The Pursuit of Bravery: Reflections from group foster care, and an interview with Deborah Garrison

Author: John Lucas Kovasckitz with Deborah Garrison

 

During our engagement and the first year of our marriage, Danielle and I worked at a home for teens who had been victims of sexual abuse. We worked the night shift in separate cottages - seven at night to seven in the morning. Before that job, I had never pulled an all-nighter. 

A few of the teens we worked with had been trafficked, most had been raped or criminally abused or neglected, and all had experienced significant trauma. Most had subsequently bounced around repeatedly within the system - for many it was their fifteenth, thirtieth, fiftieth placement. Some, for good reason, had completely given up. I called the police a lot. Once, accidentally at four in the morning while playing music in the laundry room. The dispatcher thanked me for the concert.

Danielle and I became incredibly tired...physically, emotionally, spiritually. We quit our jobs and traveled the country, believing that once we found our next home our lives would look completely different. As it turned out, we eventually felt peace about applying for The Crossnore School - also in group foster care, a stone's throw away from our last job - and moved back to the same small mountain town we had left behind. Life is funny that way sometimes. 

For the past two years, Danielle and I have poured ourselves into the work. As young twenty-somethings, we raised up to ten children at a time - our youngest a ten month old baby to our oldest at eighteen...and every cottage has a dog. It was messy, frustrating, joyful, heartbreaking, and beautiful all at once - as life often is.

As an illustration, I remember part of the cottage (including Danielle) was knocked off their feet with a stomach bug. In the same five minutes, I was cleaning up vomit, breaking up an argument, changing a diaper, and scrambling to help with a nose bleed. I remember thinking vividly, this is the most horrible day, but I wouldn't want to be anywhere else

At Crossnore I have seen Danielle's heart grow and ache for justice - sometimes even for a glimmer of hope. Because some days our best efforts seem utterly useless within a broken system and a broken world...a world where babies grow up with drugs in their cribs, when young girls have bruises on their bodies, in a world of seemingly endless cycles of abuse, and at many times we have held helpless frustration with "the system" of overworked social workers, DSS, dismissive judges, and the world's solutions for justice amidst brokenness. 

And this is just a few counties. In America, the land of the free...holding liberty and justice for all.

Through the great overflow of pain and beauty came "Bruises", which ends:

For I have wept for bruises
On the backs of those too young
But I cling to the Father
Who calls us all His own

May your heart never grow hard
May your eyes always see beauty
Though you sometimes need to weep
Though you sometimes need to fight
May joy come in the morning
May darkness find the light

And may you never give up, may you never give up
May you never give up on love

This is what I wish to be the anthem of my life: that despite whatever darkness we experience, love is stronger...that wherever there is love there is hope.

Someone who has walked this out with her life better than almost anyone I have met is Deborah Garrison. Ms. Deborah was a cottage parent for over seventeen years - fourteen at Crossnore - and was our next door neighbor for most of our time at Crossnore. Deborah recently accepted a position on campus as a case manager, and also serves as a GAL (Guardian ad Litem - a volunteer appointed to advocate for abused or neglected children in court). 

Ms. Deborah is a Mama Bear. She's fierce. You don't mess with her, and you certainly don't mess with her kids. But talk to her for five minutes, or read her interview below, and you'll see why I believe Deborah to be one of the great Mothers of our generation. She emanates love.

Deborah has helped to raise hundreds of children throughout her years as a cottage parent. I've known her as a mother and a grandmother, and I've seen the proud pictures of her grandkids - she's Nana and her husband Mike is PopPop. I had assumed this family was biological, but to further show the heart and character of Deborah, she writes: "The kids who I call my kids (and are my kids) all aged out of the system, left Crossnore, yet adopted me as their Mother...the two of them that had children have adopted me as the grandmother to their children...nothing legal on earth [laughs]. We are the family that God put together. I stopped telling people that they weren't biologically mine because to me or Mike there is no difference. They are our children and grandchildren."

When Danielle and I were first getting to know Ms. Deborah, I asked her how long she had been a cottage parent. She replied: "Fifteen years, and I'll be here when you leave." It wasn't spoken out of ill-will, meanness, or conceit. It was fact. As if to say: this is what I have put my hand to; this is my life's work.

