I knew I wanted to be a foster parent before I knew what college I wanted to attend, before I knew what I wanted to wear to prom, before I could even drive. Learning about foster care and being around children in foster care made me passionate about being a foster parent one day.

I became aware of the foster care system and the children in it when I was young because a cousin of mine became a foster parent. We were part of her family’s support system already—I was her kids’ babysitter, and that continued once she and her husband started fostering. I started to learn about foster care and why children were in the system, about how they often stay there for much longer than they should, and about how not all of them have the happy endings of going home or getting adopted. My cousin told me that she was a foster parent because of the many, many children “in the system” who needed safe homes.  As a young teenager, that hit me hard.

My family became family to the children who came into my cousin’s home—whether it was for a little while or forever.  Being a part of that support system changed my life; it gave me a passion for children in foster care and a foundation for understanding the system.

Now, more than 15 years later, I am a foster parent myself. From my experience, I can see that not everyone received the experience and education of the foster care system that I did. Most people I encounter don’t know about it at all, some assume it’s only an issue in big cities, and others think the kids did something wrong that got them in the system.

Instead of getting offended or annoyed at people’s assumptions or sometimes-inconsiderate comments or questions, I try to look at each opportunity as a way to correct misunderstandings and spread awareness. While building our support system, my husband and I have chosen not only to include other foster parents, but those not involved in foster care as well. We did this for many reasons, but I hope that one result is that these people will understand foster care a little better, and they, too, will be able to correct any misinformation they hear.

So, foster parents, as you are able, open up your life a little and educate those around you about the system. Allow others into your family to experience life with these children who desperately need support, wherever they end up. I have learned firsthand that this is the best way to spread foster care awareness.

Understanding foster care and seeing it up close is a key part of getting more people to become foster parents or, at the very least, getting people to support foster kids or families. Seeing it for what it really is will certainly scare some people off, but it may also open others’ eyes to the great need and alter the course of their lives, as it did mine.