WOONSOCKET - Zinnia N. Gonzalez believes the three qualities one needs to have to be a good foster mother are patience, love and understanding.
If you have those, she says, and you're willing to open your heart and home to a child with physical, mental, or emotional disabilities or a child who’s been abused and neglected, it might just end up being the most rewarding experience of your life.
Gonzalez, 32, is single and has lived in Woonsocket for 14 years. She works full-time for a bank in Medfield, Mass., and she owns her own home on Social Street.
She is also providing foster care for three children: two sisters, ages 4 and 3, and their baby brother, who’s 1-1/2.
"I'm not a mom with my own natural children, but I know these kids top to bottom and I love them as if they were my own," Gonzalez says. "For me it's all about giving part of myself to provide a better life for these children and help them reach their full potential."
Foster care is temporary care provided by individuals and families who volunteer and train to become substitute parents to children whose birth parents and families are unable to care for them.
While a child is in placement, the foster family offers the child the family life experiences that are essential in promoting health, growth, and development.
Thousands of children in Rhode Island currently need foster care. Some simply need foster care for a matter of days. Others may need foster care until they are reunited with their biological family or a plan is made for them to be adopted.
Gonzalez says she's always loved kids and has always had motherly instincts and a nurturing personality, even before she decided to become a foster mother a few years ago. This is her second group of children. Several years ago she provided foster care for two girls who have since returned to their biological mother.
In fact, at age 32, Gonzalez is the youngest foster mother in the foster care program, which is coordinated by Family Service of Rhode Island, a non-profit humans services agency.
"I was babysitting since I was 12 years old and I've done a lot of volunteer work at day care centers. I love kids," Gonzalez says. "I feel they are the future. Sometimes I would be driving home and see so many children left alone out on the streets — especially younger children."
Her role model is her own mother, Jeannette Quinones of Milford, who was recently named Foster Mother of the Year by an agency in Massachusetts.
"She's spent her life helping children and I learned a lot from her," Gonzalez says.
According to Gonzalez, being a foster mom takes a lot of hard work. Foster kids come with baggage, trust issues, abusive pasts, and they will question your authenticity, she says.
"My oldest child I have now has a lot of anger issues and has really been scarred. When she first got here she was banging her head against the door and biting herself. But since then, she's come a long way," Gonzalez said.
"Her sister," she says, "was very unemotional at first. In fact, it wasn't until three moths after she came to live here that she gave me my first hug."
The sisters' brother, Gonzalez says, weighed only 12 pounds when he came to live with her at the age of nine months.
"He now weighs 27 pounds and is so much healthier," she says. "The first six years of a child's life are the most important. This is the time they need guidance and structure in their lives. And lots of love."
She says the most difficult part of being a foster mother is having to let the children go so they can return to their biological family. "It breaks your heart," she says.
Mother's Day is a time to celebrate and show a mother love, gratitude, and appreciation. Unfortunately, says Greg Wright, program coordinator at Family Service of Rhode Island, thousands of children and teens throughout the state will not be able to spend today with their own mothers because they have been removed from their home for reasons beyond their control. These children, he says, have been placed in the custody of the Rhode Island Department of Children, Youth, and Families, and most are living in group homes, without a mother to celebrate today.
Family Service of Rhode Island works to place these children in emergency, temporary, or permanent foster homes, says Wright, adding that it is vital that a child who has experienced trauma has a safe and loving home so that they may heal, develop and grow.
"Becoming a foster parent is a big step; however there is nothing more rewarding than making a significant change in a child's life," he says. "Every kid deserves a childhood and Family Service is asking Rhode Islanders to help."
According to Wright, with the upcoming closure of three DCYF children's shelters in June, foster homes are needed now more than ever.
"Rhode Islanders must be made aware of the desperate situation these children are in and be informed of what they can do to help," he said. "It is crucial that Rhode Island residents understand the severity of this situation, and how rewarding becoming a foster parent can be.
May is also National Foster Care month — a whole month dedicated to the appreciation and recognition of those who open their homes to children who need them most. On Wednesday, Family Service of Rhode Island will hold an information meeting from 5 to 7 p.m. at 134 Thurbers Ave., Providence, to discuss fostering issues and provide guests with information on how they can help. There will be an opportunity to speak with Family Service Treatment Foster Care staff, current foster parents and a question and answer session. Refreshments will be served.
Gonzalez says the rewards that come with being a foster mother are many.
"I think the most satisfying thing for me is knowing that, hopefully, I made a difference and that some day these kids will grow up healthy and happy, go to college and do great things in their lives."