjust better and just settle in faster than she did. So, that was also another kind of thing we had to work through.

Tera Melber: When kids come into situations like that, they really do experience things in such different ways. I think that we really do always have to look for the meaning behind the behavior. And even children who seem as though they’ve settled in-

Lynette Ezell: That’s right.

Tera Melber: Deep within them, they’re not. It is a difference between you know that they’re safe and in a loving environment and they’re going to be protected, but they don’t feel safe. It’s not a cognitive thought. It’s an internal feeling of not feeling safe, even though it logically doesn’t make any sense. Oftentimes that will show itself in crazy behaviors or flipping out, like not just a five year-old flipping out even more because there’s all this deep internal stuff going on. And it just happens to show because she can’t find her Barbie.

Lynette Ezell: Right.

Jess Freeman: Yeah.

Tera Melber: So, knowing that you’re looking for people to help, you’re looking for respite, you’re doing a lot of self-care and taking care of your marriage and seeking out mentors is so important. Because the fostering journey really is difficult and it’s really very isolating. It can be really isolating if you let it be. But you’ve done a great job in really reaching out and seeking help.

Lynette Ezell: Yeah. And I love that the ABC’s of Dating, like you and Aaron are still dating one another through this because you’re a team.

Jess Freeman: Yes. We did slack off a little bit on the date nights, especially in that first month or two.

Lynette Ezell: Yeah. It’s understandable, right.

Jess Freeman: But then I realized like, oh my gosh, we have not like spent time alone and like connected and I can feel it, and we need a break. I’m like we have to keep making this a priority in this season. And so the ABC’s has made it easy and fun to just go through the alphabet and picking different date nights.

Lynette Ezell: I love that. Yeah.

Tera Melber: I’m going to be watching for the X, Y, Z toward the end.

Jess Freeman: I know, it’s tough. Yeah. But yeah, it’s really important for us to stay as a team. Because we are, we are very much. That’s been one really easy part of this process is learning how well we work together and balance each other out. Like if he’s feeling really frustrated then it seems like all of a sudden I’m like, “No, I can handle it. It’s fine. I’ll handle the meltdown, you stay downstairs,” and vice versa.

Jess Freeman: So it’s been a really good balance and giving each other space as well. Like Aaron early on was like, “You need to find something to recharge yourself and self-care.” So, he was like, “How about Saturday mornings you take to yourself. I will hang out with Munchkin. We’ll go get groceries and go to the park, whatever. We’ll figure it out. And you go walk around Target, or get a pedicure, whatever you want to do just to have recharge time by yourself.” Because I’m an introvert. So having alone time is crucial for me to recharge.

Lynette Ezell: I just think that’s a great idea. Aaron was so wise to say, “I’m going to help you see what you need to do to take care of you.” Because for me, if we have a hard day on Wednesday or Thursday, if I know Saturday morning is coming-

Tera Melber: Yes.

Lynette Ezell: I can handle it. I can make it.

Tera Melber: Absolutely.

Jess Freeman: Yep.

Tera Melber: You know it.

Jess Freeman: That has been the thought process several weeks.

Tera Melber: That’s great. Hey Jess, how has your perspective and your walk with the Lord been challenged or changed in this process?

Jess Freeman: Oh my gosh. In so many ways. I mean just in this very last week or two, I feel like God has really been teaching me a big lesson. If I rewind back to last year when we signed up, we originally were actually going to start as a respite family. We were like, “We’ll just ease our way in,” since we don’t really have experience with this. And then actually, at the training with Lynette, something switched and we were like, “We should foster.”.

Jess Freeman: To be honest, we didn’t feel like doing respite was “enough”, and we were capable of so much more, and we could do more. Both of us, I should also add, are very overachiever personality.

Tera Melber: You think? You’ve written two books together and you’re fostering and you’re in your 20s.

Lynette Ezell: Yes.

Tera Melber: And both working full-time.

Jess Freeman: Yes. Yes. After that training, we decided, “You know what? No, we’re not going to respite. We are going to foster.” Now that we’re coming to the end of our first placement, Munchkin will be going home soon, we are considering switching back to respite. And that has been a struggle because we’re still kind of like, “But is it enough? Are we being selfish in not wanting to foster? What do we need to do?” I think God has been reminding me that we don’t always have to do the biggest and best things in life to honor him.

Tera Melber: Oh that’s good.

Jess Freeman: He still uses us in those smaller moments. And not that respite is any less. I mean, yes, it’s less involved. You’re not there day-to-day raising the child. But having been on this side as the foster family, I now know how impactful and important the respite families are to help sustain the foster families.

Lynette Ezell: Yeah, because it’s like the Saturday morning is coming.

Tera Melber: Right.

