Jeri and Steve Wagner with their foster children Rudy Duarte, 21, Sherrie DeBarr, 18, Paul DeBarr, 14, and Cienna Goldman, 13.
By Valerie Shelton, Editor
Every parent knows raising a child isn’t easy. It can be even more of a challenge to care for a child with a traumatic history. Devoted foster parents take on this challenge each day with the desire to shape the young lives that come under their care in a positive way.
One Clovis couple joyfully accepted the call to become foster parents 10 years ago and though there have been trials and tribulations, Jeri and Steve Wagner say they would do it all again because their children have been such a blessing in their lives.
Jeri said she and her husband had long felt that God was leading them to become foster parents, but they resisted, she said, because becoming a foster parent is a huge commitment and they weren’t ready. Then, 10 years ago, the signs that they needed to step up became strikingly clear.
The Wagner’s have one biological daughter and she has two children. One of those children, the Wagner’s beloved grandson, had been diagnosed with leukemia. In order to help care for their grandson and watch their granddaughter while he was at treatments, the Wagner’s and their daughter’s family purchased a property with two homes in eastern Clovis. Jeri, Steve and their dog shared the smaller house of the two—a four bedroom—and as they adjusted, the realized those three extra rooms could be used to changed lives.
A yard sale the family had after moving in solidified the Wagner’s decision. An older couple came to the sale and had a long talk with Jeri and Steve about their six foster children. When the couple left, Jeri said she remembers turning to Steve and saying “That will be us one day.”
Sure enough, 10 years and countless foster children later, Jeri and Steve do have six foster children who are permanent members of the family—four still live within the home and two of them, Sherrie and Paul DeBarr (along with older sister Carol) were the first foster children Jeri and Steve ever welcomed into their warm and loving home.
“We met them at McDonalds to do a meet and greet and they just looked so homely and like they had been in the back woods,” Jeri said. “Paul was only 5 and he was so loving and eager to hug. Steve and I just looked at each other and thought, ‘yeah, we’re going to take them.’ I still have them and I love these kids with all my heart. They have been more of a blessing to us than we ever could be to them. We never adopted them, but we have full guardianship…They are not in foster care anymore; it is like they are adopted just they don’t have our last name.”
Originally, Jeri and Steve didn’t plan on keeping kids on a permanent basis, but after getting to know them, they started to love them like they were their own.
“We weren’t planning on keeping kids; we thought this was just something we were going to do to really just be a mentor to somebody and really help them, maybe tell them about God and give them some hope in life and little did we know we were going to keep them, but those kids are a blessing,” Jeri said.
After taking in Sherrie, Paul and Carol, the Wagner’s got another call about a boy named Ramon. Jeri said Ramon was difficult at first because he had such a traumatic background and was separated from six siblings. As time went on, Jeri said Ramon grew into a remarkable young man whose testimony at their church spurred other families to foster and adopt.
“It was an adoption night at our church and we invited Aspira to come and they were there and Ramon told his testimony and I can’t even tell you how many kids from North Point Church have been adopted through Aspira now,” Jeri said. “It was really amazing.”
Ramon is another that Jeri and Steve took guardianship of. Now he is 21 and lives in Sanger and comes home frequently to visit.
Having Ramon lead the Wagner’s to another child in need, Luke. Though not in foster care, Luke was a neighbor who lived with an absentee father and rarely had enough food to eat.
“There was a little boy down the street, Luke, who Ramon met at school and he started coming over and I kept thinking ‘why is he here every breakfast, lunch and dinner?’” Jeri said. “I didn’t say anything, I just said, sure you can eat and it just got more and more and then I got really concerned when it was Christmas Eve and he asked to stay the night and I go ‘where are your mom and dad?’ and he said his mom didn’t live with them and his dad wouldn’t care and I thought ‘What do you mean your dad won’t care?’ It was nine o’clock at night and I called my daughter and we went out because we couldn’t let him wake up and not have anything for Christmas morning so there was nothing open, but we went to Blockbuster and we bought a PlayStation that we paid way too much for and got him some games so he would have something to open the next morning. Then that was it, he just stayed with us after that.”
An accident where Luke broke his arm was the “straw that broke the camels back” as his father would not pay for medical services to fix it. At that point, the Wagner’s were able to take guardianship of him too.
“What is funny about that is I had just got through praying and I went on K-Love and sent a prayer request and said ‘God, please help us with him’ and then he went out and broke his arm and it’s the best thing he could have done because we were able to get Aspira involved and were able to take guardianship of him,” Jeri said.
