Foster Mom of 20 Shares Her Journey: ‘Love in Everything That We Do’
Catholic Foster Mother Lisa Wheeler Offers Maternal Advice on ‘Bringing Together a Family From Brokenness’
Many know Lisa Wheeler for her public-relations prowess, bringing Catholic journalists and radio hosts into close proximity with some of the biggest names in the entertainment industry who are working steadfastly to shed light on stories that inspire and uplift, all while embracing their Catholic faith and identity.
Chances are, if you’ve read any interview with Mark Wahlberg, Jonathan Roumie, or are looking to talk to Jim Caviezel about his new film on human trafficking, The Sound of Freedom, Wheeler’s PR company, Carmel Communications, is the conduit.
Take Wahlberg, for example. Wheeler was the driving force behind so many of the beautiful stories written about Walhberg’s recent production Father Stu, which told the life story of a real Catholic priest. But that wasn’t Wheeler’s first connection to the Catholic actor. Wahlberg was also part of Instant Family, a film focusing on the real scope and sequence of a couple desiring a family and deciding to adopt through foster care. Wheeler and her husband even grace the screen for a few quick moments, entering into a family-match day where prospective parents are looking for children and foster youth anxiously await meeting their forever families.
It was no stroke of luck or desire for fame that placed the couple in the film. It was their dedication to foster care that made their participation almost necessary, as the film strove to show the true reality of those helping “modern-day orphans.” Wheeler and her husband have fostered about 20 children, adopting five thus far into their family.
Wheeler spoke with the Register May 9 about her own experiences as a foster mother, struggles with infertility, the calling we have as Christians to care for widow and orphan, the vulnerability of the half a million children languishing in the system, and how is it that foster care gets such a bad rap.
Your journey into being a foster mother really came from carrying the cross of infertility. And at the heart of infertility is brokenness, really. … What have you learned from your own struggle and this brokenness that many children feel in not having a forever home?
I think it comes down to longing. What I longed for in my 15 years without children was to love and be loved in the context of a traditional family. I was grateful for my marriage and my husband, but I longed for that feeling of wholeness that comes when you are part of a family with many parts. There was this period of 15 years where I lived in that longing. I think children who are languishing in the foster-care system with no permanency experience that same longing. They ultimately want to love and be loved by a safe and forever family.
Lisa, you have been helping foster children in so many ways — even before you and your husband considering fostering; can you tell us what you first experienced with this entree into helping youth stuck in the system?
My story with foster care and vulnerable children in general goes back to my college years. So while I was studying in college in northern Florida, I got involved in the Guardian Ad Litem program. Many of your listeners may be familiar with the term CASA, which stands for “Court-Appointed Special Advocate.” That’s the most common name for it. But what it boils down to is an independent, specially trained volunteer who advocates on behalf of the child in a situation in which the child has been removed from the home for various reasons. And so, while you know, biological parents and the local department of children/family services, all have representatives, in that situation, the child is often left with no individual advocate, for what’s in their best interest. And so, throughout the country, various courts will rely on trained volunteers to be that advocate for children. So that is how I first got introduced to the crisis — to the foster-care crisis — while I was a college student and did that for a number of years.
And then, after I launched into my career, and life moved on, I got married. I didn’t really think about it in terms of a possibility in my life, as my husband and I struggled with infertility and the question of “How will we build our family if we can’t have children naturally?” And it wasn’t until a random announcement at Mass one Sunday, in which we heard about an informational meeting that was going to be offered for those that were interested in becoming foster parents and specifically of adoption through foster care. So that’s when my mind shifted in, in terms of thinking of how we might be able to build our family.
There are several different types of fostering — some children that really only need care for a specific amount of time; and then there are others that literally have no tie to a parent: no mom or dad, relative ready to claim them. Is there a foster-care crisis in our country?
So many of the children that end up in the foster-care system don’t become reunified or have their families restored; and then, as you pointed out, are left to languish in the system, because so many people are unaware that we have this crisis. When I talk about this publicly as an advocate at various opportunities I’m invited to speak, I refer to it as the modern orphan crisis of our time. Right now, in our country, there are more than 100,000 children that are absolutely legally free to be adopted. They are no longer bound by any court requirement for an opportunity for restoration or rehabilitation of the family; parents’ rights have been terminated. And these children are just sort of waiting — waiting for a home and a family to call their own.
Adoption and foster care seem to have a Christian ethos. I have a friend who adopted from China, and she said, when she was walking through the streets, these Chinese women would just walk up to her and point, saying: “Christian; you’re Christian” — almost seen as a language of love.
I think, at the heart of adoption, is really a reflection of our Father’s love for us. I mean, we hear biblically, quite frequently, that we are the adopted sons and daughters of the Father. And so the idea of adoption is very much part of our spiritual core. To know that we have the capacity to love and be loved by someone that is not biologically related to us, that’s really a very beautiful thing. And we also know that Scripture also tells us, in James 1:27, that true religion is one that cares for the “widow and the orphan.” And so there’s really even a biblical command, to every Christian, that living out our mandate, as people of God, is looking to the vulnerable, looking to those in our community, in how we can serve as a reflection of God’s love for us. how can we demonstrate how much we are loved by the Father and how we love others.
