Saying “YES” to Kids in Foster Care: Our Talk With Bonnie VanDusen

TW: This interviews contains discussion of suicide and suicidal ideations that may be triggering for some readers.

"Most of us have a story. My goal and hope are to remind people we all have a past but in the right now, we also have a choice. A choice to serve, change, and say yes in every part of foster care."

Bonnie is a child abuse survivor and trauma recovery advocate. She is also a community partner and educator with @geronimo_project that provides an inside view of what foster care often looks like. Bonnie is bio mama to two teens Isiah & Nevaeh, an adoptive mama to a wild toddler Dominik, and a wife to a great man Jason for almost 16 years. As a child, she had to live in a bubble of hiding who she was and what was being done for her. So as an adult, she made a promise to no longer hide who she was and what she was walking through. A fun fact about Bonnie is she loves Jesus, wine, and Reese’s.

SWY: Can you please tell us a little bit about yourself and your story with childhood abuse and trauma?

BVD: Born and raised in The Bay Area in CA my childhood was far from the norm. My parents married young and have been divorced since I can remember. Most of my childhood memories of them together was the tug and war of unhealthy traits. My father suffered and was diagnosed as bipolar and self-medicated with substances, which I would not find about until several years later when he tried to kill my stepmom and siblings. I’m a child abuse survivor. For over 16 years, my father physically and sexually abused me. At 16, I planned on killing myself but that is when a stranger in my community stepped in and rescued me. This is where I truly started to see the importance of community awareness and involvement. One simple act of kindness changed my life and generations to come.

SWY: How did your traumatic experiences bring you into the work you do now?

BVD: One day I read a quote by Mark Twain. "There are two important days in your life. The day you are born and the day, you find out why." For me, this journey has been hard. I survived my dad but continued to live in fear for years looking over my shoulder. I had unhealthy behaviors after leaving his house. Trauma makes you question everything. You don’t realize what parts of your story are built-in trauma or are the real you. You learn to just cope, survive until one day something hopefully clicks. For me, it was a conversation one day with a friend that changed my view - what if you no longer viewed what has been done to you as negative but as a way to bring change, connections to others.

My experiences from my childhood trauma, to learning new skills as an adult, drug addictions, marriage issues, each item has allowed a moment of connection. Those kids in my home connection, bio parents’ recovery connection, community education connection, and church body connection.

Most of us have a story. My goal and hope are to remind people we all have a past but in the right now, we also have a choice. A choice to serve, change, and say yes in every part of foster care.

SWY: Could you tell us more about Geronimo Project and the advocacy work you do revolving foster and adoptive care?

BVD: Geronimo Project is a platform that started with the community we live in questioning what the foster care process really looked like. The more I shared the more people wanted to support, invest, and help change the conversation about what kids and families are walking through in our communities.

Geronimo Project was birthed out of a letter of prayer I received from a friend that had been praying over me. God gave her a word for me-Geronimo. His message, her words……He wanted me to jump straight into my fear and when I jumped into that fear it would be the thing that would set me free.

My fear. Simply dig deep into finding out who I truly was at the core. To speak truth into my life and be very transparent and vulnerable with others about my recovery, trauma issues, and foster care. To stop living inside the normalcy box because living outside of it would help change generations to come.

Everything about foster care is equal parts good and bad, joy and sorrow, beauty, and brokenness. I wanted to shine a light on our journey and what saying “YES” to foster care really looked like in our community, so I started Geronimo Project.

Geronimo Project provides an inside view of what foster care often looks like.Topics like why you can’t give your foster child a haircut unless approved by the caseworker. To larger topics like assessments - which we as a family walked through a huge assessment almost losing our son forever. But even that incident allowed me to have a connection and experience to see what bio parents go through daily. We share about case planning and building relationships in reunification. Not all foster journeys are the same so we provide networking opportunities for foster parents to connect, along with community education events.

It's easy to get lost on the perfect feed of what this journey looks like on social media platforms and feel you’re doing it all wrong. My hope was to provide a space that not only showed you the pretty things in this journey but also the things that wreck you, anger you, and take you down the emotional roller coaster of saying yes.

Currently there are minimal resources advocating for foster family’s rights and the children they serve in Oregon and all over the nation. As foster parents, legally we have no rights or say in what’s best for a child in our care. Some states do not include you in case planning or give you important information that ultimately would allow us to support the kids and bio families better and breaking the cycles of bouncing in and out of the system. While there are some programs that are trying to retain foster parents, many foster homes close their doors due to exhaustion in navigating and surviving the system. As a community member that’s scary to hear. In the United States, orphan care is a huge issue but we are privileged not to have orphanages on every corner.

