Kinship Caregiver Goes the Extra Mile for Her Children and Fellow Caregivers
With four boys ages 7-12—one biological, two adoptive and one in care—and two brothers for whom she’d also provided care, Philadelphia kinship caregiver Emily* could teach a MasterClass on providing a loving, patient environment to out-of-home children. Emily has even gone the extra mile to become certified in Specialized Behavioral Health and also shares the knowledge and experience she has gained with caregivers in training. Emily offered some of her obviously limited time to ASCI to give us a more intimate peek into her life as a caregiver.
*Names changed to protect the identities of children in care.
ASCI: Please tell us a little bit about yourself!
Emily*: I’m originally from South Philadelphia, born and raised. I’m one of seven children. I’m the oldest girl. I was a retail manager for over 30 years, but I got injured in 2017. I tore my rotator cuff and my ligaments in my wrist on the 4th of July. I had to get surgery, so that was a rough one. So now, I do home health aid for my mom who is 76.
And this way, it’s better for me now as a career, because I can always do the boys’ activities with them, take them to where they need to go for therapy, and psychiatrist appointments. And this one plays this, and this one plays that, so it frees me up a lot for them.
ASCI: And how long have you been a kinship caregiver?
Emily: I believe it’s about 10 years.
I have one biological son, and now I have two adopted [sons]. And I have [kinship child] Amari* and I’m going to adopt him. And there’s another boy we’re in the process of getting to know, Azariah*. We go to see him, and the boys got to meet him. So, we’re in the process of adopting him also.
ASCI: What do you love about them?
Emily: I love boys. Boys are so…I’m a “tomboy,” you know? So, it’s so easy [for me] to relate to them, especially with sports, you know? I’m a single mom, so I’m out there with them at baseball. I’m out with them at football. Hakeem* has been playing football in Dallas Stadium. He played football in Giants Stadium. Oh, and he played in Pittsburgh, at this camp at Pittsburgh. He’s very good. Very, very good. He got MVP [at camp] in Orlando, Florida, and he was the youngest! He played in Dallas Stadium. He did awesome! And he boxes.
ASCI: That’s great! What kind of other activities do you all do together?
Emily: Well, we go to Disney at least twice a year! We have season passes to Great Adventure and Sesame Place.
And, yesterday [for instance], there were football games, you know, scrimmages. We’re a big football family! For our lunch, we ate in a Ziploc bag. I grab bread, grab the drinks, got the Gatorade, got the chips—let’s go! We bring the chairs and we just watch games. The kids play wherever they play and watch the games.
We [also] have family nights. We did family night last week. [The kids] built a fort, and the Lego cars that light up. And they made their own pizza. And the next morning, we topped it off with waffles! I have a waffle maker, and we made the waffles and eggs. We try to do fun things like that together.
ASCI: That’s so sweet. And how are they doing in school?
Emily: Amari is very good at reading. He just came to us in February. He’s in second grade, but he can read on a fourth-grade level. And Hakeem and Xayden* like math.
ASCI: And how are you doing? Can you share with us your biggest successes and challenges as a kinship caregiver?
Emily: Well, [I also have] two brothers who had come to me from West Philly. Jason* was going into 11th grade. He was the only one in his family who graduated high school and they have, I think, eight kids. After that, he went into the service, but he’s a preacher now at 23 years old. He likes to preach the gospel.
So, I was proud of that. He always comes back [to visit]; his brother, too. His brother is now in independent living. I think three months now, he’s been out of [the house]. When he was here, he was like, “Oh, you’re so strict. You won’t let me do anything,” but now I’m like, wait a second. He used to tell me I was so strict, but Travis* is always coming back! I’m so proud of them. So, so proud.
The biggest challenge? What is challenging at first is for [the children] to trust you. [KG1] You know they don’t trust you. [Some] have gone from house to house so it’s [hard] getting them to trust you, but [you show them] they’re not going anywhere, and neither are you. When they say, “I hate this place,” I say, “Yep, me, too. Let’s go. Hurry up, let’s go.” Or if they say, “I wanna leave,” I’m like, “Pack your bags, I’m going with you.” I try to make it a bit of a joke for them.
Hygiene [can also be a challenge]. That’s where my [caregiver] classes help me. It’s [how] I reassure myself, too. I try to sign up for every class, even though my [required] hours are in, just to refresh my memory. To make sure I’m on the right track, I’m doing the right thing. That’s why I love the classes.
ASCI: Considering you are so seasoned, what advice do you have for others who choose to become kinship caregivers?
Emily: Be patient! Don’t overload [the kids] with questions, and just be a good listener. Everyone talks, talks, talks to them, but no one is a listener and children like to be heard and not just seen.
ASCI: So true! With all your boys and all you do, how do you take time for yourself?
