Robert and Lillian Baker have no idea how many people might show up for Thanksgiving dinner.
That’s what happens when you’ve had 80 foster children in your home over the last 15 years. They drop by at different times all year but especially during the holidays.
“Sometimes a lot will come, sometimes only a few,” Lillian Baker said. “They just show up. You just never know how many.”
So she does what she must.
Never miss a local story.
“I always overcook,” she said.
The Bakers, who have three grown biological children, are all about being flexible. That’s also what being a good foster family is about.
“The whole thing with kids is first you have to love them,” Robert Baker said. “You have to love what you’re doing and to adjust to what you’re doing. You get kids from all different backgrounds.
“You have to realize some kids are coming into a situation who are not used to rules. We set rules, but they are rules that are reachable for each kid.”
The Bakers were honored at the Governor’s Conference in Topeka earlier this month as Saint Francis Community Services’ foster care parents of the year.
A very personal story led the Bakers to become foster parents. It goes a long way toward explaining why they approach it the way they do.
In 1985, the Bakers moved from Wichita to Sacramento, Calif. In the early 1990s, their 16-year-old son became the father of a boy, Kwamain.
Because their son was a minor, Lillian Baker said, the mother, 20, was granted custody of Kwamain. But the child was later taken away from the mother and put into California’s state system.
Meanwhile, the Bakers moved back to Wichita in 1998.
“But we wanted our grandson,” Lillian Baker said.
Requests for custody were denied by the state of California. The Bakers took foster parenting classes through Saint Francis just in case that would help.
It did. After taking their case public with Sacramento media, the Bakers were allowed by the state to take Kwamain – then about 8 – back to Kansas and serve as his foster family. They later adopted him.
Kwamain told his grandparents of the ordeal he went through during his year of being with foster families in California.
“He shared some stories that were very touching,” Lillian Baker said. “He never felt like he belonged.”
That put the Bakers on course to not only make their grandson feel like he belonged to a family but to do the same for other children in foster care.
“We wanted to give back to the kids that are in the system,” she said.
At first, Robert Baker, a retired maintenance worker for the Wichita school district, wasn’t as keen on the idea as his wife.
“I didn’t like it,” he said. “There was so much to get used to, so much to learn. But after a while, it was nice.
“I love kids. It’s been a great way to love kids.”
A big part of helping the foster children feel they are loved and belong is providing stability, the Bakers said.
That includes not giving the child back to the state to be passed on to another foster home when a difficult incident or stretch comes up.
“You need to do all you can to maintain a placement and not give up,” Lillian Baker said. “If you give up, the child is moved to another home.
“Robert and I thrive on not disrupting the kids and keeping them in our home.”
Since how long a child stays in a foster home depends on many factors – child’s age, adoption, return to the biological family – social workers say there’s not an average length of stay that reflects the ideal.
But one of the Bakers’ most recent foster children was with them for 2 1/2 years, she said.
Phyllis Gilmore, secretary of the Kansas Department of Children and Families, said her agency helps provide training for potential foster parents that emphasizes different behavior problems or other issues a foster child might present.
“And we do that for the very reason that we want the children to have stability,” she said. “It’s OK to say, ‘I don’t think we can do this.’ Now is the time to speak up.
“Not everyone is cut out to be a foster parent.”
Over the years, the Bakers have learned what works best helping a foster child through tough times.
“Talk to them,” Robert Baker said. “They need to know they belong.”
He flinches when someone suggests people get into foster care for the money.
“There’s not much money involved,” he said. “There’s a lot of needs you have to provide for the kids. Money? This is about loving kids.”
Over the years, the Bakers have tried to take foster children that best fit what they can do.
They began taking only boys about 10 years ago because Lillian works during the day at a medical office.
“That was to protect Robert and myself,” she said.
Starting in 2011, they began taking only children with special needs. They currently have a 15-year-old boy.
The Bakers look back over the years and see mixed results.
Some of their foster children have gone on to successful lives while others have continued to struggle, they said. One is going to law school.
“We did the best we could for the time we had them,” Lillian Baker said. “I think we’ve been an asset to a lot of the kids. For some, we worked hard and it just didn’t work out.
“The important thing is I think – hopefully – they know that we loved them.”
And the Bakers still do. That’s why she’ll overcook on Thanksgiving.