Foster parents dedicated to helping children

Even with their children almost grown, their house is still full of young children. Phil and Kathleen Nenninger are foster parents.

Phil and Kathleen Nenninger have always loved kids and have spent their lives being involved in everything their three children, ages 17, 21, and 23, have done from coaching sports to volunteering their time. But even with their children almost grown, their house is still full of young children.

Phil and Kathleen are foster parents.

“It’s by far the most rewarding thing you’ll ever do,” Phil, 48, said. “I’ve been active in our kids’ lives. (I’ve) been a Pee-Wee president. Kathleen’s run concessions. We’ve volunteered and been involved in just about anything our kids do. But by far, the most rewarding thing … every night we go to bed and they are clothed, in a clean environment, fed well.”

The couple has fostered more than 20 children and currently have four in their household, three are under 5 years old, and one is 19 years old and signed herself into the “Foster Care to 21” program at 18 to continue to get support from the state while she goes to college in Spokane.

The Nenningers decided to become foster parents more than five years ago when their church pastor’s wife held an informational class. Kathleen, 46, recalled that the woman said that if you’ve ever considered doing it “someday,” then there is no “someday” and to do it now. Since the Nenningers had considered doing it “someday,” they took her advice.

They included their own children in the decision.

“They had asked my opinion on it,” said Rachel Nenninger, 17. “I’ve always been the youngest by four years, so I’ve never had any close siblings. I thought, ‘hey awesome.’”

Adjusting to having more children in the house was not a big hassle for Phil and Kathleen.

“Every kid who comes into the house, I treat like they’re my kid,” Phil said. “There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for them, biological kids or borrowed kids. They’re all mine. That’s the way we look at it. They’re ours until they go home.”

According to Rachel, the biggest adjustment she ever had to make was switching rooms with her older sister Heather, 23, because after Heather turned 18 years old she couldn’t share a room with the foster children.

Phil and Kathleen both agreed on the most important house rule.

“Number one, don’t lie to us,” Kathleen said.

“These kids need somebody that they know is in their corner,” Phil said. “That has been … one of the biggest things that we can do, be in their corner.”

They also agree that finding the right way to discipline their foster children is one of the toughest challenges.

“Every kid is different and you need to understand what’s going to work with each child,” Phil said. “And our three biological kids … I love them all, and treat them all fairly, but what punishment or discipline would work for one of them, would not necessarily work for all of them.”

While discipline is one of the hardest things, one of the most important things is treating the foster children the same as their biological children.

“I would never think to treat the kid any differently than any other kid in this house,” Phil said. “Rachel has a car. If I had another 17 year old in here, we’d work on getting him or her licensed and they’d get a car. As long as you’re doing the stuff you’re supposed to do, you’re doing schoolwork, that would be one of the things you’d get.”

The Nenningers said that even though it’s important to treat each child that comes to them as if they were their own child, they are very aware that the children won’t be staying with them forever.

“We didn’t want to adopt,” Kathleen said. “We just wanted to foster because there’s people who make mistakes. And if they were doing the things they should be doing to turn those (mistakes) around, then they need support. One of the ways they need support is they need someone to care for the kids.”

But the kids are always welcome back into the Nenninger household. Around the time the couple started fostering, they were finishing up renovations in their kitchen and decided to do something unique with a wall above one of the counters.

“We decided that every child that comes in and spends a week with us would make a tile,” Phil said. “The tiles are probably one of my favorite things. And you know, our kids are up there, our kids’ friends are up there. Anyone who’s spent a week here, you’re part of our house, you’re part of our home, you’re part of our family. You always will be.”

The Nenningers know they won’t be doing this forever. Their youngest child will be graduating high school next year and when she does, they plan to take a break.

“It’s always been our plan that when Rachel graduates, we would stop,” said Phil. “We would take a year off, to spend the summer with Rachel before she goes to college and do some of the things she wants to do. And just to kind of give ourselves a break.”

They would like to travel out of the state, something that is hard to get permission to do with foster children.

When they do give up fostering, they don’t intend to leave the foster care system entirely. They plan on volunteering with a program called Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA). The job of a CASA volunteer is to advocate for the best interest of the child.

“(In court) the social workers may have their say, the defense attorneys have their say, but the CASA always gets his or her say,” said Phil. “They present the court what they feel is what’s best for the kids. Not what’s best for the state. Their complete focus is the child.”

Ultimately, Phil and Kathleen both agree that there is nothing more rewarding than being foster parents.

“I’ve always had people ask us, ‘Well how can you not get so attached to the kids?” said Kathleen. “And I say, well, of course you’re attached. I mean, as soon as you hear the story, never mind as soon as they walk in the house, or crawl in the house, or get carried into the house, you’re totally in love with them. How can you not be?”

They have some advice for anyone thinking of becoming a foster parent.

“You have to be ready to get your heart broken,” Phil said. “That’s the one thing that took us both by surprise. There are times when kids leave you that you’re madly in love with. It’s a good thing. You know deep down it’s a good thing, but you know you’re going to miss them. I give every kid that comes in here my whole heart. When they leave, they take a part of my heart with them.”

Kathleen added, “Probably one of my favorite memories is actually them (foster children) being able to go home, going home to mom and dad.”

And Kathleen gives the same advice she got when she first started as a foster parent.

“If you’ve ever thought about doing it, you should just do it,” Kathleen said. “You don’t have to do it forever. You can set limits. But it is incredibly rewarding and incredibly needed. I wish more than anything that it wasn’t needed, but it is.”