Gateway salutes foster dad Kaunda Wooten this Father’s Day
Birmingham native Kaunda Wooten has been risking his life to help others for almost sixteen years. Becoming a firefighter wasn’t his original plan, but once the door opened, he discovered a natural talent and enthusiasm he didn’t realize he had. “Growing up, I didn’t want to be a firefighter,” he tells Gateway. “But sometimes the job you want may not be the right one for you. And sometimes the right one is what you never thought of.”
It’s a lesson that he brings to his own children: three sons and a daughter ranging in age from five to 19 years old. To Wooten, being their father means helping them to challenge themselves and to understand the role they can play in helping others to overcome challenges.
“I love what I do,” says Wooten. “It gives me a chance to help people and make a difference in their life. Just like fostering.”
That’s right. Not only is Kaunda Wooten the proud father of four biological children, he and Danielle (his wife of sixteen years) have opened their hearts and homes to a number of foster youth in Gateway’s Therapeutic Foster Care Program.
Kaunda says that, while they didn’t know much about the challenges of becoming foster parents, it was always part of the plan for their family. “My wife grew up in a home where she was an only child, so she always wanted to foster kids. We didn’t have any negatives or reservations about it. Once our children were old enough and we had the space, we knew it was time to get started.”
While Kaunda and Danielle had many of their questions answered in Gateway’s 12-week training program for new foster parents, they knew it was important for their kids’ questions to be addressed. The family talked through what it meant to bring a new child into their home and how the parents would manage to show everyone the attention they needed. The Wooten kids asked questions about getting attached to their foster brother and what would happen if he had to leave.
“Their concerns were the same as ours,” says Wooten. “Once we sat them down and talked about our decision to be foster parents, they wanted to understand how everything would work.”
Kaunda and Danielle decided that with three boys of their own, fostering teenage boys would be a better fit for their family. But after months of training and preparation, Kaundra says the first night as a foster dad was still a shock. “When he got here he was kind of timid and quiet. He was pretty much a closed door. We didn’t know what to expect at first and neither did he,” says Kaunda. “On that first night together, I told him, ‘As of now, you’re my child. Just like the others.’”
Since that night, the Wootens have had three other placements through the Gateway TFC program. And each of those new parenting relationships starts with a conversation about household rules and unwavering support. Kaunda says that simple pledge of support and guidance goes a long way.
“You never know how much of a difference you can make. For some of these kids, they’re going from aspiring to be nothing to aspiring to be a doctor or lawyer, or just to succeed in life. A hug and saying ‘I love you’ can make a difference. They may have never heard that before.”
We at Gateway could not accomplish any of the work we do for foster youth without strong parents like Kaunda Wooten. And in honor of Father’s Day, here are a few words of advice from one of our favorite Gateway Dads:
1) Listen to each other. Kaunda Wooten says that one of the reasons he and his family are able to do so much for others is because they make a point of preserving their family connection: “When the foster child is at another foster home for respite care, we try to reconnect with our children and let them know we’re here for them. Sit down with them and listen. Whether it’s just a couple of hours or for a day.”
2) Take time for yourself. Being a parent to a child healing from family trauma, abuse, behavioral challenges, or mental health issue can be stressful. Kaunda tells us that a supportive partner or backup can help to diffuse tough situations and keep parenting goals in perspective. “If one needs a break, the other can step in and say ‘Let’s go outside’ or ‘Let’s go for a ride’ to let the other person get a breather.”
3) Be a mentor forever. Foster children come with their own unique family history and legacy, says Kaunda Wooten, but sometimes it helps to let them connect to yours. “My job is to be a role model and let him know that everything won’t always be easy. I show them where I grew up and where I lived … then I show them where we live now. And I tell them, ‘We’re still not done. We’re still striving to do more things … and you can keep pressing to do more, too.’”