Sunday, October 14, 2007

How the Cookie Jar Began

I had never planned to become a foster parent. It was never an aspiration of mine. In fact, I became a foster parent purely by accident. At 21, I fell in love with my husband, who at the time ran a four bed therapeutic group home for teenage street kids.

At first he told me fantastic horror stories about the kids. What I didn't know was that it was a test-he wanted to know if I'd react like every other women he'd met and run for the nearest exit, vowing that I didn't want anything to do with any "instant family" of troubled teenagers.

I didn't flinch.

"Ya, well...SO?" I continued to sip my coffee, nonplussed. I didn't see what his point was. So some of them were into gangs, addicted to drugs, straight from jail or the street. They were still kids, weren't they? Besides, it wasn't like I was going to marry the guy. He was, after all, forty. That is SO old.

You can stop laughing now. It's really amazing what life throws at you, isn't it? I married him a year later.

Hubs wanted to make sure that I knew he was a package deal. His job was something I would have to be willing to live with, literally. The package included his then 17 year old daughter, too.

"Are you SURE you know what you're getting into?"

"Yes, of course!" was my reply-the reality was, I really didn't have a clue. I'd grown up in a small, sheltered town with two parents that are still married today. I never did experiment with drinking or drugs as a teen, and never was in trouble at school. In many ways I didn't have a clue how to even relate to these kids. How could I, a twenty something goody-goody church raised girl, make any sort of difference with a bunch of out of control street wise, tough teenage boys?

I sure wasn't going to be Mom. They had one. Big sister? I wasn't much older then they were. I somehow assumed that female role model of the house, but never really felt quite like the "Mom" figure I had suddenly become.

Suddenly, it dawned on me. I didn't have much (if anything) in common with the kids, but I did know one thing that was the key to a teenage boy's heart.


So, about 3 months after I moved in the house, I began to bake cookies. I grabbed a chocolate chunk cookie recipe from the back of a bag of chocolate chips, and one evening I whipped up a batch. The smell began to waft through the house, and before I knew it, my husband and all four kids were in the kitchen.

"Whatcha making?"
"You must've made a mix" (while looking for a package)
"I didn't know you could bake"
"Can I have one?"
"Oooo...what kind are they?"

The cookies were no sooner out of the oven when suddenly five pairs of hands pounced on them and retreated to the porch, where there was suddenly complete silence. I began to panic. Silence isn't good. Maybe the cookies are really, really bad. Well there goes my attempt at foster mom-hood.

"Everything okay out there?" I called hopefully.

"Can I have another one?"
"Why didn't you make these sooner?"
"Hey thanks, they are sooooooo good!"
"I didn't know you could bake!"

The next batch of cookies barely made it off the pan before they were snatched up as well. Hubs and the kids gorged themselves on cookies that night, laughing and licking the melted chocolate from their fingers.

From that moment on, I became the cookie baking Mom of the block. The kids knew that no matter what they did, they could depend on Hubs to provide a safe home and guidance, and me to bake them cookies. It became my way of showing them that I cared about them; by providing a bit of warmth and making our house a home away from their families. For ten years, I baked up a storm and over 80 kids, along with all our friends and family, gladly ate every single cookie.

After 10 years Hubs moved on to a different career and we no longer have foster teens living with us, but I didn't forget the power of the cookies. Finding myself suddenly working in a high school after almost 14 years of elementary aged kids, once again I was floundering.

There was a boy that some would consider difficult; he wouldn't often do what he was asked and it was a challenge just to get him to go to class, and then stay there for the entire period. One day we had a substitute. He took one look at her and made for the door, but I stepped in front of him and looked up at his big, hulking, teenager frame and look of "don't get in my way."

"If you can stay here, promise me you'll show up to class every day this week, on Friday I will bring you cookies," I declared. It was a gamble, really. I wasn't sure if this would work. To my surprise, he instantly perked up.

"Cookies?" His interest was piqued.

"Yes. I am the best cookie baker you will ever meet. Kids have been known to beg me for my cookies." Warily watching me, he sat back down and stayed the entire class.

Then showed up the next day. And the next. I kept my word and arrived with cookies for the entire class, but slipped him a few extra. So it went for the whole school year; the kids would come to class, and I'd bring them cookies now and then. In fact, I brought cookies to work just last week.

A small gesture to be sure, because in all honesty, they're just cookies. I don't really know why there's so much power behind such a small item. I've seen hulking teenage boys smile and become excited like they must have when they were small, hands hovering over the pile of sugary goodness unable to choose the perfect cookie. Some try to play it cool; no thanks, I'll just have one. Then they eat it and sheepishly come back to grab another. Once I brought a batch and a class was so full of teenage snark that I turned around and put them in the staff room instead. The next day a boy approached me with an apology, then looked up with huge blue eyes and asked tentatively,

"But...will you bring some on Monday?"

How could I possibly refuse?

Maybe I know the power behind that small morsel after all. It's not the cookies, really.

It's the love behind them.
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