Helping Youth Through the Holidays

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Monday, Dec 5, 2016

An open letter to Youth in Foster Care: A Young Alumni’s Perspective


I absolutely love the Holiday Season! I start listening to Christmas music a few weeks before young trick-or-treaters scout their neighborhoods, dressed in the Halloween garb, looking for a favorite piece of candy. Some say I am crazy for listening to Christmas music so early, but I just don’t think a month is long enough to thoroughly enjoy those great Holiday tunes. The meaning behind the Holidays is more than stuffing your face with grandma’s homemade pecan pie or getting the year’s hottest toy or even enjoying the music. What it’s all about is coming together as a family and enjoying and treasuring each other’s company. As a foster kid, I used to hate the Holidays because I wasn’t with my family. After my father died the Holidays seemed never the same. While in foster care I was able to go home, but only on Thanksgiving day and Christmas day, I found that being with loved ones the whole season is what makes the Holidays so special. Going home on just two days or even for the weekend wasn’t enough. In those days, I often felt like an outsider because I was just a foster kid, especially during the Holidays. I struggled emotionally when my foster family celebrated the Holidays because I wanted to feel what I thought they were feeling. Even though I was included in all of the Holiday celebrations I often felt left out because to me I was just “borrowing” their family and ultimately their joy.

The holidays never felt special. Worse than that, for me they were a time of regret and confusion. At Christmas time I felt so guilty when my foster mom bought me gifts because I knew she didn’t have to and sometimes I felt like she bought them because she was obligated to. If she bought gifts for me I felt guilty and if I didn’t receive gifts I would have felt unloved. It was really a “no win” situation. In my town we have something called “Artic League” that provides a bag of toys for needy kids to make sure they had something to open on Christmas morning. It’s a wonderful organization and even though the presents weren’t wrapped and came in a clear plastic bag I really enjoyed getting my bag of toys. Since the donor of the toys were anonymous, I felt I didn’t owe anybody. Receiving the plastic gift bag was a clear indicator that I was needy, but I’d rather feel needy than obligated to someone. My foster family was my temporary family and I was just temporarily in their home until my mom could get her life straightened out. My foster family was good to me and I appreciate all that they did, but my birth mom never did get her life straightened out and eventually I was put up for adoption. My foster family became my family when they adopted me a few years later. I was so excited to be in a permanent loving family!

I was adopted right before the holiday season and I couldn’t wait until that season arrived. This was going to be the best Thanksgiving and Christmas ever! I couldn’t wait to establish myself as permanent member of the family. I desperately wanted to loose the foster kid identity that I had carried for the past 5 years. I thought that the Holiday Season was the perfect time to accomplish this. To my surprise it didn’t happen. I didn’t feel established as a permanent member of the family that first year. Sometimes I wonder if it ever happened. I think the Holiday Season made me feel worse because I began to search out in my mind all of the little things that I felt would change now that I was “officially” part of the family. Those changes I sought after were subtle and I begin to wonder why my cousins got more gifts then me. The amount of gifts never really mattered, I was thankful for every gift, but I just wanted to be equal. Being equal to meant I was part of the family. Being equal meant I wasn’t a foster kid anymore. I began to push away, hoping that someone would care enough to push back. No one ever did and my behavior was misunderstood and contributed to me being considered ungrateful or not wanting to be a part of the family. That was 10 years ago and this is something I still struggle with today. Last year, I decided not to go to Thanksgiving Dinner with family and spent the day alone. I just wanted to avoid those old bad feelings. 

I am sure my story is probably different than yours, but I do know what its like to be a foster kid during the Holidays. I do know what its like to miss bio-family and the confusing feelings that go along with the Holiday Season when you experience them with a “temporary” family. These feelings are normal and I am sure a lot of you are experiencing them right now. It is okay to feel awkward observing the Holidays with someone who has different customs and spiritual beliefs than you do. These feelings are normal and instinctively they cause us to push away from those who care for us. Foster parents are put in a tough position during the Holidays because they have taken another child into their home and provide them with a “safe” home during this season. They do their best and sometimes they don’t understand the feelings that their foster kids go through because they have never been in a similar situation themselves. I know my adoptive mother did her best and I know she would have done better if she had understood the complexity of my feelings. I am grateful for her huge heart and her willingness to open up her home and her heart to me. I know it is really hard spending the Holiday Season away from the ones you love but I encourage you to not push away from the ones who are caring for you, even though it might be temporary. They might not say the right things all the time but you need to trust that they do their best. I still haven’t mentioned why I love Christmas so much. For years I allowed life’s circumstances rob me of my joy. During my freshman year of high school my grandfather was real sick, close to death, and he ended up loosing a limb to diabetes. As his life was in the balance he never lost his joy. His faith kept him strong when life was at his worse. This was my grandfather’s character. As his health deteriorated in his old age his spirit never did. He never let life’s circumstances get him down. He couldn’t control what was happening to him but he could control his attitude. He had every right to be miserable and to complain, but he rarely did. 

This was a valuable lesson to me because I began to realize that I couldn’t control life but I was letting it control me. There are just some things in life we can’t control. I can’t control my foster care history and I can’t control other people’s behavior but I can control how I react to life’s circumstances. During the Holiday Seasons past I missed out on so much because I was so focused on issues that were really out of my control. I had every right to feel those feelings but it caused me to miss out on what the Holidays are really about. I still struggle with some of those feelings today that I felt when I was younger and still in foster care, but I don’t let them rob me from enjoying the Holiday Seasons. I wish you joy and peace this Holiday Season, 

Daniel J. Knapp, age 24, lives in Elmira, New York. He currently serves as Program Director for FosterClub. Dan was 9 years old when placed into the system and was adopted at the age of 14 by his first and only foster mother. He is thankful to his family for their lifelong guidance. Dan is a graduate of SUNY at Buffalo and plans on attending graduate school next year.