Sitting on a brown leather couch beside a cobblestone fireplace Friday, Karen Lundahl hoisted her 1-year-old great granddaughter Emersyn Bahre above her head. The toddler squealed with glee as her sister, 7-year-old Kinsley Bahre, tickled her tummy.
On the opposite side of the couch, Karen Lundahl’s son Hunter Lundahl, 16, watched the commotion with a wry smile, that too familiar teenage expression that belies a deep yearning to join the fun despite adamant refusals.
The Bahre children’s mother, Honey, sat crossed legged on the hardwood floor at Karen’s feet and talked about driving from Arizona to Laramie for Thanksgiving Day.
A similar scene was likely playing out in thousands of households across Wyoming, but where others gathered in a sense of duty to family, the Lundahls and Bahres gathered in a sense of duty to humanity.
Barely a drop of blood passed between those present in Karen Lundahl’s living room.
Honey Bahre was the daughter of one of Karen Lundahl’s 11 adopted children. While Kinsley Bahre was born into the Bahre family biologically, Emersyn Bahre was adopted from foster care, much like Honey Bahre’s mother.
The Bahre’s teenaged great uncle, Hunter Lundahl, was also adopted from foster care.
Their lineage might not have shared roots, their ancestors might have hailed from different parts of the world, the holiday traditions they were raised with might have varied wildly, but they gathered together — no less a family.
In recent years, the need for foster families has grown, said Briana Montoya, an Albany County foster care coordinator for the Wyoming Department of Family Services.
“On average, we have between 20-25 kids in the program, and currently, we have 25 foster homes in Albany County,” Montoya said.
Karen Lundahl said when she enrolled with the Albany County foster care program in 1995, there were only 5 foster homes.
Despite the exponential growth of family enrollment, Montoya said recruitment was still a struggle, and the need for foster homes could soon multiply.
“There’s new (federal) legislation that was passed (in February) known as the Family First Prevention Services Act,” Montoya said. “One of the key pieces to that legislation is we are moving kids out of congregate care.”
Group homes, residential care facilities and psychiatric facilities are referred to as congregate care, she said. The Family First act would prioritize placing children in foster homes rather than congregate facilities, Montoya explained; thus, increasing the demand for foster families.
Wyoming Department of Family Services State Foster Care Program Manager Tom Kennah said the legislation was delayed in Wyoming, but could go into effect as soon as summer 2019.
Aside from the future need created by the Family First act, Montoya said the holidays are also a difficult time for the foster care program.
“We see a rise in kids that come into care around the holidays,” she said. “In general, holidays are a hard time for (foster) children. Coming into foster care can be traumatic, especially when everything you see and hear is about how holidays are for families. It’s easy to feel left out.”
A difficult time
Karen Lundahl was introduced to the foster care program through her grandparents, and after having two biological children, she and her husband enrolled as a foster family more than two decades ago.
“Holidays are difficult,” Karen Lundahl said. “The one thing we try to tell (our foster kids) is we are an addition to their family. We’re not trying to take their family out of the picture.”
Some families have stalwart Thanksgiving Day traditions — turkey and cranberry sauce or ham and green bean casserole followed by football on TV — but she said being a foster family meant they had to be flexible so everyone could feel included.
“One year, one of our kids made tamales, because they reminded her of Thanksgiving with her grandma,” Karen Lundahl said.
Another challenge can be too many gifts under the Christmas tree.
“Some kids come from poverty stricken families where they don’t get a lot of presents,” Karen Lundahl explained. “So putting too many under there can make them uncomfortable.”
Then, there’s integrating biological children with foster children.
“I think sometimes it’s hard to share your parents,” she said. “It was hard at times, but we taught (our biological kids) to understand everyone needs some one, and we were who these kids had at the moment.”
Despite the challenges, Karen Lundahl and Montoya said the holidays can be one of the most rewarding times to be a foster family.
“We see our families come together a lot during the holidays,” Montoya said. “And support comes pouring out from the community — we see so many donors, giving trees and sponsors.”
This holiday season, foster families are at the forefront of the public eye as “Instant Family,” a movie created from director Sean Ander’s own experience with foster care, hits theaters.
“Usually, foster care is a side story in the movies,” Montoya said. “This movie makes it the focal point. I’d like to see (moviegoers) learn about the challenges and joys of foster care. But also, I would like people to see the need for older kids to receive adoptive care.”
She explained school-age children were the majority enrolled in foster care and the most difficult to place in permanent adoptive care.
In hopes of boosting awareness and recruitment, Kennah said the Albany County foster care program is partnering with Studio City UW Plaza to promote the movie and foster care programs.
“This movie will help explain it’s not easy, but it can be rewarding,” he said.
The foster care program is operating a booth at the movie theater to provide information about foster care and adoption out of foster care while the movie plays in theaters.
“We see an influx of gifts every year, which is great,” Kennah said. “But we would like people to take it one step further and say, ‘I’m going to foster a child.’”