We are proud to introduce you to Andy and Rita Lemons. They’re parents to Carter, Camilla, Campbell, CeCe and Caden. Their oldest three came through birth and then CeCe and Caden arrived through foster care. They live and minister as adoptive parents in Birmingham, Alabama.
TJ- Can you describe for us your family circumstances when you got into fostering?
Rita- Andy and I were both in our early 40’s and our biological kids were 13, 10 and 8 when someone announced in our Sunday School class that our church was going to host classes for anyone interested in learning more about becoming foster parents.
Andy - We discussed the opportunity (and challenges) with our kids at the time. We also took them to some of the training so they could understand what we were getting into as well as what we were asking of them.
TJ- What were some of your motivations to start fostering?
Andy- My favorite high school teacher was a foster parent. When I was a junior, they had 13 children, many of whom were adopted or foster children and he worked four jobs. I really admired him, his faith in action, and I think it planted this idea of caring for children besides those we might give birth to.
Rita- And I came from a broken family where I was raised by my grandmother. My grandmother was a safety net for my mother and I was very aware growing up that had it not been for that safety net my life would have been very different. I saw how families are fragile. You need a support system and most of the families we’ve seen just don’t have that sort of support system. I wanted to be a part of that.
Jenn- That’s really profound. When people find out we are foster parents, they sometimes respond by making the birth parents sound almost evil. I try to explain we’re all one step away from it. It’s only by God’s grace we’re not in similar situations.
Rita- I agree! Of course you asked why we got into fostering, and everyone quotes James 1:27, but I do see caring for foster children as a natural outworking of my faith. We see it as a mission field—home missions. We want to share Christ with the kids that come through our home, and we want to show God’s grace to hurting families. Ironically, we went through the training with a family who ended up going to Uganda to serve as missionaries. Their slogan, if you will, was “the grace to go.” We say God gave us “the grace to stay,” to step out in faith right here at home, to change our way of life and to minister to people right here in our community who need someone to come alongside them.
TJ- For every foster parent, after training and certification comes a “first placement.” What were some of the things you were praying during that first placement?
Jenn- I like you already Andy!
Rita- It’s not an easy journey, as you well know! Our first placement was hard on all of us. He was three years old so we went from 0 to 60 miles per hour in a matter of moments. I found myself desperate for God in the everyday things. My biggest prayer was for practical wisdom - what were appropriate expectations for the child, how and where to set boundaries, how to answer the hard questions that break your heart when posed by a three-year-old and how to come alongside the birth family.
As we prepared for the first placement, I prayed to see God’s grace in our life and that God would display His grace through our lives. God answered the prayer by exposing so much of our own sin. We had that little one for only three months, but it showed us even more how much we need a Savior, mercy, forgiveness and second chances. The child was a doll and a great kid, so it had nothing to do with him. It just exposed the depth of our selfishness and lack of willingness to die to self as much as anything. But Jesus’ grace is greater than our sin, and He faithfully gives us exactly what we need every step of the way. Seeing just how much we need His grace was a blessing.
TJ- What have been some of the greatest blessings you’ve experienced as foster parents?
Andy - Seeing our older kids take their eyes off of themselves and put them on someone else, and to do so willingly is nothing short of amazing as parents. When our youngest child wasn’t sleeping, our older ones just did things to serve, took on more responsibility, helped out when we were exhausted. They just stepped up.
We hadn’t had Caden very long when my son Campbell who was about 12 at the time, asked, “What would it be like if we didn’t have Cece?” I paused, and before I could answer he said, “It’d just be terrible. She’s the happiest baby there ever was. She just makes our whole family better.” I also believe fostering and adoption has made all of us more sensitive to racial issues in a positive way.
Rita- I think for me, being apart of the community that fosters and adopts has been great. Caden had other siblings in foster care and we know three of his siblings and the families that adopted them. So we not only adopted children but we gained nieces and nephews in the process. We share life with these families.
Jenn- Is that something the court requested?
Rita- No, we pursued each other. We were all with the same agency so we were aware of each other. We needed the community. The sibling set had very unique and difficult issues so we pursued it on our own.
Jenn- Did it start with phone calls or getting together?
Rita- All of that, phone calls, birthday parties, playground visits…we want them to grow up knowing each other. They are part of our family. They have known from the beginning who each other were. We refer to them as brothers and sisters even though they’re in different families.
Jenn- That’s beautiful. Loving by including their birth family shows that you all are in this to see redemption.
Rita- We want them to know Jesus’ love is unfailing. They have very imperfect adoptive parents (speaking on behalf of us!) but they have a perfect Heavenly Father who wants to adopt them into His family. That same perfect Father is the one who guides us and gives us the ability to love.
TJ- Can you tell us about the agency you foster with?
Rita- We were a part of Alabama Baptist Children’s Home when we foster parented. We’re no longer foster parents with them, but we’ve been brainstorming how to come alongside them to create support for adoptive parents of foster children. The support we received as foster parents was phenomenal— we attended an annual foster care camp where parents received continuing education and training while kids participated in VBS style activities, for example. After the second adoption we took a break from fostering, so we are not currently a part of that organization.
