A common phrase that tends to be heard even more often around the holidays: "You don't pick your family."
This ruefully humorous notion is what drives many to cultivate a reliable group of close friends. Others, meanwhile, challenge the idea itself by becoming foster parents. Foster parents don't always get to pick what children they take into their care, but are indeed choosing to help someone outside of their nuclear family.
For Jenni and Cole Heller and Rae Bursaw, their foster children ARE their children. The main difference is foster moms and dads usually don't know how long they'll get to have their foster children in the family.
"Foster parents raise these kids as their own," Jenni Heller explained. "They look down the road to what they want their (child's) future to be. It's hard not to get to decide. (DHS) wants you to love them as your own, but they also want you to support the birth family. The unknown is scary for everybody."
"You never really know what the outcome's going to be," Cole added.
Jenni and her husband, Cole, have fostered their son for 14 months. They also have two other biological children. Both kids really wanted a brother, and have grown extremely attached to him.
"It's like he was born into the family," Jenni said.
The Hellers had considered foster care for a while before they got their son.
"It's something we'd talked about in the past," Jenni explained. "We were talking about wanting a third child about a year ago, (and then) this one just kind of fell into our laps. We just wanted to give him a better start."
Jenni admits that before she fostered, she had the misperception that foster parents couldn't love their foster children as much as biological children, but has come to realize the error in her judgment.
"You just do (love them the same)," she explained. "It's as simple as that."
This year could be the Hellers' last year with their foster son — their last Christmas a three-child family.
"It's been a very stressful year," Jenni said. "I mean, he has brought nothing but joy. There's been a lot of laughter. I smile every day because we still have him, but I cry every day too. Most people are excited for a new year — new goals, new this, but for me it's just like a countdown for his being gone. It's not so much the heartbreak it brings us, but what he'd be feeling (if he weren't with us anymore)."
"Knowing he has more love (makes it worth it)," Cole added. "He wouldn't have had that if we didn't step in."
The Hellers will attend a hearing in the spring to decide if their son remains in the family.
Helping each other
Rae Bursaw and her foster son Blaike's story is slightly different than the Hellers', but no less loving. Rae is 31 and has had Blaike in her custody for three-and-a-half years.
"I never wanted to be a parent until I got Blaike," Bursaw admitted. "Then I thought 'this is what's meant for me.' The second I buckled him in and looked in my rearview mirror and saw him, I knew I was not giving him back. Nothing — no words — amount to the way he looks at me when I wake him up in the morning."
Now, Bursaw is hooked, and she's actually up for a hearing soon to be given the chance to adopt Blaike.
Blaike is 11 years old and has muscular dystrophy as well as cerebral palsy. When Rae first took him in, he was wheelchair bound and in need of serious medical help.
"He's come a long ways," Bursaw said. "When he was born, he wasn't supposed to make it at all."
Blaike has overcome several challenges already in his short life. After two weeks with Bursaw, he took his first steps, and now they walk everywhere together, holding hands.
The two make quite the pair, and enjoy taking trips to the beach or for impromptu sight-seeing excursions around festively lit neighborhoods during the holidays, volunteering with the Muscular Dystrophy Association and playing video games.
The challenge for Bursaw, like many foster parents, was "not knowing what's going to happen" in regards to Blaike's guardianship.
"I did build that motherly bond with him," she said. "And not knowing if he was going to stay with me was tough. I've helped him a lot, but he's probably helped me more."
Bursaw said observing Blaike succeed and tackle obstacles has taught her "patience, understanding and compassion."
"He's taught me that if you put your mind to something, you can do it," she added. "Watching the success with him — him turning to me with excitement over every (accomplishment) — that's what it's about."
Bursaw dismisses those who say her love for Blaike is anything less than that a biological mother would have for her son, explaining that her "love, devotion and drive" in regards to Blaike are unconditional.
"That gets under my skin," she noted. "I'm no less of a parent than someone who had that child themselves."
Bursaw encourages anyone with the slightest interest in fostering a child — or children — to take the leap.
"These kids, they deserve a family," she said. "I think it's sad when people say 'I just don't want to get attached.' I think more people need to step up. It's not about us. It's about the kids."