For one Arbor Vitae family, it’s another summer vacation — camping in handmade forts in the backyard, jumping into the chilly lake, playing with the dogs, collecting firewood to make the perfect s’mores and an out-of-town trip or two.
Ray and Nancy Havlovick are parents, and their family is a full one, if not a traditional one.
Two of their children are foster children, and have been for more than a year now.
Adoptive parents of three special needs children — all who are grown now — Ray and Nancy became foster parents nearly 30 years ago living in Portage County as part of the adoption process.
They’ve been living in the Arbor Vitae area for nearly four years now, making a home for themselves, but also for others. Though mostly retired, the Havlovicks missed having kids around home.
“There was a need for foster families,” observed Nancy, who works at Minocqua-Hazelhurst-Lake Tomahawk Elementary as an instructional aide. “Our kids are all grown.”
The Havlovicks began fostering children, having had several for a number of years and now who currently have two young boys under the age 11.
“Foster kids are no longer in for three or four months. Now, it’s long term,” Nancy said.
“We do everything together as a family,” Ray said. “We take them on trips with us, we treat them just like they are ours.”
The foster children are raised just as their own children were, with respect, rules, chores, schoolwork and family focus, Nancy said. It’s all part of learning to succeed in school, as a teenager, young adult and ultimately in life beyond the scope of childhood.
“There’s the stigma, the vision of what people who are foster parents are. ‘They’re in it for the money,’ people say, or ‘You’re not family.’ That’s not true, we have to break the stigma of that,” Nancy said. “We want people to understand, not all homes are plentiful. There isn’t enough to go around. People who go into foster care have plenty, and we have enough to share. We want to share.”
Many children who enter foster care have had limited life experience or activities outside their home lives, the Havlovicks indicated.
“These kids are allowed to have the same experience as every other child,” Nancy said of fostering.
The Havlovicks work with the Vilas County Social Services staff, which aides in assistance and support, they said.
“The county offers a lot of support,” Nancy said. “You are not alone in this. Vilas County Social Services, the sheriff’s department, Indian Child Welfare … everyone is available 24/7. They are all very responsible to questions, problems, needs.”
There is state funding available to help send foster children to camps, sports, extracurricular activities or other lessons they may be interested in, said Kelly Grady-Pyne, Vilas County Social Service. The county also offers a foster closet — which is a multi-jurisdictional effort, including local organizations, to keep a pantry/closet stocked with items such as hygiene and school supplies as well as clothing and other kid-needs for all ages. Oneida County also has a similar program.
“The support of the community is important, and it’s there,” Nancy added.
One boy with the Havlovicks, for example, was able to attend Camp Jordan with funds from the community.
“That was really generous,” Nancy said, adding her foster son was able to learn lots of new skills, including horseback riding. “He had the time of his life. It was an experience he never would have had otherwise.”
Both counties, as well as many nationwide, struggle to find enough foster families for child placement. Thus, counties are often in the red for out-of-home placements and kids are put in homes far away from their families, friends and schools.
Counties such as Vilas and Oneida and Lincoln also have foster family groups — where they can gather at events all together, or go online and talk with each other about challenges or ideas.
“Our community as a whole has been very responsible to that,” said Nancy. “Know there’s a lot of support.”
A local volunteer group also offers help for foster families by cooking meals, mowing lawn or basic cleaning.
Another stigma the Havlovicks would like to break is that of the children who enter foster care.
“These are lovely, intelligent, beautiful children,” Nancy observed. “There is the stigma they are tainted … they are not. They are kind, gentle, curious and share.”
Ray noted their home has an open door policy for family members to phone and visit the boys. Other foster families prefer appointments or a more structured process for such visitations — all which depend upon each family and foster child’s unique situation. Social services works with everyone to find the right fit.
“We pick up where the parents couldn’t,” Ray said of fostering. “We don’t want foster kids to feel apart because they are foster kids. They are entitled to what everyone has, and to feel like everyone.”
The foster children all have chores where they have the chance to earn and save allowances. The chores also teach them basic life skills, such as basic cooking, cleaning, laundry and other methods to prepare them for life.
“We show the boys what to do, and they learn and then they feel good about that,” Ray said. “With me helping (one child) has learned boater safety, driving a boat, how to use an electric chainsaw, all with me right at his side teaching him. He loves it all. He never was able to do anything like that before in his life.”
Being a foster family is often about the simplest of things, the Arbor Vitae group noted.
“Just eating together at the dinner table,” Nancy said. “Sitting around and talking with each other about their days, making their own sandwiches. Playing with the dogs, camping in the yard.”
No matter the challenges or the steps, foster parenting has been highly rewarding Nancy and Ray agreed.
“We are their soft place to land,” Nancy said. “To see all their ages, all their developmental stages. A new thinking process, a new stage of life.”
“They are excited about the world,” Ray added. “We take that for granted … (becoming a foster family) is a way to have children for those who can’t have any kids of their own.”
Nancy agreed with her husband.
“If you ever have the need to nurture, there’s a lot of ways for that in fostering,” she said.
“There’s all kinds of ways to have a family,” Ray observed.
For more information on how to become a foster family in Vilas County, contact social services at 715-479-3668.