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Foster Family Spotlight: Ryan & Natalia Burke

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All of the foster families we meet and work with are incredible people, and amazing parents.  I couldn’t be happier to virtually introduce you to Ryan and Natalia Burke. The Burke family is special to Skookum, because Ryan is on our staff, serving as the Program Manager for Skookum Parents.

Ryan and Natalia met 10 years ago in a very unlikely place— the lunchroom at the Department of Children, Youth & Families (formerly DSHS) where they both worked as social workers.  They were friends for a few years before dating. This June they celebrated 8 years of marriage! Though they met as social workers 10 years ago, their careers started long before then.

After college, Ryan moved to Chicago to work with at-risk youth, with the intent to pursue teaching, but then realized that he valued building one-on-one relationships more.  He went back to school, and became a social worker for the state of Washington for 15 years before taking his current position at Skookum Kids.

Natalia is no stranger to social work either.  She worked as an aide for families with foster youth, in a local treatment center for teenage girls, and in the juvenile court’s anger management program before also becoming a social worker for DSHS for five years.

Their experience working with foster youth made their decision to become foster parents an easy one.  Even before they were married, conversations about when they were going to start their family always revolved around when they would start fostering.  

In regards to their career history, Ryan said, “I think it was natural that we knew we wanted to take care of kids.”  

They were married for one year before they took their first placement, and have had children in their home ever since.  The Burkes have cared for 11 children in total, and have 4 children in their home currently. They were lucky enough to adopt two girls in 2015 after caring for them for a year.  After adopting their daughters, they continued to accept foster placements, and have had 2 more siblings in their care for the last three years.

They spoke openly about the blessings and the challenges of fostering the children they care for.  When their two adopted daughters first came to stay with them, the girls were very young.  

Natalia remembers, “They were eager to be here, they were eager to have a mom and a dad to take care of them.”  

But that alone did not make things easy, they have still done a lot of work to make the girls feel like a part of their family.  One challenge they have faced with kids in their care is getting them adjusted in their home, and making kids feel like they are a part of the family. 

“Not feeling like you’re part of a family is really hurtful, and I don’t want another child to grow up that way.  It’s so hard to figure out what’s best for them. And that’s why it’s not our job, they stay as long as they need to, and were just here for the time being,” Natalia said.  

From the outside, one of the greatest strengths the Burkes have is their attitude toward fostering.  

“We have a ‘stay as long as you need to’ policy.  This is what we tell kids when they come to stay with us,” Natalia said during our time together.

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That’s our passion- keeping siblings together. Even when we had short term placements, we took sibling pairs. And it’s a lot of work, but if you think about it from the child’s perspective, they’ve already been taken from their homes, so to be able to have their siblings with them on that journey is invaluable
— Ryan Burke

When we began talking about what they wish they knew before fostering, they had a lot of things to say.  Ryan remarked that he wished he knew more about parenting kids that have come from trauma, while also recognizing that most of this research has come out in recent years, and would have been difficult to know when they began seven years ago.  Natalia said that she wouldn’t do anything different aside from wanting to know how emotionally hard it would be. But those kind of things can’t be taught ahead of time, rather they have to be experienced. Their time as social workers prepared them to care about the kids they worked with, but parenting those kids means you’re carrying their burdens which is “night and day” according to Ryan.

In regards to support they’ve received throughout their foster care journey, Ryan and Natalia mentioned a lot of things that we hear from other foster families.  They’re so thankful for people who offer to watch their kids so they can have a date night, or people who bring over freezer meals so they have one less thing to worry about, and remarked that it’s evident that they are not alone in their journey.  They also talked about systemic support, like having counselors and case aides that support their family.  

Then they brought up some new resources that their family loves that were new to me!  The Aaron Project is a partnership between foster and adoptive families and local churches to provide childcare, encouragement and practical service like meals.  The Burkes remarked that they would love to see every foster and adoptive family in Whatcom County supported by an Aaron Project partner. They also mentioned two books that have helped the kids in their care talk about their unique experiences, the books are Maybe Days and Families Change.

Natalia said, “These books have given them language to talk about uncertainty, and helped them realize they are not alone.  To have a whole book written just for them is great.”

One aspect of fostering that has brought a lot of light to their family is getting to see their adopted daughters care for other kids who have stayed in the Burke’s home.  

Natalia said, “they have a really unique voice because they have done it, they have missed their mom before, and that is a really incredible perspective.  I hope they continue to grow into that role more as they get older, and they can speak from their experience and use it to encourage other kids who come across their paths.”

When asked about the greatest and the hardest parts of foster care, they both answered similarly, in saying that the hardest part is sustaining love, compassion and health for the kids can be really difficult— especially when you’re thinking long term.  For the children they’ve adopted, they are in this for a lifetime. And the greatest part of it all? That they have the opportunity to offer their care. Even on the hardest days and during the loudest tantrums, they get to share in times of grief and shepherd their kids through healing.

At the end of our time together, I asked them if there was anything else they would like to share, and Natalia said with excitement, “We would do it again!”

Family photos donated by Anda Photography. Date night accommodations donated by Guemes Island Resort.