Rachel Hillestad first began her incredible journey as a foster parent in 2010. At the time, she had two biological children and was trying for another, but was suffering through infertility and recurrent miscarriages. Hillestad has now been blessed with three biological children, ages 11, 9, and 5, but as she tells Babble, she still periodically opens her home to foster children, and she cares for them as if they were her own.
In fact, it was her experience fostering a young toddler boy that recently inspired her to write a beautiful, yet heartbreaking Facebook post, sharing her sadness about having to say goodbye to the boy. Since being shared on December 2, it has quickly gone viral, with over 65K likes, and 37K shares to date.
In it, Hillestad sheds light on the harsh realities that so many foster children are living under, and what a lasting impact a loving foster parent like herself can have on the lives of these children. The raw and poignant post immediately connected deeply with many readers; and once you read it yourself, I’m sure you’ll see why.
Hillestad tells Babble that the words poured out of her in a parking lot one day, after she’d found a stray toothbrush of the toddler boy she’d been fostering.
“Finding his toothbrush was a punch in the gut,” says Hillestad. “I think my own kids were fighting in the back seat and the words just fell out of my fingers. It’s like I had to get that emotion out of me.”
Her post truly is an emotional gut punch — so much so that I had to wipe tears from my eyes while reading it. (Don’t say I didn’t warn you!) That’s because for much of it, Hillestad recalls the time she spent as the boy’s foster mom with heart-tugging candor.
“He was mine for two-and-a-half weeks,” Hillestad recalls. “But those days and nights saw him smile, sleep through the night instead of freezing awake in terror, [and] swing for hours on the swings my kids take for granted. He called me Mama and I told him every time I left that if I said I would come back, I would.”
Speaking with Babble, Hillestad says that one of the hardest parts of being a foster parent is knowing your time with each kid is limited — you often don’t even know how long you’ll have. Some of the kids she’s fostered have been adopted by other families she knows, which has allowed her to stay in touch. But that’s not always the case.
“I prepared him for his new home as well as I could,” Hillestad writes in her post. “But now it’s nap time and his new mom says he misses me. I texted her a picture to show him.”
As totally heartbreaking as these moments are, Hillestad explains that she has zero regrets, and that her sorrow over separating from the kids is made up by the love that she is able to offer them when they need it most.
“The number one thing people say to me is, ‘I could never do foster care. I would get too attached,'” writes Hillestad. “My answer to those people who say that is this: I absolutely get attached. I wonder where they are now. They visit me in my dreams, and sometimes I wake up with a wet face. It hurts. Sometimes in those moments it hurts to breathe. You know what I know even MORE, though? I’d rather these sweet babies know my love than never know it. I would carry their hurt inside my own adult heart if it meant there was less in their tiny sad one.”
Wow; Hillestad’s compassion is truly inspiring, and her mama-heart is clearly so full and generous. The reality is, there are many, many children out there who need exactly this kind of love — and every ounce of it they receive means the world to them.
At any given moment, there are literally thousands of children have been removed or displaced from their parents, and in desperate need of a foster home. According to the Children’s Bureau, in 2014 alone, 650,000 children spent some amount of time in foster care. Most of the children spend time in family settings, but 14% don’t even get the comforts of home, and live in institutional settings or group homes.
Some of these children are eventually reunited with their birth families, or adopted by new families, but some children spend up to two years waiting to be adopted after their parental rights have been terminated.
Children who’ve had to be removed from their families of origin usually have had troubling lives to begin with, even before they’ve had to deal with the struggles of displacement and looking for a new loving family to care for them.
Hillestad doesn’t mince her words when she speaks of the difficult — and often downright traumatic — experiences these children have lived through. As she tells Babble:
“The very stark reality is this: Kids all across the nation as small as a few days old are sitting in a social worker’s office, possibly even in the clothes they were wearing when they were removed from their home by a cop who hopefully had a couple of teddy bears in his car, but probably not.”
She adds that becoming a foster parent has truly taught her just how privileged a life she’s lived so far. “While I’m sipping my latte having some ‘me time,’ a 2-year-old in my city just got shot in a drive-by shooting and has literally nowhere to go,” says Hillestad.
By fostering children, this mom is not only giving children in need a safe place to turn to; she’s also teaching her own children about the diversity of experiences other kids may be facing. “They know that not every kid has two parents who love them or warm arms to come home to when they’ve had a bad day or even food,” she says.
Indeed, Hillestad’s post has a few lessons in it for all of us. But most of all, I think it’s a lesson about the power of giving, and how the smallest gestures can have the biggest impacts — especially when it comes to changing the lives of our most vulnerable children.
To learn more about becoming a foster parent, visit AdoptUSKids.org, which offers state-by-state resources.