We sat down with Tess Gaeng, a recent “graduate” of our Dennis & Judy Jones Family Foundation Foster Care & Adoption Program, and mom to four-year-old Ayden.
Why did you decide to foster?
I always knew I wanted to be a parent, but I wasn’t sure that biological children was the way that would happen. I was certain that I would foster or adopt at some point in my life. At the age of 33, I decided to move forward, and I completed licensing through Children’s Division.
Can you share a little about your first placement?
My degree is in social work, and I have worked extensively in Early Childhood, so I originally agreed to foster a child up to five years old; later, I agreed to expand that to eight years old. In the spring of 2014, I welcomed my first placement – an eight-year-old girl. It was her first time in care, and they didn’t think she’d be with me for long. It was a little overwhelming at times. She was sick frequently, so I was taking a lot of time off of work. But it was a good experience for me as I was learning how to navigate this journey as a foster parent. They found a relative for her to live with after about six weeks.
A few years later, I saw a post on Facebook and I called The Coalition. They told me about the program, and I began my training in March of 2017.
Tell me about your son.
Ayden was my first placement through the Jones Program. I got the call about him when he was three years old. He and two of his brothers had been in care since their parents passed away the year before. Relatives were involved but unable to care for him full-time.
Ayden is funny. He loves animals – especially our dog. Horses are his favorite right now, but he loves all farm animals. He is very bright, and enjoys reading and learning new things. He’s affectionate and sweet and empathetic. At home, he loves to help and be a part of things. He is the youngest of seven siblings, and is busy and active – he is constantly on the go!
When did you know he was your son?
The thought of him leaving began to weigh heavily on me. I knew him so well, and wanted to be sure that he always had someone to rock him to sleep at night … those little things that I knew he craved. I realized, “He’s good here. I can do this, we will be okay.”
So when was the adoption finalized? How did Ayden handle it?
The conversation about adopting Ayden began in the spring, and it was finalized last fall. He is only four, so I don’t know that he understands everything quite yet. But as we talked about it, it was clear that it stirred things up in him. He told me, “I was with my other mom but she died. I have a new mom. You’re my new mom, and you keep me safe.” Ultimately, that’s what is most important for him to know.
On November 7, 2018, we went to the courthouse to finalize his adoption. Most of my family was there, and so was Ayden’s biological grandmother. We went out to lunch to celebrate, but kept it pretty low-key – I didn’t want to overwhelm him. I explained to him that he now had a new last name (Gaeng).
In our conversations leading up to that day, the idea that he was adopting me seemed to sit better with Ayden. Maybe it helped him have some control over a situation he didn’t quite understand. A few nights after his adoption, we were at home and something clicked for him. He turned and looked at me, and said, “The Gaeng is here now! My name! It means I’m going to be your mom forever.” We all had a good laugh – it’s a moment imprinted in my mind.
How has Ayden stayed connected to his siblings and biological family?
While Ayden’s two older brothers, Kayden and Darian, were in care, I got to know their foster mom pretty well. We made sure that the boys got together at least once a month, and more when possible. The two of them were adopted a few weeks after Ayden was, and we celebrated their birthdays with them recently. Their older sisters and grandmother also came! Kayden and Darian’s adoptive family invited us all over on Christmas Day again last year and all 7 siblings were together, plus Ayden’s two nephews, niece, grandma, and a close friend of Ayden’s mom.
Keeping Ayden connected to his siblings and grandma has shown me firsthand the importance of these biological family connections. He loves seeing them, and visits with them reassure him that they are all safe and still there for him. Getting to know his sisters has been awesome for me, too. They have shared some of their family history with me, so that I’ll be able to share it with Ayden as he gets older. This will be a part of his identity that he would not have known if we didn’t have an ongoing relationship with his family.
What has been one of your favorite family memories so far?
His first Halloween was a funny experience. I was trying to explain costumes to him, which was something he’d never seen or experienced before. We went to the store and I helped him slip into a llama costume. When he saw himself in the mirror, his eyes got huge. He looked up at me as if to say, “I can’t believe I’m a llama!”
What have you found most useful about the Coalition?
When Ayden was first placed with me, I went to ReSource and was able to stock up on clothes and other necessary items for him at no cost to me. That was so helpful!
I originally received training and licensing through another agency. My license expired, and when I came to The Coalition for STARS training, it was a totally different experience. It was a supportive and very honest environment. Connie and Katie were my trainers, and I felt properly educated. They were patient and encouraging, and used humor and lightheartedness to keep everyone engaged and confident in what we were learning. They focused so much on the positive aspects (without sugarcoating it), sharing our kids’ potential and our role in that as foster parents. Throughout this journey, Carrie Clark, the Coalition’s Family Support Specialist, has also been a huge support. After Ayden was placed with me, I went through the 7-week Trauma Training in the Jones Program (led by Nickie), which was also incredibly informative.
In all of my interactions with Coalition staff, they gave me confidence that they would be there for me– not only throughout the training and licensing process, but also after that when I put my training to work as a foster parent.
What have you learned over the last year?
The training prepares you, but the biggest learning for me has been around the impact of trauma on these children. You have to parent differently than you would with typically-developing kids who do not have severe trauma history. Despite having a background in child development, this knowledge was a game-changer for me. I read as much as I can to better understand Ayden’s behavior, looking through this trauma-informed lens.
To anyone who is thinking about fostering … what would you tell them?
I would say to go through The Coalition! I had such a good experience here, I always direct people to their resources. And I tell people who are interested that they should pursue it – but first, learn about it. Educate yourself. This isn’t about “saving” children or something you only do out of the goodness of your heart. You have to really be invested and learn how to do this effectively.