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Article From Mishpacha Jewish Family Weekly - http://bit.ly/1SMoLN6

Fostering Love

Dawn and Tammy had integrated well into the Schickman family and were flourishing when the call Elaine had been dreading came through. The girls’ mother wanted to see them. Dawn and Tammy were filled with questions: “Will we go home with her? What about our sisters and brother? Will they come home with us, too? Will we ever see you again?”

“I’m not sure,” Elaine replied, uneasy about extinguishing their dream of being a normal, cohesive family unit.

The visit was nightmarish. Their mother subjected them to a barrage of criticism, disparaging their clothing, Dawn’s nail polish, and their close relationship with Bernie and Elaine. It took some time to heal and undo the damage of that traumatic visit. That was the first and last visit from their mother.

Though Dawn and Tammy were making steady, progressive strides, their siblings were being shunted from home  to home. Tammy and Dawn missed them and asked to see them, so Bernie and Elaine asked OHEL if the twins could come for a visit. The first visit was a disaster: the twins were wild and distrustful, and Dawn and Tammy weren’t sure how to handle them encroaching on their turf.

But when they were picked up to return to their foster family, all of the children started to cry. They didn’t want to be separated again. The Schickmans had to pry them apart, promising there would be more visits. Dawn and Tammy watched the car take their brother and sister away, staring into the distance long after the car was no longer in sight.

True to their word, the Schickmans scheduled regular visits, and each time there was marked improvement. Four years after Dawn and Tammy came to their home, Bernie and Elaine opened their home to the now 11-year-old twins. Over the years, other children were placed with the Schickmans temporarily.

With time, unbridled love, and magnanimous giving, the Schickmans’ biological and foster children were melded together into a close-knit, real family. When asked how she opens her home again and again to needy children, Elaine laughs. “Five, eight, what’s the difference?”

Or, in the words of Dawn and Tammy, when asked what it was like living in the Schickman house, they laugh and joke: “It’s kind of like living in a roach motel —you check in and never check out.”

“Our only regret,” Elaine says, “is that we didn’t start taking in foster children when we were younger. We could have saved so many more children.”

Dawn’s Story

Looking back at the story of my life, I’m struck by a powerful realization. I see my two oldest children, ages seven and five — precious neshamos, beautiful and innocent, waiting to inscribe life stories that are rich with meaning. Seven and five years old. That’s how old my sister and I were when our parents abandoned us.

Tammy and I arrived at the Schickmans’ home clutching garbage bags filled with our possessions. We were filled with anxiety: Would this be a good place for us, or yet another stain on the tattered fabric of our lives? We were given warm smiles and invited to sit down and enjoy a snack.

“You eat first,” I urged Tammy.

I eyed her carefully as she chewed and swallowed; I wanted to make sure it wasn’t poisoned before I agreed to try it. Of course, I didn’t want anything to happen to Tammy; I was simply overwhelmed with insecurity and an inability to trust.

Starting school was difficult. I couldn’t understand why I was placed in a Jewish school — my father was Catholic, and I thought I was, too! But ever so gradually and gently, the Schickmans guided us in Jewish observance. Each time I made a mistake, like turning on a light on Shabbos, I was frightened I’d be hit relentlessly. With endless patience, Elaine, Bernie, Gary, and Lisa explained: “We don’t hit in our family. Not ever, not even for play. We talk things through.”

This became a mantra, repeated any time I did anything wrong, giving me constant reassurance and security.

Elaine and Bernie wanted Yiddishkeit to be beautiful for us. On Chanukah they went all out, buying us a toy for each and every night. I was overwhelmed by their generosity.

Socialization was challenging. Play dates or sleepovers with friends were not something I’d experienced while I lived in my biological home, so I was a bit rough around the edges and standoffish. But my peers broke through the barriers of my uncertainty, encouraged by their parents to welcome the new Schickman additions.

Lisa and Gary were 16 and 18 when we arrived. In the beginning, Lisa and I had our clashes. Looking back, I realize how hard it must have been for her to have to share her parents and her house. But Lisa really wanted to be my sister. She would delight in taking me and Tammy for frozen yogurt, and enjoyed doing our hair and dressing us in pretty clothing.

Gary was always happy to help me with math homework. And with large doses of determination and love, Gary and Lisa became our brother and sister. They sometimes called us on the day we entered their lives, warmly wishing us “Happy Anniversary.” Tammy and I learned what it meant to have a family and how rich and beautiful life can be.

Still, insecurity and a lack of trust were my constant companions. One time, the Schickmans were going to a friend’s wedding, and as they headed for the door, I grabbed hold of Elaine and tearfully begged her not to go. I was sure she was going to leave us and never come back.

My biological parents didn’t love me or want to keep me. So why would anyone want to be my friend, love me, or ever want to marry me? Surely if I had behaved better or done things differently, they would have wanted to keep their child.

“No,” Elaine and Bernie explained firmly.

