STERLING – Imagine growing up without any photographs, heirlooms, records or keepsakes.
For foster kids – especially those moved from house to house – and adopted kids, entire chapters can disappear from their life stories.
Lutheran Social Services of Illinois is on a mission to save those memories. The nonprofit agency created lifebooks – a place for children to collect photographs, stories, and detailed information about who they are and where they come from.
Mary Sue Waite, 44, of Sterling, is a lifebook specialist for LSSI's Northern Illinois Region.
“When we look back, we pull out old pictures and look at things,” Waite said. “For our kids, if the foster parents aren't tracking this stuff while they're separated from their biological parents, all that information is going to be lost. ...
They're going to lose their life, in a sense; they're going to lose their life story. And we all have a story to tell.”
LSSI has helped more than 3,000 children – and their foster, adoptive and biological families – since starting the lifebook program in 2008. Now, lifebooks also are available to families not affiliated with LSSI.
The primary lifebook, “My Awesome Life,” is a therapeutic tool for children who have experienced trauma or loss, Waite said.
“A lot of people think this is like a scrapbook,” she said, “and it's different. … Scrapbooks usually just have good, fuzzy, warm feelings – like pictures and good memories.”
Lifebooks capture the good, the bad and the ugly.
For example, kids journal about how they felt when removed from their parents, and why they think it happened. The process helps them make sense of their circumstances.
“They might blame themselves for coming into foster care when it's not their fault,” Waite said.
Jennifer Shaw, 38, and her husband, the Rev. Joshua Shaw, 44, pastor of Hope Bible Fellowship in Dixon, are grateful for lifebooks.
In the last decade, the Dixon couple has opened their home and hearts to 38 foster children – boys and girls of any race from newborns to teenagers. They now care for one adopted child, one child in the adoption process, one foster child, three biological children, and a 19-year-old.
“It actually blesses us, in our opinion, more than we could ever bless them,” said Jennifer, 38, a 1993 graduate of Sterling High School.
The Shaws have used lifebooks with children 5 and older to help them open up. At first, some are so untrusting that when Jennifer asks, “How was your day?” they shoot her a look that seems to say, “Why do you want to know?”
“They don't really want to be open,” she said. “They don't really want to say anything.”
Through lifebooks, however, foster kids have learned to trust the Shaws, and the Shaws have learned more about them. Jennifer tells them, “I care about you regardless of all this junk in your past,” and “What happened to you is not your fault.”
“The more they share with you, the more they learn to trust,” she said.
The bright, colorful lifebooks contain up to five sections, depending on the child's situation. The first two can be used by any child, whether in foster care or not.
In section one, “About Me,” kids write about their friends, feelings, likes and dislikes, favorite school subjects, fears and worries, heroes, and dreams. They also list their strengths and special qualities.
“A lot of kids have low self-esteem in foster care,” Waite said.
This section also includes a copy of the child's birth certificate, a picture of his or her birthplace, important “firsts” typically found in baby books, and a record of schools attended.
Section two, “My Family,” includes information about the child's biological family.
Children recognize gifts from their birth parents, such as talents or physical traits. They also learn their parents' age when they were born and their medical history. If parents are unavailable, Waite researches their background information.
This section includes a family tree; and photographs and memories of siblings who may or may not be separated. Children also share what they would write in a letter to Mom and a letter to Dad.
“It's a very emotional page for [foster children] to fill out because they don't know what to say,” Waite said. “I've had kids sit before me [and] well up in tears. … They say things like, 'Do you ever think of me?'”
Section three, “Where I've Been ... Where I'm Going” is specifically for children in foster care. They write about all the places they have lived and the people and pets who lived with them.
Kids also acknowledge the reasons why they do not live with their parents – such as abuse or neglect – and ask questions.
“A lot of times, kids internalize things; they don't really talk about it,” Waite said. “When they see it in a book or on a piece of paper, they say, 'Well, it must be OK to talk about.”
Kids who bottle up their emotions are more likely to act out now and abuse drugs and alcohol later in life, Waite said. The goal is to to help them work through their problems so they can become healthy, productive adults.
Section four, “Going Home,” is for foster children returning to their biological parents. They write down what they are happy and sad about; and what they are afraid of, such as a new school or a parent returning to old habits.
Section five, “Getting Adopted,” is for children who never are returning home after foster care. It also can be used by families who adopted internationally.
It includes the date of adoption, an adoptive family tree, and pictures of the adoptive family. The adoptive parents also write a letter, expressing how much they love and want the child.
Kids journal their feelings about the adoption and ask questions such as, “Will I ever see my biological family again?”
In addition to a lifebook, every child in the LSSI program receives a white box and markers and stickers to decorate it. Inside, they can keep pictures, report cards – just about anything.
The lifebooks and boxes are personal items that the kids, who have lost so much, can own forever, Jennifer said.
“They love it,” she said. "It's very dear to them.”
For every child helped by LSSI, Lifebooks include a picture with Waite. She has worked for LSSI for more than 20 years as a supervisor, caseworker, and counselor.
“[Lifebook specialist] is the most rewarding position I've had at LSSI,” she said.
Waite adores children, and believes helping them feel special and loved is her God-given purpose in life. She remembers every child's name and their likes and dislikes.
'I may have not had children of my own,” she said, “but I have worked with probably thousands of children, and all them have been my kids.”
To get a lifebook
“My Awesome Life” comes in several versions – for any child, for children in foster care, for children returning home from foster care, and for children being adopted from foster care.
For families outside the Lutheran Social Services of Illinois program, cost ranges from about $16 to $19, plus shipping and handling.
Go to www.lssi.org/lifebook to view sample pages, watch a video, place an order, or make a donation.
LSSI also provides a training DVD and curriculum for foster and adoptive parents and professionals in the field.
Contact LSSI at email@example.com or 847-635-4600 for more information.