Lynette Ezell: The same thing with respite. You know that backup is coming. Jess, what would you say to other Gen Z couples. I really like that, Gen Z. No, I am not in that. That is not my generation. But what would you say to other couples who are considering doing respite or foster care that maybe are a little fearful or just don’t know how to put the pieces together? The first step I guess to take, what would you say to them?

Jess Freeman: I just want to remind them that no matter how imperfectly we might parent these kids, because I know we have not been perfect, we can still show up and show them the love of God. If nothing else, if Munchkin has learned nothing else, I hope she has been shown the love of God through us and through going to our church. I also have to remind myself, before they are their parents’ kids, before they are “our kids”, they belong to God.

Tera Melber: That’s right.

Jess Freeman: At the end of the day, like I said earlier, they didn’t ask for this life and they are just kids who want their mommy and daddy back. But for a season, they just need a safe and loving home.

Lynette Ezell: Yeah. I love what you said, you had written. You said, “A child whose family is broken, gone, or dangerously dysfunctional needs to draw from a different well.”

Tera Melber: That’s good.

Lynette Ezell: That’s really good. What are some things you and Aaron have done to point her to Jesus?

Jess Freeman: We have prayed with her. Every night we pray with her. Like I said, we go to church, obviously, and she gets to go to the kid’s environment, which she loves. Our supporting mentor actually goes to our church as well, like I mentioned. So, she gets to see her, and she also pours into her. When she’s lying to us, or acting a certain way, we’re like, “This is not how God wants you to act. This is not how we act in this house,” and that kind of stuff.

Jess Freeman: And it’s been really cool, just some conversations. And this is probably just normal five year-olds pulling out random questions. But there’s been so many times that Munchkin has been like, “Did God make that?” Where is God? Is God doing this? Did God make that? What is Heaven?” She’s curious. And so we’ve helped answer those questions. We have a storybook Bible that we read to her sometimes.

Jess Freeman: So, just reminding her that she is loved. That reminds me of something, every night right after we do prayers and I tuck her in, I say, “Repeat after me.” And we say, “God loves me. God is for me. God is with me.”-

Lynette Ezell: Oh, I love it.

Jess Freeman: “I can trust God.”

Lynette Ezell: There you go, say that again Jess, what you pray with Munchkin.

Jess Freeman: “God loves me. God is for me. God is with me. I can trust God.”

Lynette Ezell: Oh, that’s good.

Tera Melber: That’ll be something that she carries with her forever.

Lynette Ezell: That’s right.

Tera Melber: Those truths.

Jess Freeman: She will. Because sometimes Aaron will forget, if he does bedtime, she’s like, “You have to say the God thing.”

Lynette Ezell: Well you said kids in foster care need more than foster parents, they need community. And that’s what you and Aaron are doing, building community around her life of other mentors or respite couples that are helping her, they’re backing you guys up, that are also showing her the love of Christ.

Jess Freeman: Yes, absolutely.

Tera Melber: And by learning even just that small little nightly ritual that will be something that she takes home and she’ll want to do with birth mom. So, what you’re doing though, imperfect as we all are, you’ve shown her love, you’ve shown her what a strong marriage looks like, and the importance of within a strong marriage that means that you take time for one another. You’ve taught her truths about the word, and all of those little lessons have impacted her and imprinted on her and she’s going to take those home. And in whatever timeframe it is, when she does go home, at night you can rest assured that she’s going to say, “God loves me. God is with me. And I can trust him.”.

Lynette Ezell: That’s right. That’s right.

Jess Freeman: Yep.

Lynette Ezell: Well, we just want to encourage other couples, if you’re like Jess and Aaron. Jess, I think you do have the capacity to work from home. Is that right?

Jess Freeman: Yes. I own my own business.

Lynette Ezell: Yes. That helps a lot. I know that Munchkin is in school, but if God is tugging at your heart, just start with respite care. Not just, we so need respite families. Just take the first step toward getting trained to be a respite family.

Jess Freeman: Yep. It’s really important. Like you may think, “Oh, but it’s just meals. It’s just babysitting.” No. It is very, very much needed. We need that support.

Tera Melber: It’s a lifeline for foster parents for sure.

Lynette Ezell: It is a lifeline.

Jess Freeman: Yeah.

Tera Melber: That’s awesome. Jess, we’re so thankful that you joined us today and shared your story. I’m sure that it’s going to be an encouragement to many. When you stand before the Lord one day and there are tons of other foster families that jumped into the fray just because of your example, you’ll know that you did really well.

Lynette Ezell: Yeah.

Tera Melber: So, thanks for being with us today. We appreciate it and we’ll be praying for you as Munchkin goes home and praying for her as well.

Jess Freeman: Thank you so much.

Announcer: You have been listening to The Adopting and Fostering Home, a resource of the North American Mission Board. For more information about today’s podcast and other relevant resources, visit SendRelief.org.

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