“Big Brother” and “Little Brother” are two very lucky little boys because they’ve been placed with an Angels foster family with four adults who adore them. Oh sure, two of the grown-ups are disguised as 10-year-old twin sisters, but make no mistake, they have wisdom and maturity that belie their age.
Penny and Erin Cullen sit on the couch as their daughters, Aleena and Leala, finish dinner with two- and four-year-old Big and Little Brother. When they finish, the girls join the conversation and share their insights about what it’s like to serve as a foster family with Angels. “It’s different,” Aleena says, glancing at her twin. “Louder.” They both laugh. “But I'd give it a ten of ten." Aleena begins to multi-task as Little Brother crawls onto her lap with a book. She begins reading to him with great animation. Leala has a pensive look as she continues. "In some ways, we have less freedom," she says, sharing that she and her sister now share a bedroom. “It’s worth it though because now we have two little brothers!”
The parents agree. “Your freedom is going to be altered, if not put on hold,” says Erin, a Navy reservist on active duty. That doesn’t mean there’s not time for fun, like stories and snuggles, going to the pool, and throwing the football in the backyard. Erin smiles wide as he talks about Big Brother’s passing skills. “He throws the football very well. We’re working on the catching.”
Penny, an educator who homeschools her daughters, says the best part of being a foster family is getting to watch children overcome their deep-seated fears from trauma. “Seeing kids get the tools, heal, and grow make it worth it,” she says. When the brothers were first placed with the Cullen family about a year ago, Big felt insecure at preschool, Penny explains. “Teachers said he would need to be held constantly, but after three months it turned around … he now sees school as a safe place for his heart.” Penny says she also loves the sound of “pure human laughter” that fills her house when the kids play together.
Fostering is hard too. When infants and toddlers are placed in foster care, it is because they have experienced trauma. It’s challenging to see the fallout from drug exposure, abuse, or neglect. “We struggle every day with Big Brother not eating his food and Little Brother eating too quickly,” says Erin. But he and Penny agree that the training and ongoing support provided by Angels make the experience one where they can focus on the rewards of fostering young children. The organization even provides support for managing relationships with biological family members and navigating the reunification process.
It is also hard to make long-term plans when the future is somewhat unknown, says Erin. “We’ve always kept a ten-year vision, which is difficult, but you have to accept that you don’t know where they’ll be in a year,” he says. Still, it’s worth it, the family agrees.
The brothers change into their pajamas, baby alligators for Little and robots for Big, and start to settle in for their bedtime ritual of teeth brushing and stories. Leala explains that they need to get to sleep soon, then rattles off their schedule in great detail.
Angels has many different foster parents: single people, couples, big families, and retirees. Each is selected because they have the ability to create a safe, loving environment for infants and toddlers. Families don’t need to have a set of precocious kids to help out, but when they do, it can be very sweet.