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Feb. 5, 2023

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Always room at Clark County foster family’s table

Changing faces have become a holiday tradition in the Bumala household

By , Columbian Staff writer, news assistant
Published:
5 Photos
Aliyah and Gwen Bumala prepare for Thanksgiving by baking sugar cookies and treats Tuesday at their home near Washougal. Born to methamphetamine-addicted parents, Aliyah, 2, was adopted out of the foster care system by the Bumalas this summer, making this her first Thanksgiving with the family.
Aliyah and Gwen Bumala prepare for Thanksgiving by baking sugar cookies and treats Tuesday at their home near Washougal. Born to methamphetamine-addicted parents, Aliyah, 2, was adopted out of the foster care system by the Bumalas this summer, making this her first Thanksgiving with the family. (Greg Wahl-Stephens for The Columbian) Photo Gallery

WASHOUGAL — On Tuesday evening, flour and colorful sprinkles were strewn on the Bumalas’ kitchen counter as they worked together to bake sugar cookies ahead of their annual Thanksgiving feast, which will also include a 21-pound turkey.

It’s a fairly typical scene inside many American homes — that is, a family making preparations for a hearty meal before they share a joyous day with family. What’s not particularly typical at the Bumala home is who’s gathering around the table. For Gwen Bumala, a foster mother who has seen around 60 children come and go over the last 10 years, the faces around the table change year to year.

“I think that it can be difficult, because sometimes we have (children) who come and live with us for a very short time,” said Bumala, who founded Harmony Family Services, a Vancouver-based nonprofit that, starting this past June, transports and supervises visitations for foster children and their biological families.

“They can literally move in with us two weeks before Christmas, and you don’t want them to feel different from your kids who you have already bought (gifts for),” she said.

Celebrating with her this year, along with her two teenage biological sons and husband Luke, are their two adopted children, including Canaan, 5, and Aliyah, 2.

Canaan was adopted out of the foster system by the Bumalas in 2015, while Aliyah joined them permanently this summer. Both were born to methamphetamine-addicted parents and had to endure detox from the drug as soon as they were born, Bumala said.

Joining them in the evening on Thanksgiving for the first time this year is a 9-year-old foster daughter. Unnamed for safety reasons, she is one of 9,253 children younger than 18 in custody of the state Department of Child, Youth and Families, according to the agency.

Bumala said her foster daughter will spend the day on Thanksgiving with her father, then start spending nights with them beginning around Christmas break, part of a program called Trial Return Home that allows a foster child to visit parents under strict guidelines and assessments before it becomes permanent.

This sort of unstable in-and-out is what’s typical from the eyes of a foster child.

“They’re missing their family, and nothing is the same,” said Sarah Desjarlais, executive director of Office Moms & Dads, a nonprofit that helps children taken from abusive or neglectful situations until they are placed in foster care. “They’ve had trauma, and when everyone else looks really happy, they’re not. They have to somehow cope with that.”

Busy season

The Office Moms & Dads group sees an uptick in requests for their services around the holidays, according to Desjarlais.

“A lot of this has to do with the stress and pressure on families during that time. Things that have already been broken at home are breaking even more around the holidays,” said Desjarlais, who has two biological children and three adopted children. “Kids are acting out because they’re nervous about … where’s their food going to come from during the winter break?”

In the home, there are many reasons that can cause a child to be taken away and enter the foster system: drug and alcohol abuse and domestic violence issues, to name a couple.

“A lot of kids come into care the week before and the week after — so we have to make sure we have things for those kids, too, so they don’t think Santa passed them up,” said Kim Glover, a recruiter liaison for Clark and Skamania County at Fostering Together, an organization that partners with the state and another nonprofit, Olive Crest, to recruit foster families.

“It makes it hard, trying to please everybody and keep everybody happy, trying to remember that it’s Christmas or New Year’s or Hanukkah … for everyone trying to preserve those traditions and make sure the children feel part of your family, but also like they’re part of their biological family,” said Glover, who started fostering in 2002 and has since adopted five children in addition to having two biological children. “It’s kind of an intricate dance there … trying to keep the whole team together.”

Learning traditions

Holiday traditions might be an alien concept to a child from a tumultuous home. To help with that, an organization called Treehouse hosts a program called Holiday Magic, which enables about 5,500 children across Washington to have “something meaningful to open.”

The organization gets a list of contact information from the state Department of Children, Youth and Families in late August, then employees order gifts in bulk and work with shipping vendors to mail gifts out.

“We just sent out our first batch of gifts last Friday and will continue to send out gifts until the end of the year,” said Treehouse spokesperson Jesse Colman. Gifts provided are based on age range and include everything from a Fisher-Price Bright Beats Learnin’ Lights Dance Mat for newborns through 36-month-olds, to a 26-inch mountain bike and helmet for ages 18 to 21.

“We have one particular foster daughter who came to live with us three different times, and two of the times were right before Christmas,” Bumala said. “She was 7 years old, and her parents had left her by herself at her house for two weeks. They had just left.”

The child’s parents were alcoholics, Bumala said. The girl, now 15, returned to the Bumala home three times. Each time, they tried to make sure she felt welcome in their home for the holidays.

Bumala started a tradition for the children who have come through and celebrated Christmas with them.

They get to pick out a special ornament and personalized stocking. Then, when they leave, they can take it with them.

“I think (holiday traditions are) very important. It gives them something to hang onto — something positive. They didn’t ask for the situation that they’re in,” Bumala said. “The holidays are a good distraction from what their reality is.”

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Columbian Staff writer, news assistant