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May is Foster Care Awareness Month, a time to celebrate the hard work and difficult decisions that come with fostering. Citizen Potawatomi Nation’s FireLodge Children & Family Services strives to place Native foster children in Native homes to kindle a connection to their heritage and culture.

Justin and Melissa Lee began fostering through the department in 2019. Justin is a citizen of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma, and Melissa is a member of the Osage Nation. The Lees learned about FireLodge from a family they attend church with in Bethel Acres, Oklahoma, who had fostered through CPN. They told the Lees about their positive experience, and the Lees equally praised FireLodge in a recent interview with the Hownikan.

Teachers and foster parents Melissa and Justin Lee spend their lives caring for and supporting children in their local community.

“They’re just very encouraging,” Melissa said. “You can tell they want what’s best for the child, and they want to be there to provide anything that we may possibly need. And we feel like that communication is open to where if we needed something, we could ask.”

Justin and Melissa Lee provide a home full of love, laughter and music for their biological son, Jadon, and the foster children placed with them. Both teach choral music for Shawnee Public Schools, and Justin is a worship leader at their church.

“It’s just what I enjoy doing. I actually started out as a chemical engineering major for two years because of the money, but then quickly realized that just wasn’t what I was supposed to do. And I knew it wouldn’t make me happy. So, I changed to vocal music education,” Justin said. “And then, of course, worship leading is my true calling. That’s what I’ve always wanted to do since I was a little kid.”

They love camping as a family, and Jadon enjoys playing outside. He also cherishes the chance to have a sibling, if only for a short amount of time. His parents explained how fostering works in terms comprehensible for a 6-year-old and instilled the idea that the results benefit everyone.

“He’s wanted to be a big brother, and so he really has adjusted and transitioned very well,” Melissa said. “He’s very helpful and excited about, just excited both times. It’s been positive for him, I feel.”

Challenges and rewards

The Lees welcomed two children into their home with open arms since they began fostering in summer 2019. They liked the idea of helping the community and satisfying their yearning to care for an infant again.

“We just have love. We have a lot of love to give, and we wanted to continue to give love to children and potentially grow our family. And so, this just looks like a really great fit,” Melissa said.

As teachers, they encounter youth in need of stability, a place to stay or food to eat. The Lees see the effects of struggles outside of the classroom have on students’ performance in school, and they view becoming a foster home as a way to circumvent those disruptions later on for the children in their care.

“I think we see the greater need for foster parents because we see it every day. … So, I think that played a big part also in us fostering is being public school teachers; we see the need for people just opening up their homes to children that don’t have one,” Justin said.

Melissa agrees that structure and stability matter.

“They’re going to be successful because they have that support, and they have that unconditional love that they can fall back on when they need it — when they’ve made a mistake or when they need somebody to turn to,” she said.

Raising a son from birth before fostering made the transition smooth. They felt they knew what to expect as far as responsibilities, adjusting their schedules and supplies needed for infant care. However, Justin did not anticipate the emotions that came with participating in the program.

“I know how much I love my child, my biological child. But I didn’t know how much I would love a child that’s not biologically mine,” he said. “And so, that’s what I was afraid of at first. But it’s quickly shown me that even though the child is not biologically mine, I have the same feelings for our foster kids that I did with my own son.”

As with any foster family, the temporary nature of the situation makes that attachment challenging to overcome when the time together ends. Melissa considers the opportunity to form that attachment a privilege and its own reward.

“It’s absolutely hard, and it should be hard because you should love them enough that it is hard to let them go and express that when they leave, it’s because they’re going to be with someone that they should be with — and that’s what’s best for the child. And, it’s a wonderful thing to be a part of,” she said.

Natives serving Natives

The Lees chose certification through FireLodge to help Native children stay in Native homes. As citizens of federally recognized tribes, assisting Indigenous families came naturally to them. Melissa became aware of her heritage as a teenager and learned more as she got older.

“I think it’s really great to see where you come from, to kind of know the history and just the importance of the culture,” she said. “And Native American culture is just full of so many great things that I think people that aren’t Native Americans should know what their culture is like and just kind of see that history and have that connection.”

The Lees believe in CPN’s foster care mission, and the department makes the process of becoming a foster home easy and thorough.

“It is not as daunting as many people would say it seems to be,” Melissa said. “If you just go for it and get it done, it really doesn’t take long. And it’s not painful by any means.”

“They’re really great people to work through,” Justin said. “It helps when you can tell they love their jobs, and it just makes it almost enjoyable and exciting going through that process.”

FireLodge staff always prioritize the children’s quality of life, and Melissa and Justin see evidence of that during routine check-ups and resource requests. They encourage anyone considering fostering to make a connection and ask for information.

“When you’re fostering through someone, especially through Citizen Potawatomi, they’re absolutely willing to help you, and if you need help, reach out and ask for that support. Whatever kind of support you need, I know they’ll provide it,” Melissa said.

For more information on regarding CPN foster care and FireLodge Children & Family Services, visit potawatomi.org/firelodge or facebook.com/CPNFireLodge.