Look around, who makes life easier for you?

OlympianJanuary 20, 2014 

When I was accepted onto the Board of Contributors for The Olympian I assumed my first column would be about SideWalk. It’s the program I work for and helped build, and that housed more than 100 homeless people in 11 months last year.

I had decided to focus my columns on community engagement, and SideWalk seemed like the perfect place to start. Then something surprising happened.

For five years, I have been a foster parent to a teenage girl. I’ll call her Sophie.

Sophie and I have worked with the same caseworker — I’ll call her Dani — a woman who has been a constant in my life and in Sophie’s. This caseworker has been with us through thick and thin — and there has been a lot of both.

Then one day out of the blue, she was suddenly gone. Due to unforeseen circumstances, she was no longer a caseworker employed by the agency — this I learned from her auto-reply.

I felt like I’d been punched in the head. It never occurred to me that Dani wouldn’t be with us until Sophie aged out of foster care. Dani’s been a rock in so many ways, and while she and I have gotten into arguments over one thing or another over the years, the truth is I can’t imagine how I would have done this without her.

A traumatized, neglected girl was dropped off on my doorstep. She was on medications that no one could explain and was in the resource room at school, also for reasons no one could clearly explain.

Today that same girl is a pretty happy teenager with a pretty happy life — a huge part of that is thanks to Dani.

For the entire first year, I asked questions people didn’t have the answers to or didn’t want to answer. At each question Dani would follow up whatever I said with something like, “I think what Emma’s trying to say is ...” then state my point in a way the person I was questioning would understand and not take offense to.

Over the years she got several phone calls complaining about my attitude. There are a lot of people in social services and education who are eager to tell you what you can’t do. That wasn’t Dani — she always tried to have an open mind that figured out options. She made things work.

The conversation around foster children is not usually centered solely on the child’s best interests. Instead, most of the conversations are about liability and money. Educational standards for foster children are low — they graduate from high school in lower than average numbers and 22 percent of foster alumni have experienced homelessness.

Dani had Sophie tested for allergies and found she was taking unneeded pills. She got her surgery for a wandering eye. She connected her with a therapist that specialized in what my foster daughter needed.

Dani kept track of medical appointments, got bus passes, and got Sophie someone to teach her how to ride the bus. She was always in favor of skill building and improving Sophie’s quality of life. She supported me on a series of out-of-the-box decisions that were a risk — some of which have paid off and some of which we don’t yet know the outcome.

Dani was a cushion between me and all of the many naysayers who told me Sophie could never have what she has now: the chance to be a self-sufficient, adjusted person.

There is so much stress in this world that it’s easy to try to edge kids in a different direction if it’s going to make your life easier. Dani went out of her way to preserve my foster daughter’s placement with me and I’ve never made her life easy. I’m always asking for more.

Dani is a rare bird. I know, because in addition to SideWalk, I am also a CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate for foster children).

So I ask each of you to look around your lives and raise your glass to the person who makes things possible for you. That person doesn’t have it easy.

I hope to find more Danis in the world — people who make a difference in the lives of children. Thank you, Dani, for making things work.

Emma Margraf is a writer, Director of Community Outreach for SideWalk, a foster parent, and a CASA. She can be reached at margrafemma@gmail.com.

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