Two CSU professors open their hearts and home to foster children, discovering the fulfillment of family.
It’s Dinnertime on a Wednesday evening, which means it’s go time. Kristy Pabilonia sets her work bag on the kitchen counter and hustles toward the stove, pulling on oven mitts over the sleeves of her blue blouse. Her husband, Brendan Podell, stirs a salad in a huge bowl, while directing a preteen boy in a green T-shirt to pour six glasses of milk. A couple of younger children place napkins and silverware on the big wooden table, giggling at a shared joke. “Mom, I think we’re out of ketchup!” shouts a fourth child, an 11-year-old girl with a curly ponytail and sparkling eyes, who’s peering inside the fridge.
“That can’t be. I just went to Costco,” says Pabilonia with a lighthearted shrug.
“Ohhh, there it is,” says the girl, reaching inside the fridge and holding up a red 44-ounce bottle triumphantly.
Eventually, everyone’s seated at the table, eating and sharing conversation. Pabilonia and Podell, both veterinarians and full-time employees at Colorado State University, talk a bit about their days in their respective labs while listening to school stories from the kids. During a rare silence, both parents sit back and smile, exchanging a knowing look, acknowledging how grateful they are to have nurtured family in this way: through foster care.
Which was always sort of the plan for Pabilonia, or at least since the summer she worked at a camp in Colorado Springs in college and had the chance to interact with foster families. “I remember thinking the parents were great and it was really motivating,” she says. Plus, it’s hard to deny the need. According to the Colorado Department of Human Services, 14 children and teens come into foster care in Colorado on an average day, and there are 2,131 youth currently in foster care in the state.
For his part, Podell wasn’t so sure. When he met and started dating Pabilonia, he’d had almost zero experience with kids. “I’d held about two kids my whole life,” he says. It was only after Pabilonia introduced him to a friend who was fostering a young boy that he warmed up to the idea and thought, Okay, maybe we can do this.
In 2010, they received their first placement, an eight-year-old and a three-year-old, siblings who stayed with them for about a year. “It was something to get used to,” Podell admits. “Having two kids immediately, there was a learning curve for sure.” But his wife waves a hand in the air, saying he “jumped right in,” adding that a lot of men think there’s going to be something awkward, but kids are pretty resilient and they just get settled and start living life with you.
And actually, this has become the Pabilonia-Podell foster parenting mantra of sorts: Live your life, and the kids will join in. It applies to their established daily routines, as well as life interests, whether it’s vacations, football games or skiing.
Over the years, Podell has become an enthusiastic caregiver, impressed by the myriad resources offered by the Larimer County Department of Human Services, including trainings, flexibility in scheduling appointments around their work schedules and the opportunity to ask for help and advocate for the kids, which has made him feel supported and boosted his confidence. He says one of the best things is seeing the kids, who all have a history of trauma, adapt and be successful in life, whether it’s with them, or if they “go back home and you see a family turn around 180 degrees.”
Pabilonia agrees, citing the example of their now 11-year-old daughter, who they adopted after she was unable to return to her biological family. Originally placed with them when she was five, she was afraid of everything: She wouldn’t go down a slide at the playground because it was too scary to climb the ladder and she wouldn’t ride a bike, swim or even try new foods. “We just stayed patient and kept with it,” says Pabilonia. “And now she’s quite adventurous. She’ll swim in the ocean, go skiing. It’s so rewarding to see that.”
But of course, there are also challenges. “It’s the toughest job you’ll ever love,” Pabilonia says, noting that the kids frequently need many services, so transporting them around can be harried. And it’s often excruciating when it’s time to say goodbye, even though you know it’s the best thing for the kids. However, the couple works to build strong bonds with the biological families, and they’ve been able to keep in contact with all of their former foster kids. “Some of them are our Facebook friends. Others come back to go skiing with us,” says Pabilonia.
As for what’s ahead, Pabilonia and Podell both shrug. They’ve fostered eight kids so far, and three are now in their permanent care, all things they didn’t anticipate. “So, who knows?” says Podell. “But we did buy a bigger house and a larger car. I think we’re lifers.”