And she was right. After two years, Danielle and I are moving on from our roles as cottage parents. After traveling, we plan to come back to the general area, at least for awhile. We would like to volunteer with Crossnore if we can, but are not planning to re-enter direct care...although because of what we have seen an experienced, we do deeply feel the eventual calling to foster and adopt. Some days this prospect is scarier than others. 

I have great respect and admiration for those like Ms. Deborah, who have poured themselves into selfless work requiring so much for such a great length of time. As a cottage parent, you essentially move every week. Change is promised - kids are in and out, and goodbyes can be wrecking. There are several children that we have helped to raise for a short period of time that we would have dropped everything to adopt, had we been given the legal opportunity. Our two years is the general life span for cottage parents. I can't imagine this cycle seven or eight times over. 

I have not known Ms. Deborah for much of the span of her life, but I believe that the darkness she has encountered has only made her more aware of the light within. And that is where bravery grows and thrives. 

Ms. Deborah is a collector of stories, and she holds a lot from over the years. Most of the stories she keeps are told either with laughter, or with tears and a hand over her heart. It's an honor to share a bit of hers. 

 

Can you give a basic timeline of your life up to this point?

 

Deborah: People always ask me where I am from, but that isn’t such an easy question for me to answer. I have never really lived in any one place for more than three years (if that) my entire life. I have moved and lived in at least 18 different places and houses in my life. My family struggled living below the poverty line, but that is not what I remember. I remember giving what we had to others who were in even greater need. My Mom and Dad would take care of so many kids and people all around us. I learned that many times the needs of people can be met not with money or material things, but with kind gestures, encouraging words, listening ears, hugs, tears, and a simple prayer. I learned that you treat others how you want to be treated (how God wants you to treat them)...not the way you think they deserve because of how they treat you or how they act.


Many times I would watch both my Mom and Dad give of themselves and their hearts to those who stabbed them in the back or treated them without respect or regard. However, they never retaliated or had ill will or wishes. They put into practice what Jesus teaches about turning the other cheek. It means to not just ignore or pretend it didn’t happen when someone treats you wrong...it’s acknowledging the wrong, and treating the person not just with love, but out of love. Never expect the person to change or have a positive reaction to that love either. I watched many times people react with even worse bitterness or malice...in which they would still be treated with kindness and love.

My Mom used to be called “Mother Goose” because kids of all ages would flock to her and surround her. We would always take these walks around the neighborhoods which would start with just her and the four of us girls. By the end, there would be a whole crowd of kids following laughing and playing. They didn’t follow her because of any other reason than she would listen to them and show genuine care for them. At night, our family would kneel next to the couch and my Dad would lead us in our prayers together...praying for missionaries, our neighbors, loved ones, and those who we felt just needed prayer. I could go into further details of exact events and transitions, but everything in my life goes back to the fundamentals that I learned from my loving and amazing parents.

 

In a profession with high turnover rates and burnout, what were some of your motivations to keep with it as a Cottage Parent...day by day, week by week?

 

Deborah: I don’t mean to sound cliché...but God. There were hundreds of times I wanted to leave, lost my temper, got tired of being treated disrespectfully by the very people who I was trying to help...I received disrespect from coworkers, and witnessed injustice in “the system”, etc. But at the end of the day, I would ask for God’s will and He would always tell me to keep teaching about His love to these kids. So when I got/get caught up in those moments that make me feel like I can’t go on I remember...in my lowest time, in my worst time, in my most defiant time...God is always there with His love. And when my eyes look at Him all of my emotions, weariness, and hopelessness melts away and I feel His love and strength. Every day I quote at least once one of my two favorite simple hymns... “Lord I need thee, Lord I need thee. Every hour I need thee” and/or “Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in His wonderful face...and the things of earth will grow strangely dim...in the light of His Glory and Grace.”

 

Can you share a couple of your favorite stories or moments throughout the years?

