A pair of foster parents bring kids into their ohana, sharing love and the Christmas spirit with them
POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Dec 23, 2012
The children ask the same question every Christmas, especially if they've just arrived at Kau‘i Keola's foster home in Halawa Heights: "How will Santa find me?"
Keola knows exactly what to do to make them smile.
She'll point to Christmas stockings hanging in a hallway — one for every member of her family, including the foster children she has cared for over a dozen years. Each stocking has a name on it, a simple, homemade monogram of glitter and glue.
"There is one for you, so Santa will see your stocking and know that you are here," Keola will say.
Sometimes the children need more reassurance, so she shows them her collection of photographs.
There are 18 photos at the moment, each with a tiny felt Christmas stocking taped to the frame. But Keola has a lot more. She's cared for 28 foster children since she started counting in 2009.
"I tell them, ‘You see all these children here? They used to live with us, too. And they had stockings and Santa came for them, too.'"
It's not surprising to anyone who has met Keola or her family. They are the spirit of Christmas.
Keola, a 50-year-old former public school teacher, and her husband, Rocco, a 53-year-old refuse worker for the city, care for children whose lives have been turned upside down.
The state's Department of Human Services sends the couple the youngest of its foster children — infants, some barely a day old, and toddlers no older than 3 — as part of its Project First Care program, which provides emergency placement for children in crisis.
FOSTER FAMILY INFO
>> The state Department of Human Services is always in need of foster parents. Call Partners in Development Foundation at 441-1117 or visit www.pidf.org.
>> An information session for those interested in learning more about becoming foster parents will be held at 6 p.m. Jan. 15 at Aiea Public Library.
The hope is that families can be reunified within a couple of months, but if not, the children go to other foster homes in the system, Keola said.
At Keola's home, children often arrive in the middle of the night, confused and anxious about their situation. But if they arrive during the holidays, the unfamiliar surroundings can leave them even more unsettled.
They see what they don't have, Keola said. They see other people receiving presents and families coming to visit. They ask whether they will have to move again or can stay.
One boy used to ask Keola whether he was going to be a foster child forever. He was 5.
But in the Keola house, the children receive the best gift of all: the Keolas.
"It's traumatic to be pulled away from your family," Keola said. "You feel a sense of loss. We want them to feel a part of us. Whatever we do, they do."
THE KEOLAS start by turning their house into a giant Christmas display.
Kau‘i Keola collects Nativity sets — at last count 70 of them — and they are placed in every room of the house, even bathrooms. Every bedroom has a small Christmas tree, she said. There are Santa decorations everywhere; last year there were 54.
And there are tree ornaments for every foster child who was there at Christmas. When the Keolas first started caring for children, they were home to pregnant teenagers, and some of the girls' babies are remembered with ornaments in the shape of silver bells.
"Once we have that ornament, we have it on the tree even if the child is gone," Keola said. "For us it is special because as you bring the ornaments out, you go back to all the memories. It takes you back to the person, and you relive the moments. It's a happy thing."
Another reminder hangs on a wall near the home's main hallway. That's where family photos of Kau‘i and Rocco are taken down and replaced with a string of gingerbread-man ornaments, each one bearing a foster child's name. The ornament at the top reads, "Keiki Hanai."
The Keolas bring their own large family to the mix.
They have three daughters, all grown, the oldest a 27-year-old nurse with three children of her own. They also adopted three of their foster children — a 9-year-old boy and a 4-year-old girl and her 2-year-old brother.
It's definitely a full house, but Rocco Keola, who grew up in a family with five children, wouldn't have it any other way. The foster children add to his life, he said.
"It's a little overwhelming," said Rocco, whose nickname among the children is "Big Dad." "You just watch them grow up. It's fun to be around them."
And the children heal emotionally.
"The kids get better," he said. "They get well … out of the trauma. We can make them grow. They can grow up without getting hurt by their families."
CHRISTMAS mornings are always the best day of the year. Kau‘i Keola said she won't be able to see the floor of her living room because of all the presents, some of which will come from her siblings, who view the foster children as their own.
Typically, a lot of squealing takes over the home. The children love Christmas.
"It's fun," Keola said. "Anyone else would think it's chaos."
But every foster stay comes to an end, the hardest moment for Keola.
"It is hard to say goodbye, but I know they are moving on to something better," she said. "I am only supposed to be a part of their life for a short time."
Keola tells the children who are old enough to understand that no matter where they go, they will always be a part of her family. She tells them she will always love them.
"People ask me, ‘Why do you foster? Isn't it hard?' I say, ‘No, it's so enjoyable and so rewarding.' You get to meet these children and let them become a part of our life, and hopefully we become a part of theirs."
Still, she will never see most of them again.
"I think about these children every day," Keola said. "They're in my hallway. Sometimes I touch their pictures. I always wonder how they are doing."