From an empty nest to a house full of hope: The Hilderbrands’ foster care story - MetroFamily Magazine
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From an empty nest to a house full of hope: The Hilderbrands’ foster care story

By Oklahoma Fosters

by Erin Page

Reading Time: 4 minutes 

Jan and Mark Hilderbrand have always had a house full of kids. Their own children, their kids’ friends, neighbor kids and children from their youth ministry filled their home with love and laughter for many years. When their children reached adulthood and moved out, their nest stayed empty for two years until they felt the call to become foster parents.

In March 2021, after several months of training, Jan and Mark opened their home to children in foster care. Since then, they’ve welcomed 32 kids into their home, ranging from 18 months old to teenagers. While their journey hasn’t always been easy, their unconditional love for the children in their care, as well as for the kids’ biological families, and their joy in helping kids heal have been constant.

“We want to provide a safe place where they feel secure and loved,” said Mark.

The truth about teens

Mark notes that many families are only interested in fostering babies, but because the Hilderbrands have already raised their own children, they felt equipped to work with any age child and to take multiple children at once. They are especially adept at working with teens, an age group that can be hard to place. Mark says just like raising any teen can be difficult at times, fostering teens is not without challenges, often because of what they have been through.

“They [think they] are grown, they think they know how the world works and they’ve been hurt so much they don’t always want to build relationships,” said Mark. “It can be hard to get them to open up.”

The Hilderbrands have developed a tried-and-true process to first reassure the children in their care that they are safe and then patiently build trust.

First, they communicate often how much they want the children in their home to be there. Mark recalls one teen he took for a drive to talk about how they could better communicate with each other. Mark told him repeatedly, “We really want you here,” and once the teen understood he was truly wanted, the relationship improved.

Second, the Hilderbrands allow the kids limited phone time and make mealtimes and evenings phones-free so they can focus on building those relationships.

“We have conversations as a family, laugh and talk about what happened that day so they get that sense of community,” said Jan. “We treat the kids like they are part of our family. Watching them open up is one of my favorite parts. Every kid should have that chance to just be a kid.”

Third, they provide consistency. The family rules and expectations around behavior don’t change and the family schedule remains as consistent as possible from day to day.

“Our oldest son has ADHD and he thrived on a schedule, so that really trained us,” said Jan. “We’re on the go as a family but we still try to do pretty much the same things around bedtimes and mealtimes so the kids know what to expect.”

Fourth, they embrace the philosophy that trust is built over time. Every child in their care is a unique individual who has been through varied situations, and they deal with those experiences differently.

“Especially with teens, you don’t know what they’ve been through until they are willing to talk, and you have to be patient,” said Mark. “Showing love will open the door so you can work through [their past trauma].”

Finally, they always keep their promises.

“If we use the words ‘I promise,’ that means we’ll run through a flood to be there,” said Jan.

While the idea of fostering teens may seem overwhelming to some, Jan and Mark have found much joy in giving older kids the chance to enjoy life’s simple pleasures, like laughter over a game of Uno, while also helping them overcome the trauma they’ve been through and look toward their futures.

“They realize that everything isn’t negative, and they get a glimpse of what their life could be like,” said Jan. “They have hope.”

Building a community of support

A common fear among potential foster parents is that they will have to navigate the unknown waters of their journey alone. Mark has found that to be unfounded. The case workers the Hilderbrands have worked with have been extremely helpful, and Mark appreciates that, with their case workers’ help, they’ve been able to determine which kids will flourish best in their home.

Jan and Mark have been intentional in building their own support system, too, relying on their church family to help provide resources and finding babysitters who can provide them a night off every so often.

They have also served as a support system for the biological families of the kids in their care. The Hildebrands provide frequent encouragement to the biological families and they remind them that they aren’t there to take their children or take their place but rather to love their kids while they get the help they need.

“We choose to love them as much as we possibly can,” said Jan of biological parents. “As long as they are trying, we will try with them.”

Jan and Mark remain in contact with a sibling pair who left their home for their forever home with an aunt. They receive regular updates and photos and even get to see the girls often at their church. Another child in their care is on the path to reunification with her mom, and the Hilderbrands look forward to continuing to support their family.

“We hope to fall into ‘grandparent mode,’” said Mark. “She [mom] knows we are there for her and she wants to be part of our lives. That’s so pleasing for us.”

Taking the next step

More foster families like the Hildebrands are needed in Oklahoma, particularly for teens and sibling groups. Jan says foster parents don’t have to be superheroes and they don’t have to be perfect — they simply must be resolved to be committed and provide a lot of love, just like parents do every day with their own kids.

For those families for whom fostering isn’t possible, there are plenty of ways to offer much-needed support, like providing a meal, clothing or other resources to a foster family or offering to babysit.

“That support makes all the difference in the world,” said Mark. 

Learn more about becoming a foster family or supporting foster parents and families at okfosters.org.

 

Editor’s note: This article is part of a series in partnership with Oklahoma Human Services about foster care in our state. Find the full series at metrofamilymagazine.com/foster-care.

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