Foster parents share vision for community childcare
POLSON — When pundits argue about protecting the world’s natural resources, pros and cons of cost and environmental damage are usually weighed.
Dennis and Susen Villegas of Polson are concerned society has overlooked one of its greatest assets.
“Our greatest natural resource: they say it’s oil or diamonds or gold,” Dennis Villegas said. “But really it’s our children.”
The couple’s lives currently revolve around children – caring for their biological and adopted ones, fostering others, and working as house parents at the Second Circle Lodge in Ronan. They also run cleaning and vitamin businesses. It’s normal to think the pair is superhuman in a country where 9-to-5 jobs and 2.5 kids are average.
“I would always be in awe of (foster parents), thinking ‘what kind of people do that? Those aren’t their kids,’” Susen Villegas said about families that used to leave the daycare center she worked for. “I never thought I would be one of them.”
Eight years ago a child came into the center that changed the Villegas’s lives forever. He was a four-year-old boy that Susen grew attached to.
“I’m told I held him more than the other children,” Susen said. “Everyone knew it before I did. There was just something about him.”
The child needed to be taken into foster care because of an emergency situation, so the Villegas house was certified quickly, and Susen made a call to Dennis.
“I told him I was brining someone else home with me,” she said. “We ran and grabbed him a car seat and started this lifelong love affair. Doors opened. Suddenly, that’s what we did.”
Since that day, the Villegas family has fostered more than 20 children. The kids have arrived at odd hours and in varying states of physical and mental wellbeing. One baby was fed through a tube in its stomach by Susen. Other toddlers learned how to walk and eat with utensils in the Villegas’s care. Some had nightmares about abuse they’ve experienced in the past.
“You name every ugly thing out there, we’ve had to deal with it,” Dennis said.
Abuse and neglect come with special needs for each child. Sometimes having an animal to play with or a poem to write helps the child feel better. Other times, working through emotional turmoil is more difficult. A child might become angry and lash out because a holiday reminds them of a bad life event.
“We have to realize it’s not directed at us, it’s something else in the past that’s causing that behavior,” Susen said.
The Villegas’s learned they have to be patient with parents, also.
“You have to embrace what is needed for families,” Susen said. “So many times parents need to know they aren’t being judged … We want to be positive mentors, not invaders taking something away.”
It’s easy to grow attached to the foster children and it’s difficult to let them go when they are reunited with their families, the couple said.
“Even though our hearts break when they leave, we still do it,” Dennis said.
A few of the foster children have become permanent members of the Villegas family. They adopted three children, and are in the process of adopting a fourth. Dennis and Susen have six biological children, along with and nieces and nephews they’ve also raised.
Susen said her children welcome additions to the family with open arms and immediately begin thinking of ways to make arrangements in their five-bedroom house for newcomers. She was a bit curious to see how their youngest daughter would react to the adoption currently under way.
“She was excited about it,” Susen said. “She ran in and said ‘Mom, we get to keep him?’ She was happy.”
But the Villegas’s know that for every child they are able to care for, there are dozens out there that don’t have a loving family.
Susen and Dennis take turns working shifts at the Second Circle Lodge in Ronan, which is a 12-bed tribal-owned group home for children ages nine and older that may have been abused, neglected, caught in the middle of family conflict or other circumstances.
The work at Second Circle Lodge, along with responsibilities of raising their own family and working, limits that amount of time the couple can spend together, but they both believe it is worth it.
For Dennis, the desire to help children stems from his own experience growing up in Mission and Arlee.
“It took a village to raise a child,” Dennis said. “Men taught me how to hunt and fish. There were times teachers made sure I had a couch to sleep on.”
When Dennis walked out on the football field in high school on parent’s night, it wasn’t his own family that escorted him. It was numerous other adults that had played a role in raising him.
He said the concept of collectively raising children is a facet of Native American culture, but many children on the Flathead Reservation need care.
According to the Montana Department for Health and Human Services, approximately 2,200 children enter the state’s foster care system each year. Data from a 2009 study indicates 39 percent of the children in the state’s foster care system were Native American. Fifty-five percent were white. There were 831 licensed foster homes in that same year. Less than half of the children placed in foster care in Montana in 2009 were reunited with their families.
“People talk about adopting from overseas, but there are kids who need us in our own backyard,” Dennis said.
The Villegas’s dream of one day being able to build a group home in Mission Valley. Dennis said authorities have told him they could fill the home “in a heartbeat,” but just like the village it took to raise him, it’s going to take the community’s help to make the dream a reality.
“I’ve said I will put up the deed to my house,” Dennis said. He hopes to find contractors, carpenters, and donors that feel the same way so the group home can be built.
“We hope there are people out there who share our vision where all children are loved and taken care of,” Dennis said. “Children are our greatest natural resource.”