Luke, too, is now grown and moved up to Oregon, but along with Ramon, Luke still calls the Wagner’s house his home and returns for visits.
Another young man the Wagner’s welcomed home was Rudy. The Wagner’s biological daughter works as a school administrator in Madera and she found out about Rudy, who was in foster care there. As he was about to turn 18, they had run out of homes for him and because he is special needs, it was difficult to find a foster family willing to care for him. Once again, Jeri and Steve stepped up and helped him and miraculously, Rudy now has a driver’s license, which many didn’t think was possible, and he has a good job at a local grocery store.
“I can’t tell you how many kids I’ve taught to ride a motorcycle, even at four and five years old, and to drive cars, but I would have bet anything, I even told my wife, that Rudy was never going to learn, no way, but I guess I’m a better teacher than I thought because he got that dang driver’s license,” Steve said.
Last but not least, the Wagner’s have also have guardianship of Cienna, who also came to live with them in a roundabout way.
“The lady I get my hair done from had been telling me for two years about this little girl and she was telling me that people adopted her through the county and they were saying how bad she was and that she was awful and they ended up putting her in a group home when she was 8 years old and left her there for two years,” Jeri said. “When she came out they really did not want her and wanted her to find a new home, so I got a phone call from my hairdresser and she asked if it was okay if they came out and met us and I said I didn’t mind and so they came out and long story short, we now have her, and we’ve had her for two and a half years now.”
Through every twist and turn, Jeri and Steve said it has been a quite a journey and they want to encourage those considering foster care to take the next step because the only possible regret they have is that they didn’t start sooner.
They admit it can be awkward and the older kids may have a rap sheet a mile long in their file, but the Wagner’s advice is to look past that history and the initial awkwardness because the child underneath—the one just longing for that support and love—is yearning to come out, they just need to be able to trust you before coming out of their shell.
“I think what we’ve learned along the way from taking older kids is that they sound so terrible on paper but when you get them, that paper is nothing like the child,” Jeri said. “It is so different. Really all they need is love and I’ve found that with each and every one of them. They all come with their baggage and they all come with their stuff and they all come having had something wrong with them here or there, but if you stick it out with them, they change, not that they needed to change, but they blossom.”
Chad Valorosi with Aspira Net Families said the process of becoming a foster parent isn’t as difficult and some may think.
“You have to have enough money to meet your expenses, you have to have bed space so you have to have more than a studio apartment, you have to be willing to get background checked and get CPR first aid training, which we provide, and you have to do a home study assessment which includes a psycho-social assessment,” Valorosi said. “Some people think ‘oh my goodness, I have this in my background’ but that is Ok. There are disqualifiers but if you have something small from a number of years back it is not going to necessarily disqualify you. Having a low income is not going to disqualify you and living in a certain area of town definitely won’t disqualify you because a lot of kids come from those areas and they would actually want to place kids in a neighborhood near where they go to school because when they move, they lose their friends and school and their dentist and their doctor.”
Above all, Valorosi said, you just need to be willing to put forth the effort and agree to support and love each child under your care.
As for the older children in particular, Valorosi said potential foster parents shouldn’t shy away from changing the life of a teen or pre-teen.
“People get scared off by the older ones and they aren’t scared of the younger ones but they don’t realize how much work the little ones are and for the older ones we have a top 20 list of reason why you should take a teen—they can dress themselves, they can shower themselves, and you get to experience those pieces that Steve and Jeri talk about, life’s special moments,” Valorosi said. “It’s the idea of investing in a child so you enrich your own life but also provide them with an experience that a lot of kids in their situation don’t get. All of Steve and Jeri’s kids got to learn how to ride motorcycles because they came into their home and learned that piece, which I’m sure is enriching for Steve to be able to teach it to somebody.
“It’s not just food and shelter; they can get that in a group home. You have to have the love, the guidance and the mentoring, especially when you take these older ones because you need to be able to take them as a whole.”
Steve Wagner said the bottom line is establishing trust.
“It takes time to build that trust and it doesn’t come in two months or three months, I don’t even know if it comes in a year, you just have to get them to trust you and that just has to come naturally,” Steve said. “They have to trust you and know that they are safe and secure. That is huge. I don’t have a high IQ but I’m good at working with kids. Anybody can do it but some have a gift and this is our gift and we were blessed with this gift. I don’t even know what we say or what we do but we’ve been asked ‘how do you do it’ and I don’t know. We’re just blessed.”
For more information about becoming a foster parent, visit www.AspiraNetFamilies.org