“No invitation needed…”
As a licensed foster parent for over 30 years who has cared for over 250 children and youth, “Grandma” Barbara is something of a legend. Barbara and Frank Johnson have been married for over 50 years and Barbara cannot recall a time in their marriage when it was just the two of them in their house. Their open hearts and welcoming home drew family and friends to them right from the beginning, making their house the place everyone wanted to be. It was therefore a somewhat natural extension to get officially licensed through Accelerator YMCA Family Services & Mental Health and begin caring for kids in foster care.
For Barbara and Frank, the term “foster parent” might not be the best fit. They’ve always approached the children they care for through foster care more as an aunt and uncle or grandparents – extended family who help when needed and are working to reunite parents and kids. They are known as Grandma Barbara and Papa Frank and make no qualms about their commitment to work with, not replace birth families. As Barbara puts it: “Grandmas don’t keep kids.”
It’s not always possible: sometimes parents are in prison, sometimes they’ve lost their parental rights entirely, and sometimes they don’t want help, she notes. Still, she asks them, “Is there anything I can do to help you get your child back?” It’s a sentiment that Amara fully supports. Amara relies on an expansive definition of family so that children in care know there is a constellation of support around them. Whether a child in foster care reunifies with their family, goes to live with a relative, or stays with a foster family, Amara is committed to ensuring they have a stable, loving place to call home.
That’s Why We have Grandparents
Often the young people in the Johnson’s home do return to live with their parents – and then the relationship continues with Barbara as a supportive grandma for both parents and youth. Recently, one mother called asking for advice about how to help manage her daughter’s emotional outbursts. Grandma Barbara’s advice helped immensely, creating a more stable and supportive experience for both mom and daughter and further deepening the family bond between them all.
For Barbara it’s wonderful to be connected and helping these parents. And while some might expect it to be difficult or complicated to maintain these relationships, for Barbara it is quite simple: “That’s why we have grandparents,” she says.
The Right Kind of Home
Grandma Barbara has taken in children of color almost exclusively. She feels specifically called to have Black children in her home because she sees such a need for culturally similar homes for African American kids in foster care. “There are so few African American homes and so many African American young men and young women who need a place.” She notes that a culturally and racially-similar home makes a big difference for kids of color: “Our kids struggle in non-African American homes,” she notes sadly.
Grandma Barbara has also primarily cared for young people who exhibit challenging behaviors: those who are frequently in trouble at school or have been in multiple foster homes. She approaches these young people with curiosity, clear boundaries, creativity, calm, and constancy.
- Curiosity: Grandma Barbara maintains curious interest in the kids who come to her home, rather than judgment. “When you get to know them,” she says. “You understand what it is that’s upsetting them.” Rather than seeing behaviors as indicators of something wrong with a young person, she looks closer, asks questions, and carefully observes – getting to know the child with an attitude of learning so she can better support them.
- Clear Boundaries: Grandma Barbara has often cared for “runners” – young people who struggle to remain in a foster home and frequently run away. With these youth, Grandma Barbara is clear both as to what she can offer and what she requires in return. “I can provide you with three hot meals a day and a place to lay your head – and it will be a safe place.” In return, her expectations are simple and non-negotiable: respect; no weapons; and no cursing.
- Creativity: Where some caregivers may despair, Grandma Barbara gets creative – and gets her house cleaned. “That’s the result when you’re suspended,” she says. Sideboards, doorframes – there’s always a spot that could use some extra cleaning and the effort put into those chores is a great way to work off angry, nervous, or anxious energy. To this day, Miss Barbara says that some young adults who were in her care still show up at her house and grab a rag and spray bottle. “If they’re really upset or need to get away from the hustle and bustle of their own home, they come over and just start cleaning,” she laughs!
- Calm: Kids who have experienced trauma sometimes express themselves loudly, sometimes get angry, and sometimes act out. Grandma Barbara takes these behaviors in stride, with an unwavering commitment to remaining calm – a commitment that comes quite naturally to her. “The yelling doesn’t excite me. The threats don’t bother me.” She has become adept over the years in anticipating when it’s time to change the environment, smoothly shifting an angry teenager outdoors to a more appropriate place to express their feelings.
- Constancy: Perhaps more than anything else, it is Grandma Barbara’s constancy that has most deeply and positively impacted the young people who have joined her family through foster care. Miss Barbara’s commitment to kids doesn’t end when they leave her home. Instead she sees every child or young person who enters her care as joining her family and, just like with any family member, her house is always open to them. Sometimes it’s just to talk things out. Or for a place to stay while getting back on their feet. Or to join in celebration for the holidays. Grandma Barbara’s house is a foundation for those who have joined her family through foster care, regardless of how long they’ve been away, when they left, or why they might want to return. “You are always welcome,” she tells her “kids”. “No invitation needed.”
Barbara Johnson embodies the true heart and soul of Amara’s mission to ensure that all children in foster care have the love and support of a committed family – as quickly as possible and for as long as each child needs. Thank you, Barbara!