For educator Rebecca Atkins, the children she teaches are not always just her students; sometimes, they become her family.
Atkins, who lives here in New London, made the decision to become a foster parent in 2017 after seeing many students of hers who were in and out of the foster system. At the time, Atkins and her husband were still engaged and deep in the process of planning their wedding, but that didn’t stop them from doing what their hearts told them was right. “My husband and I both met so many children that were in and out of foster care, or even homeless, and knowing that we had an extra room in our house and space in our hearts we decided to take the plunge and start the licensing process,” said Atkins.
Growing up in Groton, Atkins, 30, had friends from many different family backgrounds. The Fitch High School graduate says that the diverse environment she grew up in left a lasting impact on her, and that “you don’t forget where you came from.” She saw friends impacted by the foster care system and though her family had their own unique challenges, she always felt lucky that she didn’t have to endure what she saw some of her peers going through. With that in mind, she says you have to “just go for it… There is never a perfect time to help others or make a lifestyle change. If you can help and if you have a little extra room in your heart, just do it.”
In August of 2017, they started taking the required classes to become licensed, which are four hours every week for 12 weeks, and became licensed in January of 2018. They took on their first foster children, a group of three siblings, aged 7, 9 and 11, just two weeks after their spring 2018 wedding.
Though the classes they took prepared them in some ways, it was still a major change. “Going from a household of two to five was very different for us, but so rewarding,” said Atkins. Other aspects of being a foster parent, like transitioning children out of their home, were harder to prepare for. Atkins and her husband are huge proponents of the reunification of families, “We really wanted to be a support system and caregivers to help not just the kids, but their families, until they can be together again.”
Their commitment to helping families come back together leads to one of the hardest emotional aspects of being a foster parent - the heartache that comes from saying goodbye to the children they have opened their home and hearts to. “Transitioning children out of the home is probably the hardest and most heartbreaking part because you bond with the children and you take care of them like they're your own, but we have to remember it is only temporary,” said Atkins, “I will also never forget an interaction my foster daughter had with her father at one of our group meetings. He held her face in front of his and they both just wept. It was in that moment that I knew being a fill-in parent was what I was meant to be, and that I wanted so badly to help this family get back together.”
Currently, Atkins and her husband have a teenage foster son in their home. He is a student at New London High School, and has been a part of their family since October of 2018. Originally a student in the Ledyard Public School system, they knew him before he became their foster son, and were able to make a request for a special study to allow him to be placed with them. Upon seeing him interact with Atkins, their bond is clear.
Despite the good that she is doing, she has still been met with judgement by some who question her choice to be a foster parent, and think it is “weird” that she is fostering children she already knows. “People, particularly other women, were always completely shocked when I said I didn't plan to have my own children,” said Atkins. “I think there is a lot of pressure put on women to be a cookie cutter version of what society says we should be. I've always sort of beat to my own drum and done what I've thought was best for me.”
Atkins, who holds two masters degrees - one in Human Resource Management and one in Teaching - considers herself a lifelong student - she is currently furthering her education with coursework in Applied Behavior Analysis. She also enjoys singing and has performed with a few local bands at venues like the Wolf Den and Ocean House. She says she is very close with her family, and credits her mother for helping her to become who she is today.
Brenda’s Note: This profile is part of my “Small City, GREAT Women” Photo Project, which celebrates the women of New London, CT who are doing great things. If you know a woman who would be a good fit for the project, NOMINATE HER HERE.