By Ariana Estes

Kalena waited patiently to find a foster family that would be a match. She was 15 years old and had finished serving her time in juvenile detention for a non-violent crime – but with nowhere to go, she remained in the detention center waiting for a foster family.

Shawnae and Michael Lacy had completed foster parent training a year prior and had been looking for the right match to join them and their two young sons, Darius and Justin, as part of their family. They had no idea that their first match would become a life-changing experience.

“When we didn’t have a placement for almost a year, we thought, ‘Well, maybe this isn’t for us.’ And when they did call, it was at a time when I had just gotten laid off,” says Shawnae.

Lutheran Family Services of Virginia encouraged the Lacys to consider meeting Kalena. They didn’t feel concerned about Kalena’s current situation because they knew her background, why she was there and, as Shawnae simply put it, “All kids make mistakes.”

Once they met, the Lacys knew that Kalena would be a great fit for their family.

“It was like an instant click,” recalls Shawnae. “We were like, ‘Yeah, we’re going to make this work.’”

Shawnae remembers Kalena asking about their sons, “Kalena asked, ‘Do you have any other kids? How old are they?’ and she was like, ‘Only boys? I’ll be your only girl? Okay!’”

Once home with the Lacys, Kalena was very outgoing and immediately began to connect with the family. They had a hard time remembering what it had been like before she joined the family. The Lacys had a lot of support from Kalena’s grandparents and case worker, which helped ease the transition. Family meetings also allowed Darius, Justin and Kalena the opportunity to voice concerns and provide feedback.

A few days after she went home with them, Kalena went in for a previously scheduled doctor appointment.

“We took her to the doctor and she was diagnosed with stage IV cancer. She was shocked and we were shocked,” remembers Shawnae.

What followed was two years of treatment.

“It turns out that the fact that I was laid off at the time was good because when she came into care she needed someone who could be with her 24-hours a day, 7 days a week. It just worked out perfectly. And once she got settled in and underway, then I got a job,” says Shawnae.

The experience brought them closer together as a family. Shawnae feels the experience helped her older son, Darius, to mature and become more responsible.

“He spent a lot of time in the hospital. He became more responsible taking care of his brother. He went to the same school as Kalena, so he would get her homework for her and help her out. I think the whole experience made them both grow in ways you can’t really teach.”

Their support also had an impact on Kalena. During a Foster Parent Appreciation event at Lutheran Family Services of Virginia, the Lacys were surprised with a special video message from Kalena. Filmed from the hospital, she expressed her gratitude to the Lacys and to the staff at Lutheran Family Services of Virginia.

The support for Kalena and the Lacys extended into the Richmond community. She had a goal to graduate high school, so the community joined together with staff members of Atlee High School to throw Kalena an early spring graduation ceremony. Over 200 people attended the ceremony to celebrate Kalena.

Shortly before her eighteenth birthday, she passed away.

“[Our sons] were devastated when she passed. They really loved her.”

The Lacys took the time to grieve and heal, but eventually, they were ready to welcome another foster child into their home. However, Kalena has left a lasting impact on the family.

“After our current placement is set with a home, we would like to go back to fostering a medically fragile child,” says Shawnae.

The Lacys also had some advice to offer to new foster parents.

“Keep your mind open – whether it’s fostering teenagers, medically fragile, be open to that. Don’t look at the paperwork and think ‘Oh, I can’t do this,’ because even if it may seem concerning, until you’re with the child and get to know them, you don’t really know how that presents in person.”

To learn more about becoming a foster parent, click here.

Photo used with permission from Commonwealth Photography.