Emily: Believe it or not, I’m doing it now. [ASCI Family & Community Engagement Supervisor] Ms. Lydia [Cooper] always said to dedicate 10 minutes a day for yourself, for your happy place. And I pick this game on my phone for my happy place, and all the boys know. I take time for me, for that, and I read. I read a lot. So, that’s my comfort zone when I’m overwhelmed. And I let the boys know it’s OK to not be OK. We call it a crabby-patty day. Like, “Oh, God. I’m having a crabby-patty day, give me 10 to 15 minutes.” And I tell the boys [to do the same]. If you’re having a crabby-patty day, just go upstairs, you know? And when they’re ready to come back down to join us in an activity or a movie we’re watching or whatever we’re doing, fine. And I don’t ask, “Do you feel better yet?” Nope. When they’re ready to talk, I’ll talk, so I wait ’til they’re ready. You have to wait for them. It took a while, but I learned.
ASCI: What made you to decide to take on being a kinship caregiver?
Emily: I never knew anything about [kinship care]. This is new to me. And [the birth mom] called and I’m like, “What’s up, boo? What’s wrong?” [And she said], “Oh, they’re gonna take my kids, and I need an answer from you now. I’m right in front of the judge.” I’m like, “What are you talking about?” I didn’t know anything. I didn’t know what was gonna go on. I just thought, the kids are gonna live here.
At first, I just didn’t know what to do. And then when I had to do my classes and the kids were here…it was good. I thought it would be like a friend helping someone else. I was just thankful I was able to help as long as I could.
ASCI: What advice would you have for caregivers who care for siblings like you do?
Emily: At first, be patient. You must be patient. You just got to let them know what you expect from them and ask them what they expect from you. And take it from one day at a time, because every day is different.
In Islam, it teaches me to be very patient to learn more about each individual. We have a saying: The greater the hardship, the greater the reward. Allah doesn’t give you anything you can’t handle. And I like to be challenged because I’m an Aries, I’m a firecracker. I’m like the Italian firecracker!
The [older] boys I have, we have a Thinking and Do Day where everyone picks a person in the household. You spend $30, you buy them a gift, and you tell them why you thought of them and why you gave them the gift. And we have a big dinner.
And the little ones, I can guide them if they want to know [about Islam]. If they’re curious, fine, but if not, it’s OK. If they just respect the house during Ramadan and the end of Ramadan, they get a gift, too.
ASCI: Speaking of patience, what made you decide to become certified in Specialized Behavioral Health?
Emily: Well, after the teenagers [I had] left, I was like, “I’m not doing this anymore. I can’t do it.” [One of the boys] and I were very close, so it was heartbreaking when he had to go. But my ASCI worker still came [for visits], and [I learned that] there was a [2-year-old] boy up for adoption. And I’m like, “I don’t want no babies, I’m almost 50!” But I said OK, and Hakeem came [to me] with a lot of behavioral health issues. So, I wanted to learn more to help him grow and so I can understand him.
And for me to understand him, I needed to find out what’s wrong. And it’s very easy to work with [behavioral health challenges], believe it or not, once [kids] get your trust and you understand why they’re doing this or that. Instead of people screaming, hollering and yelling at them, and calling them names, you know? When you understand them, you have more patience. It’s OK to have accidents. It’s OK to spill your milk on the floor. It’s OK to have a temper tantrum, because we all have meltdowns. We all make mistakes.
Xayden was the biggest challenge. When he came [to me], he was 9 and would cry every day because his siblings were all adopted by their grandmother. I just used to pray to Allah and ask him, “Please, soften his heart.” He would throw things in the room. [He’d be] screaming at me, I’m screaming at him, and [I thought], no, you got to step back. So, I’d wait. And [when] he was having his temper tantrums, throwing all the clothes around, [I waited until I could say] all right, it’s quiet now, it’s been about half an hour, and then, “Xayden, are you OK? Would you want something to drink? Do you want something to eat? OK, clean up this mess here and then we can talk about it,” and then he did. Then they were less and less and less. And now, we don’t have any. He gets angry, you know, at the other boys and stomps upstairs and slams the door. But we don’t have any more clothes pulled out of the dresser drawers, or things going out the window. We don’t have that anymore, so I’m thankful.
ASCI: So, you not only help your kinship children, but we also hear you stop by the ASCI office to help other caregivers in training. What inspires you to help in their caregiver journeys?
Emily: Knowledge is power. The more knowledge I have, I can share with them and help them through their problem and then it’s good, you know? And I know, like, “Hey, I’ve been there, don’t worry,” you know? “You’re going through what I went through. Try this.” That’s why I like to go when classes are inside because you’re with other adults and think, “Hey, she might know something better than I do,” and that’s what helps you. It really helps.