by Susan Fotovich McCabe
Special to The Leaven
MCLOUTH — When you meet the Dlugopolski sisters, you can’t help but be charmed.
Even if all five girls have a great deal to say to you — all at once!
Discussing everything from the clothes they share (and don’t!) to the sports they participate in and the household chores they split, it’s hard to believe that their lives once hinged on a different outcome.
The Dlugopolski family is among countless Kansas families touched by foster care.
Jill and Jason were already parents to Jason’s son Jesse. Like most couples, Jill and Jason Dlugopolski of McLouth hoped pregnancy would add to their family.
But when that didn’t happen, they turned their attention to foster care. Jill grew up near a family who provided foster care. But she knew she should not pin her hopes on having a family through foster care. After all, she said, the goal of foster care is to return children to their biological parents.
So Jill and Jason’s interest shifted from building a family to helping another family in need.
“If you go the fostering route to build a family, there could be a lot of disappointment. Children in foster care are in transition,” Jill said.
“There are not a lot of good stories in that situation or they wouldn’t be there,” she added. “We met some people to learn more about it, and this is when we knew it was meant to be.”
A season of firsts
Biological sisters Cheyenne, 14, Savannah, 12, and Kharisma, 10, were the first to join Jill and Jason as toddlers.
As is usually the case, the three arrived quickly and without much notice. After experiencing neglect in their early years, the girls missed out on countless social lessons most young children develop from growing up in a stable home environment.
They missed a lot of typical experiences, too, ranging from Christmas gifts to hamburgers.
“When they arrived, everything was a first,” Jill said. “Having a hamburger was a first. It was around Christmas, and when it came time to open gifts, one of the girls was surprised she was allowed to keep the gift she had just opened.
“Then, she wouldn’t put it down when she opened another because she thought it would be taken away. They had to learn to sleep. They screamed themselves to sleep. They were inconsolable.”
The first six months were tough, Jill said, and she and Jason questioned whether they had made the right decision as they listened to the girls cry each night.
But soon after they reached the six-month mark, things gradually began to improve. Jill and Jason knew then that they wanted the girls forever.
It would not be an easy process. In fact, it would take more than two years to adopt the three. In the meantime, they accepted additional foster children, eventually fostering and adopting daughters Sabrina, 10, and Aaliyah, 10. The two were a natural fit for the growing family.
“Being sisters is good. Everyone has different abilities. Some are sports, others like playing instead of cleaning. We’re all generous, nice and like to help others,” Kharisma said of her big family.
And as the family continued to expand, they felt God’s presence by their side, Jason said.
“When you are in the foster care class,” he said, “they tell you about certain situations or scenarios that have happened [or might not happen], so you kind of get an idea of some of the issues you could face.
“Some were concerning. We had to do a lot of thinking and praying to make sure that we were up for the challenge. We were led to keep going and glad we trusted in God to get here.”
The two leaned heavily on God and their parish, Sacred Heart in Tonganoxie, as they faced waves of ups and downs.
“We didn’t know how hard it is, but also how rewarding it is,” Jill said. “You have to trust that what’s happening with these kids is right — taking them away from their biological parents — even though it doesn’t feel right.
“I often question how I would feel if I was being judged on the worst mistake I had ever made for the rest of my life. But we have to trust the courts and caseworkers and say a lot of prayers. That kind of trust is hard.”
With a full house, Jill and Jason no longer serve as foster parents. However, they have good advice for others considering it. First, maintain a sense of humor. It’s difficult to do when hearing the stories of children before entering foster care.
Next, know your strengths and weaknesses.
“Looking back, the [fostering] class actually sets you up for success by getting to know your strengths and weaknesses — what you can and can’t deal with, situation-wise,” Jason said.
“We hated discussing that week after week,” he continued, “but figured out there was a method to what they were trying to get you to think about.”
And don’t be afraid to speak up when a situation is over your head, Jason added.
“You are not the only one in the world out there who can help these kids (although it does feel like it when you get a call). There are people who are really good at handling kids with certain issues or concerns, where you may have strengths in other issues and concerns,” he said.
Other helpful tips? Expect the unexpected. There is no such thing as normal, Jason said. Be open to stepping outside your comfort zone. Sometimes, you don’t know what you can handle if you don’t try to handle it.
Remember, you are never alone. Caseworkers, other foster families, courts, judges and lawyers are there to help, he noted.
The power of prayer
Perhaps the most important tip, Jill said, is pray.
“Pray a lot. That should be the first thing you do,” Jill said. “We prayed together and even more than we did before. God will lead you the right way. I know he did for us.”
One thing is certain. Families come in all shapes and sizes. The Dlugopolskis are now a family. And in the tradition of Joseph, Mary and Jesus, they have become their own holy family.
“God gave these gifts to us,” Jason said. “He gave us the responsibility of raising them in his likeness.
“We know that we are not perfect, but we trust that God has put us on this journey for a reason. “These kids make us a whole family and we do our best to live up to what we have been called to do.”