In this “Let Love Define Family®” series installment for Huffington Post Queer Voices, RaiseAChild contributing writer, Danielle Lescure, interviewed a remarkable couple who refuse to see their young age as an obstacle to helping children of the foster system.
Though Amber Ames, 24, and Anuilagi (Nani) Ames, 26, first met on opposing sides as student athletes during college, as partners they have formed their own formidable team devoted to a life of service to others, especially children in need.
And it all began with a basketball game.
“Nani’s team came out to our tournament and I thought that she was pretty cute,” said Amber. “So a couple of weeks after, I reached out to her on Facebook and we just kind of hit it off from there.”
Despite the 7-hour distance between the native Texans, Amber at Tyler Junior College and Nani at Temple College, they took advantage of breaks and holidays to build their blossoming relationship. In 2012, shortly after graduation, they moved to Austin together and it was there in the City of the Violet Crown that they discovered a surprise calling: Becoming foster parents.
While Amber worked as a paralegal and Nani as a preschool teacher, both were also active volunteers with the Austin Children’s Shelter offering their time and support wherever needed. The shelter staff took notice of how well the young pair worked with the children and what positive role models and mentors they were. They encouraged the couple to sign up for foster training.
“We were only 21 years old and so we were like ‘Are we too young to do this?’” said Nani. “And they were saying, ‘No, you guys are at the age when you can do it.’ So we just said let’s go ahead. And we did.”
“We’re so similar in that aspect when it comes to giving and always wanting to help,” Amber explained. “We both have that mindset to where if we have so much, why not share. Yes, we were young, but competent enough to do whatever we needed to give foster kids a chance at some normalcy. So we jumped into classes. That’s part of how we were raised and one of the things I love most about Nani.”
After earning their certification, the Ames fostered in Austin until January 2015 when Amber enlisted in the Navy because, as she said, “I wanted to be able to help more.” They relocated to San Diego at the end of July 2015 and though they were enjoying their new home, they felt something was missing. Through their church, they connected with and began volunteering at Urban Street Angels, a non-profit organization assisting homeless youth. On Thanksgiving Day, the two were helping serve food when a chance encounter reignited their fostering flame.
“All of a sudden in comes these two little boys by themselves,” recalled Amber. “Their clothes were tore up. They didn’t have any shoes on. Their faces are all dirty and we’re like, ‘Who’d these guys come in with?’’”
The older child has one arm. Both boys’ feet were bare and bloody. “Who knows how long these kids didn’t have any shoes on,” she continued. “Immediately, Nani looked at me and she said, ‘Go check the car.’”
Miraculously, they had two pairs of shoes and socks that fit the boys perfectly.
“Their faces just lit up and I think that was a special moment for me,” admitted Nani. “We were supposed to be there having Thanksgiving with them that year.”
“That was a light bulb moment for us,” said Amber. “These two kiddos just walked in here, we just so happened to have two pairs of shoes with two pairs of socks and these kids were just so grateful. It was an emotional moment. We ended up contacting the county because the two boys were out there by themselves. They didn’t know where their parents were. Back in Texas, we had never seen homeless children on the streets with their parents. But as soon as we got to California, we were seeing homeless parents with their children, homeless youth from trafficking, and that was our ‘we have to help’ confirmation that day.”
The couple immediately dove into investigating to become foster parents again and their online research brought them to RaiseAChild. The organization immediately provided them direction and contacts. “They took the time to check in with Nani and I and they gave us all the resources we needed to make the process as easy as possible,” said Amber. The day they completed training at Koinonia Family Services, they had a call for their first child placement.
In addition to the aid and assistance of the foster community, Amber and Nani also enjoy unwavering support from their friends and family. Though their inner circle has welcomed all their foster children with open arms, they were initially concerned about the two taking on this unique responsibility.
“I think they were just trying to be protective of us. Our family and friends didn’t want us to get into something and overwhelm ourselves being 21 at the time,” said Amber. “When they saw the kids with us, and the attachments we had, and how we were as a unit, then everyone just kind of engulfed us. No one needed to know that they were fostered. It’s just family and when they saw that, then it was okay. They see the positive of it and I think that was one of their more proud moments. They’ve welcomed them right in as family during the holidays and birthdays, whenever. They check in with the kids, they call and they Facetime, and it just became our one big happy family.”
Amber points out that the most important skill in fostering has nothing to do with age at all.
“We have always made a conscious effort to just listen,” she said. “A lot of times that’s what the kids need; someone to listen to them and actually try to understand where they’re coming from, meeting them where they are and helping them move forward from there. We are not trying to change the children just doing everything we can to understand them. And if we don’t understand, we seek out resources to try to educate ourselves. Times now are different. If kids notice the effort you’re giving and that you’re trying your best to understand, you’ll eventually get to the point where there’s a breakthrough.”