 

Deborah: The stories...oh the stories! I can tell stories all day long [laughs]. But my favorite moments aren't necessarily a story...it's seeing the face of a child who is seeing the ocean for the first time. The witnessing of tears of fear and sorrow when a child first arrives in my care turn to tears from laughter and joy when they learn they are safe and loved. The screams of joy riding the Tower of Terror at Disney World and realizing it’s not just their joyful scream, but mine as well. “I love you, Ms. Deborah” heard thousands of times over the years. The joy of watching a child who never thought they could graduate high school walk across the stage to get their diploma. Walking around in Walmart only to hear my name, and look to see a smiling face greeting me and I'll listen as they tell me of their spouses, children, and hearing them thank me for loving them when they felt they were unlovable…

I will tell one story that may sound simple, but to me is a testament to how blessings happen out of a simple act. Years ago, I was working in a cottage who was mostly younger children and just a few teen girls. That week a teen girl had come to live in the cottage. She was very withdrawn and did not talk much, and my heart just broke for her because of all the trauma and the neglect she had gone through. I woke up on Saturday and got ready to fix breakfast before everyone woke up. I decided I would make blueberry muffins from scratch and started my task. As the muffins cooked in the oven, little heads started poking out of doors and wandered in to see what was for breakfast. The new girl came out eventually, and I offered her a muffin with a smile. She looked at me and then stared at the plate of muffins without a word. I set it down on the counter thinking she didn’t want any and was a little heartbroken because I just wanted to make her feel loved.

She sat at the counter and picked up a muffin and took a bite. She then looked at me and tears filled her eyes. She went running back to her room and I could hear her crying. I went back to check on her, and she turned around and grabbed me in a hug hold and just cried and cried. I just hugged her back. After a minute or so, she thanked me for the muffins. I sort of laughed and told her she was welcome. She told me I didn’t understand how much they meant, and proceeded to tell me that when she and her younger brother were little they had a toy oven. She said that everyone in their house did drugs and many times they would have to cook or make food for themselves. She said many times there was not food. So she would pretend to make blueberry muffins for her and her brother in their toy oven and they would pretend to eat them. She said that she knew that God had a plan for her at Crossnore because only He knew that her prayer as a child was that one day she could eat blueberry muffins for real. I made blueberry muffins for her every single Saturday morning [laughs]. To this day, every time I see a muffin I think of her and remember that even the simplest of tasks can bring a blessing to someone.

 

Transitioning from direct care to your roles as a GAL and Case Manager, what will you miss, and what excites you about the future?

 

Deborah: I will miss tucking the kids in bed and praying with them, watching them play and hearing their laughter, fixing skinned up knees and kissing booboos, hugs in the mornings, after school (and well...any other time), helping a child fall back to sleep after they have woken up from a nightmare, I will miss everything [laughs]. My role as a GAL however brings its own excitement too...I get to be a more direct advocate between “the system” and the child, be more vocal about a child’s rights, supporting social workers so that they can in turn provide better services for their children, and I love taking part in court for my GAL cases to give my advice and insight to the judge.

 

As an [adopted] mother and grandmother, and a caretaker in a motherly role for hundreds of children throughout the years, what do you hope to have passed - and to continue to pass - on to the next generation through your life?

 

Deborah: That the conditions of the world don’t reflect a lack of love from our Father...it’s Him who we need look to in order to find hope and strength. I also want them to learn from me what my parents taught me - like I said in the first question...to give love even when others don’t give love to you. That is the ultimate example to me of the love that our Father has for us.

 

Deborah with husband, Mike. 

Deborah with husband, Mike. 

 

How to get involved: 

For those at least fairly local to the NC mountains, one of the most impactful ways to invest in a child's life at Crossnore is to become a Visiting Resource. These volunteers commit to visits (usually weekly Sunday visits), and after trust is established can take the child off campus. Focused time with a caring adult outside of the facility can be immensely beneficial for a child or teen. If you would like to consider starting the process to become a Visiting Resource for a child or sibling group at The Crossnore School, contact:
Courtney Lane, Annual Giving and Outreach Coordinator
(828) 733-4305
clane@crossnore.org

For more information on the North Carolina Guardian ad Litem program (your own respective state should also have its own program):
https://volunteerforgal.org

For more information on adoption or foster care within your own home, contact your local DSS agency, or at Crossnore:
Gretchen Goers
Foster Care Supervisor and Licensing Specialist
(828) 733-4305
ggoers@crossnore.org

For more information on The Crossnore School and Children's Home:
https://www.crossnore.org