Finding Love for 34 Foster Children
Guillermo Menjivar has a favorite phrase regarding the many children in his life: “No problem.”
“You need a ride to school? No problem.”
“You want to go shopping? I’ll take you – no problem.”
“You need $10 for lunch? No problem.”
This well-worn saying has fallen from Guillermo’s lips thousands of times over the last 21 years, displaying an openness of heart and a generous spirit that have made him and his wife, Marina, something very special and rare: foster parents to a total of 34 children.
“We treat them all like our own,” said Guillermo.
Throughout the 21 years, they’ve seen everything: kids who run away, who overdose on drugs, who get into fights. On the flip side, they’ve watched damaged and vulnerable children blossom into confident, capable teens who go on to become successful young adults.
No matter the child, the circumstances, or the challenges, the couple prides themselves on creating a safe, structured, loving home for every one. “Once a kid comes here, they don’t want to leave,” said Guillermo.
The couple, who live in Reseda, CA, the living room adorned with family photographs, can instantly recall the date they received their first foster child: November 15, 1995. At the time, they were raising two boys of their own, ages 17 and 10.
They became foster parents (also known as resource parents due to recent changes in state child welfare legislature) by chance. One day when Guillermo was visiting a friend, he noticed two children in the house who weren’t his friend’s children.
The friend explained that the two were foster children, and suggested Guillermo and Marina also become foster parents through the foster care and adoptions agency he had used, Bienvenidos, an affiliate of Hillsides, a Southern California foster care charity. The idea sounded appealing to Guillermo because growing up in El Salvador, his mother raised several foster care children.
Menjivar’s friend had an ulterior motive – foster parents who recruit other families into the system receive bonuses. Luckily for the friend, once Guillermo contacted Bienvenidos, which has offices in Pasadena, CA and Montclair, CA, and learned about the tremendous need of the children in the system, he quickly became sold on becoming a foster parent.
He got Marina on board, and next, talked to his two sons. He stressed that if he and Marina became foster parents, he would expect his boys to treat the children like siblings and any child would become an instant member of the family. The boys gave him their approval. Guillermo and Marina went through the prerequisite training and background checks, and became licensed foster parents.
The first child to enter the Menjivar household in 1995 was a 10-year-old boy on his 25th placement. “He told me, ‘Everyone kicks me out after a month,’” remembered Guillermo. The boy was challenged with hyperactivity, wet his bed, and was on several medications.
Guillermo was undaunted by any of this. “I had no issue working with a kid like that,” he said. “We just tried to help.”
The boy wound up living with the Menjivars for the next eight years until turning 18. He went on to attend college and find a stable job. He is now married with two children, and a frequent visitor at their house.
Guillermo and Marina both work full-time. He is a linen supervisor for Northridge Hospital and she works as a medical technician for a retirement home. They have a license for four foster children, and the number of foster children they have at one time varies between two and four. They have almost exclusively fostered pre-teen or teen boys. Currently two boys, ages 14 and 15, live with them. A foster child they raised who is now 27 also lives with them.
Not all the children who have passed through their doors lived there as long as their first foster child. Some stay for years, others, for months. However, the Menjivars gave each the same opportunities.
“They like sports, we sign them up for AYSO or a basketball league,” said Guillermo. “We find out what they like and we give them what they need.” The couple navigates field trips, summer camps, ROTC trips, dance competitions, and tournaments. When kids stay out late and don’t call, just like any parent, they worry.
One thing Guillermo makes sure to do is never break a promise. The other night, for example, after a long day at work and hours spent helping a TV repair man switch their services, he was beat and ready for bed. But he’d promised the boys he’d taken them to Wal-Mart so they could buy snacks, so off to the store they went, not returning home until after 10 p.m.
“He can’t say no to them,” said Marina.
Another thing the couple has given the children is structure. They are assigned chores and expected to take regular showers, brush their teeth, iron their clothes and mind their manners. When the two current boys living there recently met a guest in the house, they politely shook hands and said “Nice to meet you.”
Marina Menjivar cooks healthy dinners every night, such as chicken, vegetables and a salad. She doesn’t get offended, however, if the boys turn up their nose at the nutritious fare and instead opt to forage in the freezer for Costco favorites like burritos and chimichangas.
“They like their cereal too,” said Marina. “They go through one gallon of milk a day.”
After the foster children leave the Menjivars, often due to emancipation (aging out of the foster care system) the couple still stays involved. They help the youth find work and apartments, and encourage them to visit and keep in touch.
Marina and Guillermo are both 61. When asked if they see themselves stopping being foster parents in the near future, they responded with an emphatic no.
“It would be so lonely,” said Marina. “This week, one of the boys was at camp, and it was too quiet.
“We get a lot of blessings from opening up our hearts,” she continued. “It’s not easy for other people to do what we do, but for us, it makes us feel good.”
There was one time, two years ago, when the couple took a break from foster care. They were raising a young man, 18, who had been living with them for three years. Guillermo taught him how to drive and took him to the DMV to get his license. Then one night they got the call every parent dreads – the youth had been in a car crash. They rushed to his side at the hospital, but it was too late; he had already died. Afterwards, Guillermo didn’t feel he had it in him to bring anyone else into his heart or home.
Four months passed. The couple took a trip to El Salvador to visit relatives. But when they returned home, the house seemed too still. Bienvenidos contacted them. The agency needed a home for a teen boy who attended school near them – could they take him in?
Guillermo thought for awhile, then, his “no problem” nature kicking in, finally responded yes. “I told them, we will try again,” he recalled.
Just recently they’ve taken an even further step for that teen, and have become his legal guardian, which means they will take care of him until he is an adult. It appears the Menjevers’ hearts will remain open for some time to come.