“You didn’t do anything wrong. This was not your fault. ”Elaine and Bernie were always there for me. “We are here for you in whatever way you want. You don’t have to call us Mom or Dad. You do not have to do anything that doesn’t feel comfortable.” They listened with sensitivity as I told stories of my past, and expressed emotions I was feeling throughout each stage of my life.

Yet another gift the Schickmans gave was their encouragement and help in staying in touch with our biological brother who lived with our aunt, and our other biological siblings, Penina and Tzvi, until they, too, became part of the Schickman family. Not only did it reflect their magnanimity of spirit, but it engendered a sense of security and trust.

When, years later, my husband asked me to marry him, I struggled to understand why he wanted me to be his wife. Was I really someone worthy of love? Before I accepted his proposal, I made one stipulation. “I can only marry someone who is willing to consider inviting foster children into our home when the time is right for our family.”

He agreed, and we became a radiant chassan and kallah.

I was very worried about meeting my in-laws — I needed reassurance that they’d accept me without reservation in spite of my circumstances. When my chassan brought me to meet his parents, I carefully gauged their reactions, studying their facial expressions as I told them about my upbringing and the wonderful family Hashem had given me. My in-laws listened patiently to my story, nodding their understanding.

“Okay,” my mother-in-law said when I finished. “So when are you getting married?”

And I knew things would be okay.

I love my life now. Every so often I have my moments, but I’m so grateful for the way things have unfolded. Do I wish things had been different growing up, that I hadn’t endured suffering and upheaval? Of course. But my situation has molded me into a stronger person, a more compassionate wife and  other. I try to always be available for my children; I want them to be able to talk to me about anything.

A friend and coworker recently found out I was adopted. “But you’re so normal!” she said, surprise registering in her eyes.

There were many resources that contributed to our becoming “normal.”

OHEL was incredible. We were not just more kids who came their way; we were their family, and they helped us and guided us every step of the way. Moishe Hellman, Dave Mandel, and Tzivia Ross-Reiter attend each of our simchahs with tears in their eyes. Our joy is their nachas. Our community welcomed us with open arms. They treated us like we belonged, cared about us, and broke down our walls. My mother always says, “It took a village.” Patchogue was that village. Our rabbi, Rabbi Richmond, was an integral part of the village welcome.

If I could give a word of advice to parents considering fostering or adopting, I’d tell them not to be scared. Don’t believe the stereotypes surrounding foster kids: word has it that they’re terribly messed up, will never lead normal lives, and will cause a terrible ruckus… It’s not easy, and there may be times you feel like giving up and sending them back. But if you have the strength and desire to change a child’s life, surround yourself with support and go for it. Don’t be pushy — keep explaining, keep listening, and allow the child to know he can talk to you about anything past or present. And when you’re done, the relationship will be one you cherish for life.

Some of my parents’ foster children returned to their biological families, but they still keep in touch with the Schickmans.

And dear foster children, if I could give you any words of advice to ease your passage, what would I say? Allow yourselves to be loved, and know that it’s real. Bad things happen in life, and it’s not your fault. It’s awful that it happened to you, and sometimes you can’t see the light through the darkness. But I assure you, you’ll get there. You’ll see how strong you really are. Let down your walls, one brick at a time.

Don’t be afraid to let in the good.

When we were older, Elaine shared a letter she had written the day before we arrived. In its pages she expressed her fears, explaining that she, too, was new at this. But she poured a heart full of love into her words, explaining how much she wanted this to work, that she wanted to be for there for us in whatever capacity we needed. Let’s do this together, she penned. And we did.

I once read a line depicting the difference between an adopted child and a biological child: one grew in Mommy’s belly and one grew in Mommy’s heart. If you ever see a woman surrounded by her children, looking like the happiest woman in the world, that’s my mother — who grew me in her heart.

Postscript: Several months ago, Family First published an article about foster children, and Elaine Schickman was quoted several times. Her name generated powerful memories and emotions. For Elaine was the angel who drove me week after week to see my mother during her final illness. I was in my first trimester and unable to handle driving the two-hour stint on my own. Elaine offered to drive me as often as I wanted to go, sit outside the hospital room either knitting or reading, and then drive me home. “Stay as long as you want,” she insisted. “I’m in no rush.”

When my mother’s neshamah left This World, I told Elaine I could never pay her back for everything she had done. Radiating compassion, she told me that if the opportunity to help someone arose, I could pay her back by responding to the need. That was in character: she’s always been a quintessential giver, one who constantly seeks ways to make this world a better place.

I wrote to Family First, requesting Elaine’s contact information.

More than 20 years had passed since we’d been in touch, and I eagerly anticipated the opportunity to reconnect. When the writer gave me her number and added that Elaine was willing to be interviewed, my heart jumped — I hadn’t even thought of that possibility. Thank you, Family First, for reconnecting me to this very special woman. And thank you, Elaine, for the gift of your time and for being you.

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