Living with 100 other people your age is an exciting experience of college life. Freshman Johanna Perkins had experienced that long before coming to Northwestern.
As a family who cared for foster children, over 100 teenagers have passed through the Perkins’ home in the past 15 years.
“I don’t even remember what it’s like to just come home to a house where it’s just my family,” Johanna said. Her parents have been foster parents ever since she was in kindergarten. Johanna, along with her four other siblings have committed to share their house, parents, and essentially their lives with these new people.
The most significant quality Johanna has gained from growing up amongst strangers has been her accepting nature. “I don’t judge by first impression,” she says, “because people aren’t always what they seem.” She has come to understand how influential a person’s past is on their behavior and values. It has helped her to understand why people are the way they are and how to accept them rather than pass judgment.
In the same respect, Johanna recognizes the need to be cautious. She has experienced a lot of mistrust over the years as residents often took advantage of the Perkins’ hospitality, lashed out physically, or even intruded on the safety Johanna’s parents strived to protect their house with. Inevitably Johanna has been exposed to hardships, information and lifestyles that most teenagers don’t have to deal with on a daily basis. This has prepared her to be cautious when dealing with people. Johanna is very accepting of people but is aware of the possibilities and shows prudence before putting trust in someone new.
Johanna’s response to her family dynamics has fluctuated over the years as she has entered different stages of life. She saw her first years with foster siblings as an exciting game where she accumulated a different older sister or brother to play with every few months. On the verge of being a teenager, however, her perspective shifted; the strangers living in her house were no longer playmates but competitors in the game for her parents’ attention.
Johanna admitted, “The hardest part of it all was having to share my parents. I never had to wonder if our parents loved us, but we were responsible for accepting that we had to make sacrifices and that sometimes [the foster children]’s needs had to come before ours.”
Especially as a young child, Johanna found it difficult to understand how her parents responded differently to these strangers than their own children. She recalls how confused she was when her mother wouldn’t buy her a snack at the grocery store, but when a new girl came to their house to stay her mother went out and bought her a collection of new clothes.
While foster care is a challenging and often draining experience, the rewards can be significant. “Something my mom would always say is that if we can influence just one person, or change the life of just one person, then it was totally worth all the others that didn’t work out.”
She continued, “I can see now why my parents did what they did. The sacrifices they made, they were just trying to give these kids better lives.”
Looking back, Johanna now realizes what her parents were doing. “I think what they did was noble. They took on a lot of responsibility, and it wasn’t easy, but they were just trying to help these kids, to give them love and a new lifestyle.”