"The greatest gift [my parents] ever gave me, other than introducing me to God, was to be a part of a foster family."
People considering foster care often worry about how their biological children will be affected by having other children come in and out of their lives. Clayton Keenon’s story will help put many of those fears to rest. His parents fostered more than 350 teen girls over 35 years—virtually all his life. He knows he’s a better person for it.
Growing up in a fostering family
Clayton knew no other life than to be in a fostering family. His parents always had a heart for teen girls who were in rough situations, so when Clayton was 9 months old, they said yes to becoming foster parents. They thought they would get one girl, but ended up getting three for their first placement. It was a big jump, going from having only a nine-month-old boy to adding three teen girls, but they stuck with it for almost 35 years. More than 350 teen girls came through Clayton’s home—often 5 or 6 at a time.
Clayton’s parents had two more biological children—both girls, and they adopted some of the girls from foster care, so he has a total of eleven sisters! They lived in a big house that was packed with people, including his grandmother and a dog (also female!)—so it was a pretty unique situation. “I learned how to French braid and do double Dutch, but I can’t throw a football,” he laughs.
Realizing his family was different
Clayton realized his family was not the norm in third grade when he stayed at his friend, Pete’s house. Pete’s family included his parents, a brother and a sister—but Clayton wondered where everyone else was (not to mention the fact that his friend had a brother!). He remembers finally coming to the realization that Pete’s family wasn’t like his family at all and asking “You mean to tell me that the government doesn’t send you a new sister every month? That’s so weird!” He came to understand that it was his own family that was unique.
The impact of foster care on biological children
Since he grew up with foster care, the fact that people came in and out of his family’s home didn’t really faze him, especially since some were short-term. A couple of his younger sisters did get attached and it was harder for them when one of the girls would leave. There were foster sisters he missed when they left, but it was part of their family life. And often, if they left after several years, it was either because things had gotten better at home or they had graduated and were moving on to other things. Learning to say goodbye, yet still be open to the next one, was definitely something that became an acquired skill.
Clayton’s parents were really good about making sure their biological and adopted children felt secure in their family. They communicated their love through normal routines such as tucking them in at night and praying for them—all those rituals that remind kids they’re loved. Another thing they did was to take all the “permanent” children in the family on a vacation, a special time set aside for them to be a family. There were other vacations that everyone in the home at the time would go on, but his parents made sure to provide a certain portion of time for the long-term family to be together.
Clayton appreciates his parents’ perspective on welcoming people into their home. “They always said that if we have a loving family that cares about each other and is healthy, we want to share that with others.” That’s why they could welcome people into their home, as well as the reason behind taking time to strengthen the bonds of their own family.
At one point when Clayton and several of his sisters were teens, his parents considered stopping fostering. But the kids talked them into keep doing it. “It was a family calling, not just our parents’ calling,” he says. His perspective on growing up in a fostering family is that it was simply what their family did. “When it’s the world you know, it’s not hard—that’s just how it was.”
Of course, as the children grew older, the dynamics changed between the biological and adopted kids and the incoming teens in care. It was a little more challenging to be in junior high school and be the same age as a foster sister, Clayton admits. His parents had a policy that if adoption became an option, everyone in the family would get to share their voice, with a vote. There was one time Clayton actually voted no—that was when and his (soon to be adopted) sister were both in 8th grade. It was a little more awkward to be peers—especially since their family is very ethnically diverse. They often were asked if they were a youth group or after school program. Even though he voted against that sister becoming adopted, she was; and he’s very happy to have her as a sister now!
Years later: The impact of foster care
As an adult, Clayton is very aware of how his family’s story and dedication to helping teen girls for so many years has affected his life. “I’m so thankful that we were a foster family, and not because it was easy,” he says. He believes he would be less open and more selfish had he not had these experiences. “We lived a whole lifestyle of being open and recognizing others’ needs. Again, it was the whole idea of if you’ve been given a family, it’s not just for you. It’s to share with others who need a home.”
Additionally, Clayton, who is now a teaching pastor, believes it’s hard for him to be shocked by the situation someone is going through. Just about anything anyone could be going through has been something his extended foster family has faced . “We had a safe home, but our eyes were open to what goes on in the world.”
Because of his background and experience with foster care, Clayton knows that many in the foster care community feel invisible in the church—not because of anything specific the church does, but just because foster families or kids in care don’t feel seen or feel out of place. He remembers that his foster sisters often felt that way. He recognizes the struggles that foster families in the church face, and wants to give people hope. “I want to see them and have compassion and give people hope that their story isn’t done. I know for sure there is hope—their stories don’t end with the hard, tragic part. There’s more.”
Thanking his parents
When asked to say something to his parents about the ministry they had and the compassion they showed to so many over the years, Clayton says, “You were so courageous to do something that felt risky and hard because you had compassion for people and valued them—and stuck with it for years, even when it got hard.”
His closing thoughts on foster care are powerful:
“It’s the greatest gift they every gave me, other than introducing me to God, to be a part of a foster family.”
Hopefully, this episode has helped you right where you are on your foster care journey. That’s the goal. If you enjoyed it, will you tell others?
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Meet Our Guest
Clayton is a teaching pastor at Christ Community Church in St. Charles, Illinois. He has 11 sisters: two younger biological sisters, an older half-sister and eight sisters who were adopted through foster care. He has a unique perspective on what it feels like to be a biological child in a foster and adoptive family—he describes it as “one of the defining experiences of my life.” He is married to his high school sweetheart, Michelle, and they have three young children: two girls and a boy.
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