Melvin Lee graduated from high school in 1993 and left for college.
“When I came home for Christmas vacation, I had three brothers!”
That’s when his mother, Vivian Lee, and her late husband began taking in foster children. “And it’s been a revolving door since then,” he said.
Although Melvin, his ex-wife and his four children, his sister and all his aunts and uncles and their children are totally fine with about 1,000 foster kids having been cared for since that time, his first reaction was: “My room was gone!”
In fact, all those individuals have always stepped up to the plate and made fostering a true family affair for an array of children, some of whom Ms. Lee says kiddingly were “real doozies!”
“If my mother needs help, they just come,” Melvin said.
His children range in age from 16 to 4 and, just as he did when he was younger, they look at his mother’s current foster boys as their brothers. His 11-year-old son particularly loves to come over and play basketball with them. His 4-year-old daughter always asks where they are, eager to go see them again.
Ms. Lee came from a family of nine, with loving and caring parents, and all but two of her siblings have several children of their own. At Christmas, the whole family gathers at her house, and no one would consider the foster kids as anything but part of the family.
“Everybody talks to them just like I talk to them,” she said. “And, with Christmas, they just get so excited.”
Ms. Lee said that her siblings always watched each other’s children, cared for them when needed, and gathered a lot at her mother’s house.
“When we were growing up, we were always at some auntie’s house!” Melvin said.
“So it was just normal when we got foster kids, we’d do the same thing,” Ms. Lee said.
And Ms. Lee is not afraid to keep going down or up the line (she is in the middle of her eight siblings) to get the help she needs. She smilingly tells the story of recently having to ask her 72-year-old sister to come over and watch the foster children for awhile in the morning. She was a bit hesitant to tell her sister she had to pick her up at 7 a.m. But, Ms. Lee called her at 6:15, brought her over, and everything went smoothly.
“All I have to do is ask and someone helps; with so many family members, there’s a lot of choices!”
And in addition to her blood family, she has a close-knit church family that has been very supportive of her and her foster children. Her foster kids have universally loved going to church, she said. Why?
“Because people there are so open, so nice to them. They’ll introduce themselves to them and give them a big hug. The younger ones enjoy going to children’s church … and when it’s time to leave, some of them don’t want to go.”
It’s all part of having a larger circle of people who care for them, a sense of family and community these children often did not have before, Ms. Lee conjectures. She just sets rules with the foster children and tells them things have to be the same with other people as they are when they’re in her home.
“I just tell them, you gotta behave… I tell them ‘I’d like for you to do what I ask you to do.’ ” But she rewards her foster children for good behavior, for instance taking them to a 99-cent buffet dinner for kids that is offered at a nearby restaurant on Thursday nights.
“When they come to you, they are scared, withdrawn, but usually after a week or two, they’re fine.”
She recently had a child who was totally shut down and didn’t talk at all.
“I said to him, ‘You’ll be fine.’ I put my arm around his shoulders, and said, ‘You’re going to be all right, I’m going take good care of you; you don’t have to worry about that. Whatever it is you need, I’ll help you.’ ”
And, as she tells all her foster children, she told the boy: “I’m not here to take your mother’s place (and I have no problem with their mothers calling). I’m here to help until you go back home.”
“The next morning he was talking, and he’s been talking ever since!”
To be successful with foster children, all of whom have experienced trauma, Ms. Lee said a person has to have a lot of patience. You also have to be generous with hugs and showing love.
“And when the boys are very unruly, I have the ability to tune them out!”
She has had all kinds of children over the years, from siblings she insisted needed to be kept together, to a boy who falsely accused her of hitting him (only to later admit, laughingly, to police “I lied on Ms. Lee!”), to children from a violent, high-profile case who, at first, did not know about the crime a family member had committed and from whom she hid television-watching for several days.
“What you give them is love. And stability,” she said. Prayer helps, too.
She has uttered, “Lord, you’re gonna have to help me with this one!” on many occasions.
Ms. Lee’s husband suffered a stroke eight years ago and died in January of 2014. But before that, she cared for him in her home, along with foster children. He couldn’t walk unassisted or talk.
“The (foster) kids would cling to him. They would try to help him,” she said. She believes that seeing someone who, like themselves, really needed help increased their sense of compassion and empathy.
When her husband died, the foster children asked if they could go to the funeral. “Of course,” she told them. “You will be included; as long as you’re here, you’re my family.”
“There’s nothing like having a family that will support you and help you,” she said, “and also an amazing church family that puts their arms out and embraces these kids as though they are their children.
“I wouldn’t change any of the things I’ve been through,” she said. “The grace of God helped me get through.”
And without missing a beat, Melvin added: “Plus, she’s an angel!”