Foster parents give love to desperate children
January 2, 2019
Brandon Himmelhaver, left, and Tim Harless are all smiles inside the office of Richland County Children's Services. (Photo: Zach Tuggle/News Journal)
Zach Tuggle, Mansfield News Journal
MANSFIELD - Christmas has not been completely normal for Brandon Himmelhaver since the day he was taken from his home at the age of 11.
"I had an abusive stepfather," he remembered. "There was a physical altercation."
But this Christmas, Brandon, now 19, has returned home to the Lexington family who invited him into their lives two years ago, and has been there for him ever since. He thinks the nearly 100 kids still in the custody of Richland County Children's Services deserve that same taste of love.
"Foster kids aren't so bad," Brandon pleaded. "We're not all Tasmanian devils, and we're not here to just take your food."
They just want to feel normal. They need to be loved.
'Emotional hit to the face'
The often cold and lonely life of foster care isn't one Brandon or any other child can prepare for ahead of time. The trauma of being ripped from home can easily alter the remainder of a child's entire life, said Tim Harless, director of community outreach and programming for Richland County Children's Services.
Brandon will never forget being driven down the street, away from the life he knew.
"It was a terrifying time," Brandon said. "I had to grow up really fast."
The first night away from home was bad, but not necessarily the worst. Brandon soon realized that none of his living blood relatives wanted him in their lives. Like many other children, he was alone in life — a family of one at the age of 11.
"I felt like I was punched in the face," Brandon said. "These kids are removed from their homes, and they have no idea what's happening to them. It's an emotional hit to the face."
'Need more foster parents'
It's a blow that's delivered to more children now than ever before in history. Harless said that just four years ago, only 48 children were in the county's custody. Today, it's 98. He's afraid that number could double again if drug addiction isn't soon curbed.
"We need more foster parents; we have a shortage right now," Harless said. "We have kids who just need someone to give them that push and guidance and to be there for them."
Brandon's chances of matching with one of the county's few foster homes were already diminished because of his age.
To some people, an 11-year-old boy is nearly an adult. Harless said most families are only willing to take children under the age of 10. More than 40 percent of the children who need a home are over that age.
Brandon said it sends a clear message to those children: "they come from vermin, so they might as well be rats themselves."
'I was too much'
The wait for a family ended the day Brandon met a couple in their 70s who had decided to open their home to a child in need. They had a nice house in Knox County, and would often take Brandon with them to the lake down the street.
The year Brandon spent with the older couple was good for him, and he's not completely sure why it ended. All he knows is they didn't renew their contract. It's possible he was both their first and last foster child.
"I guess I was too much for them," Brandon said. "I thought it was my fault. It was hard for me to not take it personal."
The harsh reality is that some people are simply not cut out to be foster parents — but others are, and Harless wants to find more of them.
"I want kids to know that there's hope," Harless said.
Hope and despair
Brandon's hope came soon after he was taken from the mansion near the lake. This time, it was a family in Shelby.
Life became really good the summer before his freshman year of high school, when his new parents let him try out for the football team. He made the team.
"I didn't get very many starts, but I knew where my heart was," Brandon said. "I wanted to play the sport I loved."
He suited up as a Whippet for three seasons. Those days are still some of the best of his life. He was looking forward to his senior season, the year everyone in Shelby knew the team would make a run for the state title.
The team would go deep into the playoffs, but without Brandon. He would instead be in Mansfield, living again with his biological mom. Those five months were filled with despair.
"I didn't know who I wanted to be anymore," Brandon said. "When my mom got custody of me again, there was no more football, no more weight lifting. I lost everything."
'Am I worthy?'
Brandon finished high school in Lexington, where he lived with his newest parents and his two new younger sisters.
The transitions in lives were starting to take their toll on him, though. He had no idea how long he would stay in Lexington, and it was obvious he had no control over the situation. It's hard to enjoy something if you don't know it's yours.
"A lot of kids think 'Am I worthy of this family; am I good enough to live here?' and a kid shouldn't have to think about that," Brandon said. "They didn't choose to be born."
Brandon's new father was a consistent force he never experienced in his other homes.
"He's a pretty cool guy," Brandon smiled. "Just a year being with him, I learned how to work hard. He's a very loving man."
As it turned out, the arrangement stuck. Brandon's glad it did. He still missed Shelby, but he really liked Lexington. He's glad they still consider him part of their family, even though he's now his own guardian.
"I'm spending Christmas with them," Brandon shouted. "I love my sisters. They're gold."
'Not an alien'
Brandon lives in his own apartment, has a job and is attending North Central State College. He's pursuing a degree in education, and wants to someday teach high school and coach football.
Harless said Brandon has defied the odds, thanks to caring foster parents.
"They usually don't even finish high school, let alone go to college," Harless said as he smiled at Brandon. "We're very proud of him."
The young man knows nearly everyone inside the office of Richland County Children's Services. As social workers stopped by to say hello, it was apparent Brandon's family is much larger than he could have ever suspected it would be.
"I've always thought I was set apart," he admitted. "But I grew up and realized that just because I'm a foster kid, I'm not an alien. I'm a person and I have real goals and real dreams."
He learned that the rough times don't last forever, and that children will never forget the help they received during the worst days of their lives. He's proud he can call both Shelby and Lexington home.
"My last two foster homes really helped me grow," Brandon said. "I think that's what you should do, is help kids grow."
He might someday become a foster parent himself. First, though, he just wants to graduate from college.
Foster parents needed
To learn more, visit children's services online at www.richlandcountychildrenservices.org, or call them at 419-774-4100.« Back to News