I moved to New York City from a small town in Oklahoma when I was 18 because I thought I wanted to be in theater. I was drawn to theater because it was what I had done in high school and I loved it. In retrospect, I had no professional female role models in my life, so I could not imagine having a career.
I dabbled in theater (which does not work) while taking many temp and part time jobs including my first job at Chipwich of America where I got fired for accidentally hanging up on the boss (among others) too many times. Ok, that was not for me… I took any job I could, from passing out flyers in the World Trade Center to proofreading at a law firm on the graveyard shift where co-workers smoked in small cubicles. There were times I did not have enough money to eat so I would check all the phone booths for extra change and muster enough to buy a slice of pizza. I remember thinking “wow, little Gretchen Beidl is in NYC and broke, this is so exciting!” It was an adventure.
At 19, I landed a long-term temp job at HBO, which felt very glamorous for a little girl from Nowata. I worked with many talented women who enjoyed their work which helped me evolve my thinking about choosing a profession.
The next decade was spent putting myself through school while trying to decide what I wanted to do. At 30 years old, I finally graduated and was hungry to have a career. I decided to return to the cable industry because I loved my time at HBO, and I knew it was a good industry for women. I landed an entry level position at AMC and was trained by a smart and “experienced” 24-year-old, but that did not bother me because I was so grateful to have a job I enjoyed. She was a good teacher and we became close friends as we were both promoted to higher positions within the company.
The Path to Becoming a Foster Parent
Having graduated so late, I worked hard to “catch up,” making my career my complete focus. I went on to work in sales at a couple of networks. At 40 years old, I met my husband to be, Michael (yes, he was my client). We married when I was 44. Michael has two terrific kids but he knew I wanted children. Once we were married the conversation became more serious. We considered all the possible paths and pursued a couple options. After some serious soul searching, I told Michael I did not think we should adopt an infant because of our age (he’s 10 years older than I).
I had exposure to foster care in my family: my aunts fostered and adopted several of my cousins. For this reason, I didn’t have the same trepidation most people have at the idea of bringing a child from foster care into our home. I knew Michael would have that fear when I suggested we consider an older child (I was thinking 10 years old). I was happily surprised by how open he was despite his fears. We decided we should start with me becoming a mentor to a kid in care.
This was much harder to figure out than I had anticipated. I ended up becoming a CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate). I was assigned by judges to a foster child’s case in order to facilitate moving through the system faster, with the best outcome for the child. During the training, we learned that many kids leave foster care at 18 with absolutely no support. Being a CASA was an eye-opening learning experience. I was exposed to many aspects of the system and several foster care agencies. I met some great kids who were thrust into untenable situations through no fault of their own.
Finally, I found an agency that had a mentoring program and a terrific coordinator who matched me to Jamie*, an effervescent 16-year-old who was smart, funny and full of life. I fell in love immediately. She was older than I had expected, but once I met her, it didn’t matter. She had been in care since infancy and in and out of several homes during that time.
I mentored Jamie for a year during which Michael and I were sent to You Gotta Believe (YGB), a foster care adoption agency, to take a 10-week course to be certified as foster parents. We were sent there because they specialize in older and LGBTQ youth.
The Ups and Downs Along the Way
When I told Jamie we had been certified as foster parents, her response was “Why would you want to do that? Why bring that drama into your life?” It painfully reflected the way she felt about herself. I told her that we had had a great experience mentoring and we decided we wanted to do more. She was smart, and she knew I wanted her. The next week I called her and woke her up. She yelled, hung up on me and did not speak to me for a year.
With help from our YGB coach and our therapist, I realized Jamie signed up for a mentor, not a mother. It was too much for her to suddenly be asked to join a family. Michael and I decided we needed to move on…
We were connected to other kids, all of whom had their own stories. After a year, Jamie called the Mentoring Coordinator and told her she had made the biggest mistake of her life not moving in with Michael and me. The Coordinator told her to slow down and reconnect with me. I mentored her for another year until she got arrested. She was a good kid who made a bad decision. Seeing her so stressed was heartbreaking. I sat in the court house and anxiously waited. She was finally released and moved in that day. We advocated for her and met with the Assistant District Attorney (ADA) to discuss alternatives to incarceration. Jamie ended up doing community service and her record was wiped clean.
Michael and I did what any parent would have done. What if we had not been there? What about all those kids who are assigned an overwhelmed legal aid attorney who doesn’t have the capacity to meet with an ADA to negotiate and advocate for every client? I started thinking about getting more involved with changing the system.
Living with Jamie was an amazing journey of highs and lows. It was very difficult for her to adjust to living with a family. I had so much to learn about the best way to invite her into our lives. There were some really tough times when she felt stressed and frustrated. We bore the brunt because she didn’t know where to focus her anger for all the hurts in her life. I made so many mistakes. I was fortunate to have YGB, our therapist (also a foster parent), my niece who is a social worker and my good friend who had a son with his own struggles. My friend and I would recycle the same advice to each other week after week – it helped enormously. Jamie taught me the most. Her resilience and ever hopeful outlook inspire and challenge me every day.
The high moments were amazing and poignant. One night, Jamie piled about six kids into her room. She asked if they could order chicken wings and pizza and eat in her room. Oh, no, no, no…! I made them popcorn. As she walked into her room holding the big bowl of popcorn, she turned to me and said “I’ve never had a room to hang out in with my friends. Thank you.” I’ll never forget that moment.
In 2015, You Gotta Believe’s contract with the city was discontinued under a new administration that wanted to bring “home finding” in-house. ACS is responsible for every area of a child’s life while in foster care. I knew that because YGB’s sole focus was in achieving permanency. Its expertise was essential because connecting older kids to families has unique challenges. I knew that You Gotta Believe had to survive. Michael and I would have failed were it not for the vital support we received.
Becoming a Passionate Advocate
I decided to become an advocate and ultimately joined the Board, becoming Board President almost immediately. Having the luxury of treating this position as a full-time job, I found what I am supposed to be doing with my life. I know the young people we are working to connect with families, so this is very personal. I am more motivated than I have ever been in my professional life.As Board President, I am fortunate to work closely with our Executive Director who was our parent coach and is the most extraordinary woman I’ve ever known. She has parented over 2 dozen kids and understands what is needed to connect youth to parents. I work with a terrific Board filled with smart, dedicated individuals who are committed to our mission.
For me, making a dramatic life change happened organically and was driven by my heart. What I cared about propelled me to refocus. Research, especially through networking, was key to homing in on the area where I wanted to concentrate my efforts, helping to defined each step forward. My life was forever changed because of You Gotta Believe. My kids now get to have a mom, and I get to be a mom. At YGB, our goal is to give this gift to the many youth and adults out there longing for family. What could be more motivating?
*name changed to protect her privacy