‘if you help them, if you care for them, you will grow to love them’

June 2018 · Foster Care / Adoption, Ministry News

Lately, we’ve been celebrating Saint Francis foster parents who provide security, care, and love every day to children in need.

Foster parents see firsthand the remarkable ways children respond to structure and acceptance. They know well the transformative power of love to heal broken lives and families. 

Today, we share the story of Gabriel and Christa, who were recently named Saint Francis’ Kansas Foster Family of the Year for 2017. Once you hear their story, you’ll know why. 

Gabriel Downey didn’t know what to do. He’d never been around a child with such severe autism. How was he supposed to relate to the kid when he didn’t even know how to communicate with him? So, Gabriel spent the first three days just observing, keeping his distance until he could get a handle on it. On the fourth day, he got a phone call.

“It was my mom, telling me my aunt had passed away,” he said. “My aunt was like a second mother to me. After the call, I went into the living room and sat down and began to tell Christa. I started crying. Then … I don’t know why … but he must have picked up on how upset I was. Bubby just sat on my lap and put his head on my chest, like he was trying to tell me everything was going to be okay.”

The experience still chokes up the tough-looking, tattooed Gabriel. For Christa, his wife, it was just one more thing to love about the new 15-year-old boy in their home.

Licensed since 2016, Christa and Gabriel decided to try fostering after getting to know the foster parents – and eventual adoptive parents – of Gabriel’s great-niece. Initially, they planned to provide only respite and emergency care. And that’s all they did for a while – until they heard about a boy.

Between the two of them, Christa and Gabriel have three biological children, two of whom have high-functioning autism. That, and the fact that Christa is an elementary school special needs para educator, made their home seem a logical place for “Bubby.”

“A friend of mine who works at the school with me also works at Saint Francis,” said Christa. “She said, ‘You need to ask about this boy. No one else is able to keep him.’ Our caseworker was doubtful, and said ‘You’ve already got enough craziness in your house, but if you think you can handle it, you can try.’ For two months, she called every day to ask if we were okay.”

For Gabriel and Christa, though, there was never any question. They knew they were the boy’s last best hope.

“He was nonverbal with severe special needs,” said Christa, “and he had slept in eight different homes in two weeks. Autistic children need structure, so he didn’t have a place where he felt safe. Unfortunately, when people can’t handle kids like him, the child often ends up in an institution. We feared that might be the next step for him, and for us, that was not an option.”

Still, at first they wondered what they’d gotten themselves into. Gabriel says the boy came into the house “like a whirlwind, a tornado of him.” Although, he had autism like their other children, his was much more severe. Gradually, though, he settled down. As the Downey family patiently applied structure and routine, he began to feel more secure. Now, he’s happy and acts as though he’s always been a member of the family.

“I did, however, notice that when I called him by his name, he wouldn’t always respond,” said Gabriel. “I’d always called my brother ‘Bubba’ growing up, so I thought I’d try the same with him. But I didn’t want to confuse the two, so instead of calling him ‘Bubba’ like my brother, I started calling him ‘Bubby.’ He seemed to respond well to that and still does. Even his biological siblings call him Bubby now.”

Bubby sees his biological siblings often because Christa and Gabriel have forged a strong, supportive relationship with his mother. They all visit the Downey home in Park City, Kansas, often – for cook-outs on holidays and other special events. She’s a single mother with four other children, all with high functioning autism. It’s a full-time job taking care of them herself. Christa and Gabriel have told her they’d like to adopt Bubby, and she has said okay.

“For her to be the best mom she can be and focus on her other four children, she knows this is a good option,” said Christa. “With Bubby, she’s ‘Mommy Number 1’ and I’m ‘Mommy Number 2,’ and we intend to stay connected with her.”

So, Bubby now has a permanent home and lots of people in his life who care about him. He’s a testament to what love can do for the human person. Christa says her Saint Francis caseworkers like to half-jokingly ask, “Is this the same child?”

“It really has been a great experience,” said Gabriel. “You just have to remember to have understanding and patience with special needs kids. They’re going to have their moments, but you need to realize that what they’re doing makes sense to them at the time. There are fun days and there are challenging days, but overall it’s deeply rewarding.”

“Take one day at a time,” added Christa. “Don’t try to imagine how things will be in six months. You can’t plan for that. You have to focus on the next five minutes. Deal with what’s going on right now. Special needs kids will sometimes push you away because they don’t have control over anything else. It’s not that they don’t love you, they just don’t want your help right now. But I promise you, if you help them, if you care for them, you will grow to love them. Every day is something new.”