“Once they feel that sense of security, that sense of belonging, you start to see a sense of normalcy go through them,” Amber continued. “It’s kind of like taking a deep breath, they can just relax and actually be kids. You see them take that deep breath, go to bed without any issues, and then school changes, everything changes and you actually see the kids smiling and talking. That’s when you see the actual child for who they really are, not who they’ve been labeled in their file or whatever information comes with them.”
Now in their mid-twenties, both women refuse to see age as an obstacle and, in fact, have found it to be an advantage, particularly with pre-teens and younger children. They also firmly believe they are simply one example of what others of their generation have to offer. Amber and Nani are very vocal advocates for foster parenting and adoption knowing more people would jump at the chance to participate if they were more aware of the need.
“I believe that more people would love to help,” said Nani. “I think the question is, where are they supposed to start? Maybe they just don’t know where to start, who to talk to, how to get involved.”
“Our generation is so active in wanting to make a change, trying to make some impact, to be of service to one another,” said Amber. “It’s about making that jump and giving it all you’ve got for these kids and knowing that you can make changes in these kids’ lives.”
For those who may doubt whether they have enough to offer to a child in need of a safe haven, the couple emphasize that it isn’t about what a person has, but what that person has to give that matters, right now, right where they are.
“If you feel like, ‘Well, I’m not good enough’ or ‘I won’t be the perfect parent,’ these children don’t know that and a lot of times they don’t even care. That’s not even what they’re thinking about,” Amber clarified. “They’ve been through far bigger things. They’re looking for love. They’re not looking at whether you’re black, white, or purple. They’re not looking at whether it’s two dads, two moms, or one mom or one dad. What matters to them is family and love and somebody that’s gonna put those boots on and trudge through that with them. That’s what they look for and I know just through experience that’s what those kids appreciate most. Being a family is something that can’t be taught. It is something that occurs on its own over time.”
As a new year begins with resolutions being made and change afoot, Amber and Nani call on others to recognize and remember the many ways in which they too can step up and have a positive and powerful impact in the lives of others.
“People want to be part of a movement. They like to be involved with something that would be of a greater good,” said Amber. “It’s human nature to want to help someone else in need. You have the love, you have the space, and if you want to take it a step further, you’ll get another child out of a group home or out of an orphanage or a shelter.”
“Fostering is an ongoing, positive movement. With foster care, there is always a need. If you want to be a part of something where you’re always going to be needed and be a part of something positive, then fostering is something you would want to be involved with. As a community, as a city, as a nation, now is not the time to duck our heads and roll with the punches. There are so many ways you can be involved; there are so many ways you can help these children.”
The benefits of membership in this movement extend beyond giving a child a better chance in life. It offers daily opportunities to grow personally, to develop, nurture, and strengthen relationships, and the ability to add more light, laughter, and love to the world.
“I’ve learned a great deal of patience not only with the children, but with the children’s cases as well. At the end of the day we just want to let them know that everything will be a positive experience for them,” Nani stated. “And just being with Amber through all this, I wouldn’t change anything. Going through this with her has been a journey and I’m just grateful to have her by my side and being able to advocate for all children.”
“Every time we go into this holding hands. That symbolizes I’m with you, you’re with me, and we’re in this together. You fall down, I have your hand; I’m gonna pick you right back up,” said Amber. “I feel like Nani and I were fortunate enough to be our age and have such a confirmation in what we feel like we need to be doing. I doubt that we would at some point just stop. I feel like this is something we’ll forever be a part of.”
“Everyone says, ‘You guys are so good at this.’ It’s not like a talent or anything,” she continued. “It’s just when you’re naturally passionate about something it doesn’t seem like a job. It is hard work raising children and dealing with cases and social workers and sometimes not so nice parents. But when you’re passionate about it, all of the little negative things don’t seem to bother you. That keeps the rainbow over our house. Whether things turned out how we hoped or not, we know at the end of the day it’s about the kiddos. Knowing we’ve had a positive impact is what makes all of this worthwhile. This is something that we’re really passionate about, so we go into this every time with the same mindset on how we’re going to help these children out whether it be for two weeks or whether it be for two years. We always go into this holding hands and that’s how we come out of everything; holding hands.”
Have you thought about building a family through fostering or adoption? RaiseAChild is the nationwide leader in the recruitment and support of LGBT and all prospective parents interested in building families through fostering and adoption to meet the needs of the 425,000 children in the foster care system of the United States. RaiseAChild recruits, educates and nurtures supportive relationships equally with all prospective foster and adoptive parents while partnering with agencies to improve the process of advancing foster children to safe, loving, and permanent homes. Take the Next Step to Parenthood at www.RaiseAChild.org or call us at (323) 417-1440.