State College, Pa. – Family photos hang on the wall; their smiling faces lead the way to the kitchen, where laughter and noise bounce around the room. Their mudroom is like a pre-school closet, lined with children's jackets, shoes and book bags, all arranged into a type of organized chaos.
It's Monday evening, and Michele Reams is making "must go" for dinner – in other words, everything in the kitchen "must go." She sets a large silver bowl of macaroni and cheese, big enough to feed an army, down on their kitchen table. A bowl of ravioli and meatballs, some peas, homemade sweet pickles, bread and butter, a jar of olives and a tray of pigs in a blanket soon fill the remaining space.
Chase, Mitchell, Jordan, Tristian, Emily, Savannah and her husband, Mike, stream into the kitchen and start making their plates, helping one another dish everything out. They bow their heads and fold their hands as Savannah says Grace.
"And I picked you," Reams says to her oldest son, Chase, after he recalls the first time they met and played together.
"You see, when you're adopted," she addresses the entire family, "we get to pick you, and that's what makes each one of you unique."
The Reams are indeed unique.
In the past nine years, they have fostered 36 kids. Of their current six children, the oldest three -- Chase, 15, Mitchell, 14, and Jordan, 12 -- were foster children whom Reams and her husband adopted. The three youngest -- Tristian, 8, Emily, 7, and Savannah, 4 -- are currently foster children whom the Reams hope to adopt.
Reams and her husband, who have a biological son, 25, and daughter, 20, are part of the Pennsylvania foster care system through an agency called Hope For Kids, located in State College, Pa. Yet they're not your traditional foster parents; instead, the Reams are therapeutic foster parents.
As therapeutic foster parents, Reams and her husband receive children who have been through a majority of the foster homes within a county, whose behaviors have grown progressively worse or have an illness, she says.
"It's led to believe that we get the worst of the worst…We get medical children, severely mentally handicapped…any kind of mental illness out there, we get."
Both Reams and her husband immediately coin the word intelligent to describe their foster son Tristian when he first arrived at their home at just four years old. Yet over the course of time, Tristian has been diagnosed with Asperger's disorder, a more severe case of autism.
"I had never dealt with an Asperger's child before -- learned about it, talked about it but never dealt with it in every day life," she says. "It's very challenging…but the family and prayer and Hope For Kids is what gets us through every day."
It's these three consistencies in her life that have helped Reams be the strong and able foster parent that she is and needs to be to help Tristian and her other children heal.
"I don't want to use the words save them, but we try our best to keep them in a secure home and a forever home that they can feel a part of," Reams says.
And though Reams and her husband wish to keep Tristian, Emily and Savannah in the forever home they've created, they are not always able to adopt the foster children that they'd like to. Certain adoption cases, like their 7-year-old daughter Emily's case, are more complicated by the biological parent(s) of that particular child.
"With Emily, her biological father wants to keep her, so right now her situation is up in the air," she says. "She doesn't want to go back, and if we can adopt her, we will."
Yet unlike Emily, who has told Reams that all she wants is permanency, or adoption, there are some cases where the parent is not the obstacle.
The Love Comes Later
The night before she turned 18, her biological mother, sister and sister's boyfriend came, packed her up and took her to Lancaster.
"She never wanted to be adopted," Reams says of one of her foster children, Heather, who is now 21. "Her mom would have given up her rights had Heather ever said she wanted to be adopted."
Heather arrived at the Reams' home at 14 years old after bouncing around a number of foster homes in the county. She was taken out of her biological mother's home at the age of five and had not lived with her mother since, though they had seen each other on a regular basis.
In the months leading up to her 18th birthday, Heather's behavior grew rebellious and unruly, and the language she used with her and her husband was loaded with profanity, Reams says.
"You know, Heather, she was a handful and she was mouthy, but what all this has taught me is no matter how tough things got when she was here, she respects us more than her parents and her other foster parents."
Heather calls Reams and her husband up to two or three times a week to say thanks – thanks for caring about her, for loving her and for being hard on her.
"When you think you're not getting through, you did," Reams said. "That she was able to tell us that after she was older, it's very rewarding to know that we've made some impact on her life."
The road to earning the respect and influencing a child's life in such a way is through rules, structure and consistency.
"Every day needs to be basically the same, and if its not, well I have a few kids that just couldn't handle that."
For example, every morning at 7 a.m., Chase and Mitchell wake up for school and take care of their business: brush their teeth, wash their face and hands, take their medicines. Ten minutes later, Jordan and Tristian wake up and go through the same routine. Ten minutes after that, Emily and Savannah go through their routine.
The kids are all at school or day care by 9 o'clock. By 4 p.m. all the kids are home from school and doing their homework. The family eats dinner anywhere from 5 to 6 p.m., and from then on the kids are allowed to play with electronics, like the Wii or watch a television show, until 7:30 p.m. At 8 o'clock, Jordan, Tristian, Emily and Savannah are in bed, and at 9 o'clock Chase and Mitchell are in bed.
Reams has her routines scheduled to the minute; otherwise, a few of her children could not handle a day without order. These children need to know that every day will be the same day as the next day so that they can begin to trust her and begin to heal, she says.
"There is hope for these children, and you just work the best you can with them and try to get them over their humps and their valleys and their mountains," Reams says.
Her children and her experience have taught her that foster care isn't all about love.
"If you think it is, then you're wrong," Reams says. "The love comes later."
And for Reams and her husband, one way that love comes is through the receiver of their phone every week when Heather calls simply to say, "thank you."