WASHINGTON, D.C. – During the annual March for Life in the nation’s capital, there are all kinds of associated events, including a conference at Georgetown University in the name of the late Cardinal John O’Connor of New York.
Also there – in part screening the upcoming movie Unplanned — was Lisa Wheeler and some of her team at Carmel Communications. But the most important thing to know about Wheeler is not her work in public, but that she is a foster and adoptive mother: She and her husband have had 15 children in their home over the years, two of them they’ve adopted, three more are going through the process.
The focus on adoption and foster parenting is becoming a larger part of pro-life movement and an area where there are several opportunities for common cause with people who consider themselves pro-choice. Wheeler spoke to Kathryn Jean Lopez about foster care and adoption in the pro-life movement.
Lopez: This is March for Life week, what should pro-lifers be thinking about – an examination of conscience of sorts – about foster care and adoption? Would you propose some action items?
Wheeler: I think examination of conscience is a great way to frame the discussion. Pro-lifers do important work in raising awareness about the fundamental right to life. What we also must always be sure to do is consider the woman in a desperate situation. As she chooses life, we must celebrate her courage and help her.
Are we accompanying the men and women who choose life along their journey making sure they have access to health care, vocational opportunities, consistent housing, family planning resources, counseling, etc.? I think another question we all must ask ourselves is: “Am I doing enough for the children who survived abortion but are now the victims of our modern-day orphan crisis – that is, the foster-care crisis?” “Have I considered being a respite-care giver to foster families?” “Have I considered foster parenting myself?” “Have I helped mobilize my church to become a resource for foster families by donating baby and toddler supplies, arranging meal trains, offering babysitting and tutoring services, etc.?”
I think God is calling us to be more pro-life not less and I know that some people don’t want to lump what’s happening with foster care and adoption under the banner of pro-life/anti-abortion work, but I don’t see how you can’t. Some of these children we are saving are ending up in the foster-care system. We have a duty to prevent this and care for them.
What is the greatest joy of being a foster parent?
The greatest joy of being a foster parent is the capacity that God gives us to love despite the often great losses we experience. There’s a great scene from “The Grinch” when it describes how the Grinch’s “small heart grew three times that day.” I often think that my heart has grown bigger with each child we have welcomed into our family for years, months, or even just a day.
The greatest challenge?
It’s not being able to do enough whether that means for the children you can’t take or even for the children you have when the days for them are rough and the hurt is just so great in their vulnerable hearts.
Who should consider being a foster parent?
I think everyone should consider it. I don’t think everyone is called to be one, but I think every person who considers himself pro-life should seriously consider it, pray about it, learn about and then discern and decide the decision best for their family. And if they are not called to be a foster parent, then to please find a way to support foster families in their communities, especially those in the very churches where they worship.
Do you ever take time when you’re doing this work to reflect on Joseph as the foster-father of Jesus?
My goodness. All the time. We constantly go to Joseph to be our intercessor in this work and life. He’s the true model of heroic parenting when you surrender all to the will of God.
Around Christmas time, I noticed you were collecting gift cards for children in foster care. You told me it was the most important thing you do all year. Why?
Imagine being a child at Christmas time, the one time of the year in which the whole world celebrates families, and you’re not with your family. Even if your family is troubled. Even if your family is broken. I have had foster children at Christmastime and I can tell you that it’s one of the most heartbreaking times of the year for them.
A few years ago, I began running a “Secret Santa” program for all the foster children in my area to ensure that on Christmas, they would have their needs and wants met under the tree the way other children do. The gift cards in any denomination help us to fulfill the wish lists. Beyond caring for my own family, it’s the most significant way I can support what’s being done for foster children at Christmastime so I count it among my most important roles all year.
Why do there tend to be more children in foster care during “the holidays”? How long does that tend to last?
The holidays for many people, not just those affected by foster care, can be a painful time. Holidays can create stress due to family conflict, financial issues, and emotional distress caused by depression, loneliness, and isolation. We see a surge in the number of children coming into care because their family unit is under pressure. Many families are able to recover quickly and put their families back together with the resources that are offered to them, but some families can’t recover, and the depth of the brokenness in their homes is exposed to such a level that children will remain in foster care for a long time.