I’m a mom to five children who are not my biological children. I don’t share DNA with them; I certainly don’t share history and a family tree with them. The absence of that bond brings challenges, but the beauty in bringing together a family that comes from brokenness is really kind of a reflection of the Christian story.
We all are traveling a broken road, in a lot of ways, with our eventual destination being with our Father in heaven.
I can’t imagine what you’ve learned from being a foster parent, fleshing out that language of love that we all crave with children who are really of the heart. I have one child, and we’re hoping to have more, and that includes adoption, but there are real challenges in being a mother. And then when you think about being a child and how hard it is to be a child, and to go through life without a mother, without a father — I can’t imagine anything harder. What have you learned in building these relationships specifically with your foster children?
Every child is unique. They are processing their own stories. I think that’s one thing that is important, for anyone that works with children that are in the foster-care system, whether it be as a foster parent, or even as a mentor, offering time or babysitting, a parish or diocese: Each child has their own individual story and their own personality and temperament and a way that they are going to deal with the experiences that they’ve had. Each child that has been part of our family, whether for a short period of time or for the children that are now part of our family forever, we approach them in the love and care that reflects their own journey.
What is the most important aspect of approaching that child as you begin to walk with them?
To listen and not judge the situation or the circumstance that brought them into care, not to expect that they’re going to forget or not want to be a part of the lives of their families of origin. Because that’s something that is with them forever, you know, because it is part of their story. And I think, just like you were talking about, what parenting is — anyone, and I would apply that in the case of becoming parents to children who have had this interruption in their life in the way that perhaps God intended their story to pan out: Each of your children has to be specialized for their needs. And so listening to what those needs are and consulting with therapists and teachers and doctors, to make sure that you’re giving them their best chance at a future, that’s what we try to do with each of our kids.
There’s always such a vulnerability with all of us growing up, and that’s why I think foster care and adoption is such an integral part of the pro-life movement. And it’s just such a sad tragedy that foster care gets such a bad rap. Why do you think that is?
I think it’s such a great question. And it’s one that I’m constantly reflecting on and challenging myself to explore more and seeking the answers to. I think that adoption, in a lot of ways, gets the same. It’s sort of a taboo topic, even today. I’m sure you and I both could point to several friends who have become parents through adoption. But I think both foster care and adoption take on this stigma of difficulty because we don’t talk enough about it. Talking about it in the context of pro-life, it’s one of the things that I think has been most frustrating to me in being a foster parent: the way that we don’t incorporate discussion in our churches within the context of the pro-life discourse as much as we should, especially in the situation that we’re living in right now, where we have Roe v. Wade overturned. We know that there are many states across the country where it is not possible to get an abortion any longer. And so you look at those states, and you think to yourself, knowing what we know about foster care, and why children end up in the foster-care system, you wonder why there isn’t more being done to connect the pro-life community to journeying with foster children, foster families, helping biological families that are in crisis, in which their children often end up in the foster-care system — journeying with those families, to help provide resources and accompaniment, and support and mentorship so that they can build a strong foundation for themselves, so that their children don’t end up in the foster-care system. I just think that there’s really a disconnect that we have got to try to figure out how to solve. So that just as easy as it is for us to talk about protecting life in the womb, protecting the lives of these young people that are already here — and that we have a duty to do that. In whatever way, God’s calling us to stand in the gap.
It does seem like a gaping wound, really, when you think about it. And it is such a unique time as we live in a post-Roe world. You penned a beautiful, heartfelt piece years ago now. This was pre-Dobbs, but you wrote: “We choose abortion in this country not because it’s a right we are owed as women; we choose abortion because we have forgotten how to love …” And you hear countless comments about reproductive justice, but at the heart of this wound in our society is really a lack of love and indifference.
At the heart of that, I think, is that we really, as a culture, have forgotten how to love one another in the way that we should, in the way that God loves us. Parenting these children, mentoring these children, providing resources to these children should be a reflection of our Father’s love for us. And so we have to engage ourselves more in that conversation of love in everything that we do.
Lastly as we mobilize now in a post-Roe world, you have a very unique whole-life approach when it comes to helping foster children that really integrates parish life. Can you expound a bit on care communities and how we can help as Catholics?
One of the things that I am a big advocate for and really have a passion to see spread more readily through our Catholic community are these care communities that would be located within the parish life. Similar to pro-life committees, men's groups and women's ministries and, these sorts of outreaches, each Catholic Church in the United States and beyond, would have a care community around foster kids and foster families. And in that care community, there would be a variety of ways that a parish could wrap themselves around a foster child in their community. Whether it's through mentorship, a resource closet to receive supplies like baby items, diapers; the things that for a lot of those families are not provided as part of their foster commitment as a foster family. So, a care community really enables a parish, to dive deep into that aspect of loving through a whole life mentality, rather than focusing one aspect the pro-life commitment and call.