JUST CALL US NANA & PAPA
Few people do foster care like Jan and Keith Parrott. The couple has ridden this rollercoaster for 50 years now, and though they retired from fostering last fall, they’ve already reconsidered and plan to reopen their home to provide respite for other foster families entrenched in this work.
The Parrott’s understand the great need for respite, especially for children like the ones they have focused their energy on over the years. Jan and Keith (known as Nana and Papa to all their bonus kiddos) have spent the majority of their lives fostering teens.
“When they come here, we tell them, ‘We do as family does, and you are family while you are here. You probably will be forever.'”
For the past 15 years, they’ve narrowed their scope to teenage boys within the juvenile court system. The Parrotts have stepped in, time and time again, to welcome the kiddos no one else would take, children who couldn’t find their footing in other foster homes. Without end, for the past five decades, the Parrotts have opened their door and their ever-expanding hearts to the kids who had nowhere else to go. “If they needed a place, we took them.”
They’ve cared for so many children, in fact, they can’t even tell you how many. “God’s going to let me know when I get to heaven,” Jan says. Their first foster child arrived not long after the birth of the oldest of their three biological children. “We had just gotten out of college and joined a church. A Bethany worker stood up and said there was a five-year-old boy who needed a home. We had a 10-month-old at the time, so we waited until everybody left to see if anyone had stepped up.” No one had, so the Parrotts boldly answered, “we will,” just like they would for the next fifty years.
While they are currently licensed with Bethany Christian Services, they have fostered through four different agencies throughout their tenure and take in children from Kent, Berrien and Ottawa counties, always going where the need has led. “We’ve only ever asked for two kids in particular. Most of them just show up – emergency placements that are taken out in the middle of the night, scared to death. I just want to love on them.” And that’s exactly what the Parrotts do, pour love upon these tough but tender teenagers, children who’ve been through so much.
“The minute they come in the door, they are in my heart – and they are in my heart forever,”
“The minute they come in the door, they are in my heart – and they are in my heart forever,” Jan says. “We have lots of heart to hearts. For the boys, I do their haircuts. ‘Nana, I need another haircut,’ they’ll say a week after their last one, and that’s the time I know they want to talk. I’m there to listen, and they need that time with me. You have to hear their stories. They’re not who they think they are.”
“When they come here, we tell them, ‘We do as family does, and you are family while you are here. You probably will be forever.’ We eat our meals together. We hold hands and pray. We take them out and do fun things, teachable things. We are always teaching.” These life lessons extend far beyond the four walls of the Parrott house, Jan explains. “’If we are going on a trip, you are going with us,’ we tell them, and they do. If they can’t go, we don’t go.”
In 2017, the family even drove three foster boys to Alaska to spend the entire summer with them, a trip that was wrought with success as well as strife. On their journey west, in the middle of the Dakota Badlands, one of the boys ran away, leaving the family stranded, searching and waiting. “I couldn’t feel God anywhere,” Jan said when recounting the event. Their foster son eventually returned, but the Parrotts were two days behind schedule, landing in a different town than they intended when Sunday came, Father’s Day. They found a local church as they did every Sunday on their travels. “There was a guest speaker and most of the congregation was at a conference, so it was really just us. The sermon was on fathers and mothers and foster care. God had gone ahead of us. He was waiting there, and we were all in tears.”
“I loved what I did, and I wouldn’t even take back the bad moments. I trust God that much.”
The Parrott’s decision to allow their faith to guide them has kept them on course throughout victory and defeat. “I loved what I did, and I wouldn’t even take back the bad moments. I trust God that much,” Jan says. Commitment to their calling is at the very center of everything the Parrotts do, and it is clear that the children who become part of their home and their hearts benefit so much from the couple’s steadfast dedication.
And when it’s time for the kids to go, many of them transitioning to Lakeshore Lifeworks or reconnecting with family, Jan makes a photo album and homemade quilt for each child to remember their time in the Parrott home, an offering of love that is seldom received with dry eyes. These good-byes are difficult for everybody.
“When I talk to people about foster care who say they could never foster, I ask, ‘Why do you think you can’t?’ The answer is always the same – ‘because I can’t give them up.’ Oh yes, you can. They are still in your heart. My heart hurts when they leave, but there is always room for more. You’re going to feel the pain, but it’s okay because your heart fills right back up again. You’re going to be even better because that love just grows.”
The choices the Parrotts make are not simple ones, and they have faced struggles over the years given the level of trauma their foster kids have experienced. They are no stranger to holes in drywall or doors ripped from hinges, and there have been a fair number of emotional wounds, as well. But for Jan, the greatest challenge of fostering is the silence that can follow when a child leaves. “Not knowing where the kids are now and how they’re doing is the hardest. The ones who are doing the right things are contacting me. The ones who drop off, something is not right. Every night when I close my eyes, I say the Lord’s prayer, and then I ask about every kid. I ask God to protect them.”
Not knowing where the kids are now and how they’re doing is the hardest.
The foster community (and the community at large) is a better place because of this family. Their unflinching devotion to children in need is the stuff of miracles, angels – yet here they are, flesh and blood, doing God’s work down on Earth, growing love and learning within each tough teen who walks in their door, and eventually, back out again. Because despite the countless foster children who have called the Parrott’s house “home,” the couple has never officially adopted, but that doesn’t mean these children aren’t family. “They’ve adopted us,” Jan explains. “We’ve been adopted by a lot of them. We are their family, and they count on us.” It’s hard to imagine better people to count on.