Jenn- I’m glad you’re speaking up about that because I think it’s a common flaw in system supports.
Rita- Unfortunately we’ve found that a lot of people think of adopting as adding another child to your family, but the problem is these children come from hard places and have unique issues. We love them just as we love our biological children but parenting them is very different than parenting our biological children. We want to help them achieve their maximum potential and love them in ways that are helpful to them. Love is not enough. It has to be a thoughtful, intentional, prayerful effort with education and support.
TJ- With CeCe and Caden you didn’t have to say goodbye, but we are frequently asked about goodbyes. With your first two placements, how did say goodbye?
Andy- Sometimes with big grins on our faces! The first one went to a biological relative and seemed like a good situation and we were really happy for him.
Rita-The second went home to a more questionable situation, but her mother pursued the child and that gave us encouragement. It’s not our job to fix it or determine outcomes. It’s just our job to get up and love today, dying to our selfish desires today. You know, I get pretty upset with people when they say they could never foster and say goodbye. What I say is what’s really difficult is dying to self everyday, to live in the good and the bad trusting that God is in control and has a plan. That’s harder honestly.
Jenn- I agree it’s an unpleasant experience when people respond to fostering and say they couldn’t do the goodbyes. I think most people ask it in trying to compliment or relate to you, but it comes across frustrating.
TJ- It’s also kind of a selfish outlook: “I couldn’t do this because of the pain it causes me.” Well, what about the pain and loss the child is experiencing?
Rita- Honestly, the goodbye helps us identify with the children’s loss. Once we dealt with a goodbye, we could relate that much more with the pain the kids are dealing with for our next placements. It’s a gift really.
TJ- How has fostering affected relationships within your family?
Andy- The first placement showed us how selfish we all were when the constant refrain was, “It’s not my turn!” But then after the initial shock to the system, fostering has created another way the kids can relate to each other and relate to us as parents. They feel a certain protective and strong emotion to our adopted kids as well as camaraderie with their siblings in serving together. It’s something that makes their family situation a little more unique.
As far as relationship with God, having kids gave me a perspective about God’s role as Father. When we fostered and then adopted we’ve understood God’s truth in us as His adopted children. I see how kids sometimes fight against the system just as we resist God.
Rita- I thought I had faith before, but my faith was never really challenged in the way that this has challenged my faith. It’s caused me to be much more daily dependent. I don’t think I knew what that meant before.
Jenn- To hear you reflect on this is therapeutic for us. This feels so good.
TJ- And it’s not easy. You’re in the trenches.
Rita- It’s sanctifying and that process can be fairly ugly! I think for me, fear is a real struggle. Fear that I’m not doing enough or I’m doing it all wrong. And it’s my faith that’s just got to grow because I keep falling into the mindset that “I have to do something,” where I’m really just a vessel. It’s something that’s flowing through me, not on my own. God has shown himself very faithful over the years.
Jenn- What advice would you give yourself if you went back in time with regards to fostering?
Andy- Start earlier.
Rita- I agree. For us, most of the challenges come because we essentially have two families with regard to age divide. We have a 19, 16, and 14 year old, and then a 4 and 3 year old. I wish we had done this while our own kids were younger.
Andy- Sometimes parenting teens and toddlers is the same and other times it’s vastly different. Seriously, we’d do it earlier. And not just because we feel older. Once we were exposed to the foster care system and the number of children in it, I think, “As long as you can take children in, why wouldn’t you?”
Rita- In the beginning I was very much focused on taking one step at a time and I think that sometimes the further you get into the process you forget to take one step at a time. That can seem overwhelming. In the beginning when we were doing the classes we hadn’t committed to anything. We just kept showing up, week after week to training. And then we would take the next step and the next step. So that’d be my advice, not to look at the big picture and try to see too far ahead, but just take the next step.
Andy- When we first started looking at it, we thought we would just do respite care for the “real” foster families. We had also heard stories about people doing foster care to try to adopt, but that never really crossed our mind. We were older and that just wasn’t what we had in mind.
Then CeCe felt like ours. And Caden. We didn’t want their story to be, “You were in foster care like all of your siblings, and then you jumped from this placement to that placement because your foster parents wouldn’t adopt.” So adoption was the next right thing in our minds.
Rita- People talk about taking leaps of faith but, for us, it has really been a step-by-step process of trusting and believing God will provide what we need even though we can’t see how in the world that’s going to come about. And that’s really the case with every child we have—not just foster or adopted. We just think we have more control over biological kids!
TJ- What a good reminder that everything we have is God’s.
Rita- With birth children and foster and adopted children, God writes their stories. And it’s freeing really. I can advocate for an outcome but I don’t have the responsibility for it.
Jenn- There’s a beautiful sense of surrender you two have to the Lord. I know you’re feeling stressed, or imperfect, but it’s in those times that Jesus shines through. You’re clearly ambassadors for Him and we’re grateful for your service.
Please take a moment to thank God for the Lemons family and ask His blessing upon their family.