Is there anything we can do to prevent that? Short and long term? As a matter of policy and priorities both as citizens and neighbors?
In the short-term, we need to do a better job of supporting women (and men) who are struggling to care for young families by offering extra resources around the holidays. Churches in particular should expand the gift tree concept to be creative about family needs. For example, churches could offer more free spaghetti dinner nights, or parent nights out, or even free counseling provided by local therapists in their congregations. Giving trees that not only serve children but also parents by requesting gift cards for gas stations, grocery stores, hardware stores or multi-use cards like Visa or Mastercard; these help relieve financially strapped households from some of the basic needs they experience at the holidays.
In the long-term, we need to revisit how we accompany those who choose life for their babies despite the challenges they may face with respect to employment, education and family structure. Can we do a better job in our pro-life ministries in helping men and women get access to vocational training, facilitating job searches or career counseling, connecting single parents with volunteers willing to help with child care, tutoring, or meal trains?
What is Christmas like for children in foster care? It runs the gamut, I suspect, but are there common experiences?
I think the common factor is uncertainty. One thing all children in foster care face at Christmas is an open-ended question of permanency. For younger kids, it could be as innocent as “How will Santa know where I am?” For older kids, “Is this where I will live tomorrow? Next week? Next month?” ” Will I see my mom or dad for Christmas?” ” What about my brother or sister?” “Will this family take care of me if I can’t go home?” There are possibly a hundred other questions that speak to the temporary nature of their lives.
Who should be thinking about doing something similar for next year? How would they go about it? Can this be replicated in other communities? Could churches take on a similar kind of project, maybe even this year?
The program can absolutely be replicated. My program is very expansive and includes more than just the gift-card element. We also partner with churches, organizations, and local businesses to provide specific wish list items for our children, but anyone can develop a gift card initiative to help local foster children. And it is definitely an initiative that can be done all year because the need is there all year. For example, another critical time of the year is just before school begins. Foster children are in desperate need for the tools necessary to be successful in school. That could be as simple as school supplies like folders and pencils and scissors, but it can also be as complicated as a laptop computer.
For anyone considering the kind of Christmas experience foster children have for the first time, what further seeds of thought might you care to plant for more long-term contributions to helping these children.
I would say begin planning early. If the circumstances these children are in at Christmas move you, determine how you will be able to serve them early enough in the year to connect with the foster resource services where your contributions can be most effective. My program starts ramping up as early as July.
What difference has having an open heart for foster children made in your life?
This may sound cheesy but it really has given my life a purpose. I lived in a state of longing for 15 years praying that God would be faithful to my desire for motherhood. There were days I lost hope and really truly felt like I had been abandoned. But in the perfect timing of the Lord, His plans were laid out in a way that I never even imagined or hoped for. He increased my capacity to love in those years of waiting so that He could show me that hope and that purpose that was his plan for my life and my husband’s life and these children’s lives from the beginning.
You’re doing some work on the upcoming movie Unplanned. Why do you think it’s important? What impact do you think it can have?
Archbishop Joseph Naumann [of Kansas City, Kansas, and head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ pro-life office], in front of 10,000 people on Thursday night before the March for Life at the Vigil for Life and to even more via EWTN, said that if there is one movie people see this year, it should be Unplanned. For the first time, people are going to see abortion. Father Frank Pavone [of Priests for Life] has said for years, we will never end abortion until we can see abortion. This is the true story of Abby Johnson, a Planned Parenthood clinic director in Texas and national employee of the year. As readers of her book know, she quit Planned Parenthood after having to participate in an ultrasound-guided abortion. It is the story of a whistle-blower who exposes the greatest human tragedy our world has ever seen. It takes a direct shot at the biggest abortion provider in the world. This has never been done and I think it will change the way people look at abortion. Abby says we will never end abortion by making it unattainable, we will only end abortion when we make it unthinkable, and I believe Unplanned is the gateway to that end.