By Tom Holmes
Forest Park resident Cholonda Allen has been a foster mom for 50 children since she began doing the work in 2006. Since June of last year, she has been in a special program called Emergency Homes in which she parents older children on what is supposed to be a short-term basis until permanent homes can be found for them.
Allen's niche in DCFS (Dept. of Children and Family Services) is working with kids with more needs than the average foster child.
"Mine is a specialized foster home," she explained. "The kids they place with me have behavioral issues and often act out because that was the way of life in the home they were growing up in, and they have to be re-parented."
Allen teaches her foster kids that they do not have to be defined by the pain in their past. She tells them they have to "honor and respect" the pain but don't get stuck in it because then they are doing it to themselves.
"They can't keep saying, 'This happened, this happened, this happened," she said. "A lot of what's wrong now is that a lot of people are stuck in their pain, and they don't know how to remove themselves from it and do something positive with it. I tell them that from this point on it's up to them."
"It takes," she said, "a lot of time and a lot of patience."
She gets "rewarded" when she sees her older children becoming adults and parents and how they've learned from what they went through as children.
"Some are going to school to be therapists and social workers," she said. "It's like they want to impact younger generations to take their pain and use it to help pull up others."
Allen received 84 hours of training from DCFS to be a specialized foster parent for children with special needs, but she felt that those two weeks were not enough, so she took college courses and earned a bachelor's degree in psychology.
"Those classes," she said, "gave me a lot of tools that have helped in the way I interact with and discipline the children, helped me do it in a more positive and helpful way."
She has empathy for the kids she re-parents because she's been there.
"I've been putting the puzzle of my own life together," she said. "I now understand why I went through a lot of the stuff I went through when I was growing up. What I had to learn was to be thankful and to understand that it wasn't me that caused the situation. I buried what had happened and that manifested in a lot of negativity. That's why I can relate to a lot of these older kids, to their anger and self-sabotaging."
Allen deals with the baggage of her past, the stress of work as a foster parent, and the volatile emotions of her kids by meditating.
"I call myself a spiritual person," she explained. "We meditate together every morning. We cleanse ourselves of negative energy and fill ourselves with positive energy. We understand that we're all connected. Fostering is a labor of love, and when you give love honestly from your heart, the universe sends genuine love back to you."
Cholonda said she got "hooked" on foster parenting back in 2006. She agreed to take one boy her mother was fostering and his two brothers for "just a week" to help out. The boy ended up staying with her for eight years. "I think that's when I got hooked," she said, "seeing these kids develop and come into their own."
Forest Park's emergency mom is not getting rich by fostering needy teenagers. She's an artist who supplements the money she receives from her pension and the DCFS payments by selling her art and skin care products and by facilitating painting classes. She finds that art is also therapeutic — for her kids and herself. She also has them write poetry and short stories.
"It's a beautiful way," she said, "to process what's going on inside you."
Allen drove a CTA bus for 23 years until an auto-immune disease left her temporarily unable to walk. What driving a bus around the West Side allowed her to do is to get a first-hand view of that poverty- and crime-ridden part of the city.
For years now she has responded to what she has seen by standing on a corner of Washington Boulevard, Madison Street or Chicago Avenue, handing out up to a hundred sandwiches, apples and drinks, which she has purchased with her own money, to the kids hanging out on the corner. When they see what she is doing, the neighborhood gangs leave her alone.
Allen wants her neighbors in Forest Park to hear how dire the need for foster parents is these days, especially for teenagers.
"When I'm handing out food on the West Side," she said, "I encounter kids all the time and the chant I keep hearing is 'Nobody cares and wants to get involved.' All they're looking for is love, support and a little patience."