Foster Mom Made Lasting Impression

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"Aunt June," the letter reads, "I was just sitting here thinking about you and how much you mean to me. I don't think I have ever really thanked you for all you've done for me. You were the one who was there and cared when no one else was.

"I can remember one night when I woke up crying because I was so lonely for my mom and you came in and put your arms around me and prayed. Just by doing that and telling me everything was okay made me feel better. Aunt June, there are so many little things like that I remember.

"I know that all the things I learned while I was with you will be with me the rest of my life, and I will never forget that you were the one that taught me.

"I love and miss you -- Stephanie."
Stephanie lived with "Aunt June" five years as a foster child. Her letter was written much later, when she was a teen-ager.

One of Bush's Thousand Points of Light

Her "aunt," June Pereira, spent 25 years in Antioch, Calif. as a professional foster mother to more than 350 children. She stopped fostering in 1992, when she moved to Payson to work with her brother, Dr. Larry Ward, at the charity organization he founded, World Aid.

Shortly after her arrival in Payson, Pereira received another letter -- this time, announcing her place among former president George Bush's Thousand Points of Light. The award came as a result of a nomination by members of World Aid.

In his letter congratulating Pereira on her Points of Light award, Bush said he was grateful for people like Pereira who put the needs of others first.

"Out nation is greatly indebted to those special individuals," he said, "who, like you, have generously accepted foster children into their homes and their hearts, meeting the needs of food, clothing and shelter and offering them affection, direction and -- most important, love."

Pereira got started in the foster care business after she noticed a friend in church arriving every Sunday with a new batch of kids. She asked about it and found they were staying with the woman temporarily, as foster children.

Pereira said for her, the initial attraction was the opportunity to care for newborns.

"The tiny ones were always my favorites," she said.

She started by taking only small children, but soon became a refuge for older ones as well.

During most of her time as a foster mother, Pereira was a single parent. She said her main reason for sticking with it even after her divorce was so she could stay at home and raise her own four kids.

She survived financially with a combination of child support from her ex-husband and the money she received for fostering. Moral support and an occasional food basket came from members of her church.

The first child to come into Pereira's care was baby Matthew, and she kept him for a month. A quarter of a century later, Pereira's son named his first child Matthew.

The foster children who came to live with Pereira called her "Aunt June" or "Mommy June." Most came from tragic family situations.

"I often got the ones that were beat up and, you know, all the other heartbreaks," she said. "It's the most satisfying to see a troubled child turn into a child with peace on his face -- to see that child become happy and satisfied. Most of the time it was hard to let go."

Because she felt such an attachment to the children, she continues to hold their memories close.

"I have a battered old four-drawer file which holds the records," she said. "To me, it's a treasure chest of memories, with pictures of each (child)."

Her picture albums show children of every ethnic group laughing, posing or smiling shyly for the camera. The pictures also show bruises, black eyes and plaster casts covering broken bones.

Pereira remembered each of her foster children as a sad story and a challenge.

The police had to break into a locked car to reach a 6-month-old baby before bringing her to Pereira.

One little girl shook when men were around, but was fine with women.

When Jenny, a small girl who lived with Pereira a short time, was moved to a different foster home, Pereira went to visit her and the girl had to be pried out of her arms. She was crying, asking, "Why did you leave me, Mommy?"

Another girl told her, "I hope my daddy hits me again so I can come back here and stay."

Three children from a Russian family were brought to Pereira because their mother couldn't deal with them. She moved out and left the kids alone, bringing groceries once a week and leaving them outside the door. The youngest, a girl, wasn't old enough to go with her brothers to school and stayed by herself during the day, waiting for the two older boys to come home.

When the father, who was serving in the military at the time, heard about this, he arranged to return home as soon as possible, but that still left a gap of time Pereira filled by fostering them.

"At the end of their time with me," Pereira said, "the oldest boy shook hands with me very adultly and said, 'When I heard we were coming to a foster home, I thought I'd be scared, but when I saw your face I knew you'd take care of us.'"

After years of seeing similar stories repeat themselves, Pereira said she's saddened at what she sees as the shortcomings of the foster care system.

"From the time I started getting them, I always said they should give the parents six months to show they can straighten up," Pereira said. "If not, they should get the kids into adoptive homes for a stable life. But they don't do that."

At night, every night, she sat with the children and told them bedtime stories. Then they prayed or were quiet together.

"I'd just let them talk. I'd never pry, but if they wanted to talk, then OK," Pereira said.

She's kept in contact with a few of the children. Some have sent just a single note, thanking her for her care many years later.

A note from a girl named Samantha said simply, "Auntie June, you have meant a lot to me. You were always there when I needed you."

In an essay written for school some time later, Samantha wrote, "It was in a little house crowded with love that I found a women who could show me that innocence was still a part of our world. She gave me the innocence of childhood and the love of God.

"I love her immensely. She makes me realize the innocence of a child is still sacred in this world of crime, war and hate. Children are unaware of these things and of right and wrong. She gently corrected my wrongs and made them into rights in a way a child would understand.

"June was, is, and will always be irreplaceable."

A Thankful Child's Poem
Who beams with joy when you've gotten good news?

Who praises your work with glowing reviews?

Who worries sick when you're 5 minutes late?

Who says you're thin when you feel overweight?

Who sees on your face each problem, each pain--

Who'll take abuse and come back again?
Who takes your side, be it wrong, be it right,

When life looks the darkest, who tries to give light?

Who's one-of-a-kind and kind like no other?

Who really loves you? No one like a foster mother.

-- written by an unidentified former foster child in June Pereira's care

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