Geronimo Project’s vision is to bring positive change and support to the foster care system by changing the conversation or at least having real conversations about this broken system not only for foster parents but for bio families, lawmakers, and community members. We want to share stories of redemption and hope in a transparent forum. We want to share with the community ways they can serve foster children and families without opening their own homes. We want those that say “YES” to kids in care to know they are seen, heard, supported, and appreciated.

"We want to share stories of redemption and hope in a transparent forum. We want to share with the community ways they can serve foster children and families without opening their own homes. We want those that say “YES” to kids in care to know they are seen, heard, supported, and appreciated."

SWY: Is there anything you’d want children and youth going through the care system to know from a biological/foster/adoptive mom and advocate?

BVD: As someone that has lived through trauma I want them to focus on that. I LIVED THROUGH IT. What has happened to you is not your fault and someday you will have to make the intentional choice to heal or to continue to live in that place. Healing is not a one and done fix; it’s showing up daily in the hard, and continuing to show up day after day. I struggle with triggers, behaviors daily but now I acknowledge what had been done to me. In that, there comes freedom of healing, new skills, behaviors, and a life you could have never imagined while living in your past trauma.

As a foster parent, it hurts my heart to see families fail. Not just bio families but actual foster families that close their doors because they are not properly prepared for what’s to come. I often share with families just starting this journey to remember your WHY. If your why is anything but helping to support reunification your heart will break time and time again. Your why is what will guide your actions. Our family's why was to advocate for what was best for the kids in our home. If this means fighting for their parents, we're doing that. If that means speaking up when a caseworker has crossed boundaries, we're doing that. I want to know that we are doing everything in our power to help support and rebuild a family and if that is not possible, we want to be a landing space to be apart of a family that will continue to support your trauma healing and skills to break cycles.

As an adoptive mom for so long, I thought the work ended on adoption day. It’s this weird misconception we're sold. I think because for so long we're just holding our breath looking for a place to come up and breathe and we put hope in that one day it changes everything. While yes that day will change some things, many things will remain the same. Your child has gone through trauma and will continue to carry that after that day. So, you will need to continue to show up, advocate, and help support new skills and behaviors.

As an advocate, remembering my why is what helps me to change the conversation. My goal is to advocate for the kids in my home which means that I will not be in compliance with my role or voice as a foster parent. I’ve seen too many foster parents walk away because they have lost their voices. I’ve seen too many foster parents scared into silence and I have to wonder just how much of a disservice we are doing to the families and kids we say yes to if we are really not willing to risk it all for them.

I’ve walked through the hell of a horrible assessment from our state and a worker that overstepped boundaries. I had the choice to walk away from our son and sit in that place to let a broken system repeat a message and cycle or I could hold onto my why, my voice and speak up, share our story with anyone and everyone because in that, I was holding onto my truth to advocate no matter the cost and help others know that they too no longer had to allow these things to happen and they were not alone. In the end, my why helped us get our son back and start allowing me to have conversations with state workers, state representatives, and community members about the truths of what foster care looked like in their communities and their responsibility.

SWY: You also have a podcast, BOLD LIFE - Out Loud Podcast, where you talk about living authentically and sharing the messiness/hard parts of life. Could you share the importance of living a bold and authentic life?

BVD: Yes, I just started BOLD LIFE - Out Loud. I'll be honest I am just allowing a space for me to process and share things that are going on in my life with and people I’m doing life with. Again, it’s a space to share with you pieces of our journey from foster care, trauma, church, marriage and so much more.

People see me in the now and only quick glimpses into our life. So, I share personal stories ranging from how we were once non-believers and now my husband is a worship leader at our church to other stories about marriage and our first date being at a strip club, addiction recovery for us, advocating for kids in our home and sometimes I have a guest on so you can hear from friends and family that to have stories and see how they are saying yes and living a BOLD LIFE - Out Loud.

SWY: Do you have any advice on how to live a more authentic life?

BVD: I won’t sit here and tell you I don’t struggle with the internal dialogue that I must live up to other people’s expectations of who they think I should be and how I should be living my life. I’m human and I will constantly struggle with that, as will most of you. But my biggest piece of advice or question I would ask you is, are you genuinely happy listening to that voice? If today was your last day, if people had to describe you in a final message, would you be happy with the way you lived and what they said about you? If the answer is no, then I’d say invest in finding the things that fill you. Not fill your time because that is what you think you should be doing but find the things that really help you live out your purpose.

If I died tomorrow my obituary wouldn’t read richest in wealth, but it sure would talk about the riches of my heart and how I spoke with truth, advocated for justice, and loved many no matter the cost or sacrifice. I’m helping change the conversation of what the world thinks successfulness, love, and sacrifice look like for generations to come.

We want to thank Bonnie for taking the time to share her story of childhood abuse and her experience with the foster care system and as a foster parent. Make sure to check out her Instagram @geronimo_project as well as her website for more information on how to help those that say “YES” to kids in care know they are seen, heard, supported, and appreciated.