MONTE VISTA — Soledad “Sol” and Boyce “BJ” Baumgardner know a thing or two about raising a family. The couple has fostered 71 children from across the San Luis Valley—three of which they adopted—over the past 15 years.
“It has turned out to be one of the best things ever,” said Sol. “ I don’t think there is ever going to be a stopping point. It keeps us young and keeps us on our toes.”
They thought they were going to stop fostering when they turn 45. Sol is 44 and BJ is 43, and the two show no sign of slowing down. Their dedication to caring for children is why the Colorado Department of Human Services recently recognized them and four other families with a special event at the Cheesman-Boettcher Mansion in May.
The couple began fostering a year before they married and BJ had a son of his own, Camryn, now 20, but after two failed in vitro fertilization attempts that put them in debt and one miscarriage, they turned to adopting.
When they started fostering they were called a “receiving home,” which is a temporary placement before the children go to a more permanent foster situation. Yet they knew they needed to intervene when a 15-day-old baby was left at their home. As the mother went through a rehabilitation process to possibly reunify with their child, the Baumgardners kept fostering the baby and eventually adopted Jeremiah, now 11.
“We only see possibly a rate of 10 percent or less of where parents go through that rehab process and reunify with kids,” BJ said. “That’s a sad statistic. It really is.”
A few months later they were fostering and adopting a 6-month-old boy name Eli. Now 9, his parents were friends with other children the Baumgardners fostered and were happy to see that he would be taken care of.
Meanwhile they were still fostering their first placement: a group of five teenagers. The adoption rate drops the older kids become and it is a challenge for them to lead a successful life if they emancipate, also known as aging out of the system, when they turn 18. According to the Denver Post 36 percent of emancipated kids are homeless by 21 while 27 percent become incarcerated.
Shortly after the teenagers emancipated, the Baumgardners saw those figures firsthand.
One went to prison and writes them regularly. One was a college track star that pulled a hamstring, became addicted to Percocet, dropped out, became homeless and turned to heroin. Another abandoned her children and was also homeless. Out of the five, only one went straight to college and then proceeded to earn her master’s degree.
Still, they kept in touch and learned that things improved.
“Once we started doing it, it’s not even about adopting anymore, really,” BJ said. They’re still calling us mom and dad because they lived with us for three to four years.”
After rehabilitation, the man who was addicted to heroin is now a hotel manager in Louisville. Additionally, the woman who lost her kids is married and studying to be a nurse while working on getting custody of her children.
“You do the best you can, but you still have to let those kids out,” said BJ. “It’s like a bird leaving the nest. You’re hoping it’s going to fly.”
If a kid emancipates, which 13 of the Baumgardner’s children in foster care have, the two do what they can to help ease them into adulthood. They’re still allowed to live in their Monte Vista home, conveniently situated by the elementary and high schools, provided they complete chores and pay a weekly rent. BJ and Sol said they’ve seen better results when the children can gradually adjust.
“I don’t know how many kids we’ve had that have called us when they’ve gone back to their biological parents and said ‘this was the biggest mistake I’ve made,’” Sol said. “You don’t always get a good, happy ending right away, but the ending will come some time.”
In addition to their home, which is certified to house eight placements, the Baumgardners converted their garage into an apartment for the emancipated kids. Currently it is the home of one teenager, Tammy, that they fostered for seven years before she aged out of the system. The teen witnessed her father die and she starting smoking two packs a day and the couple began to question why they got someone who thought “she thought she was a gangster.”
“We had given up on her on the second day,” Sol said. “A day later they had found her a home in Crestone and she changed her behavior for us instantly.”
“She wanted a family and wanted that love,” BJ added.
According to CDHS, 14 children enter foster care daily and an estimated 1,200 additional foster families are needed in Colorado by 2019.
There’s a misconception that folks get into fostering for the cash, but the Baumgardners want to tell people that’s not true. “If that was the case I would be home with my kids,” said Sol. The Alamosa native recently quit a part-time job but she still works as an office manager at Sweet Tooth Dental while BJ, who is originally from Arizona, moved to the Valley in 1995 to work in telecommunications.
According to BJ, they are reimbursed an average of $13 per night per child. On May 29 they received an emergency placement of a girl at 2 a.m. who had nothing but her clothes and a blanket. Quickly purchasing her shoes and a week’s worth of outfits, they spent roughly $300 on a kid they’ll care for about a week.
Factor in daycare, food and winter clothing along with sports equipment, and the costs rapidly rise.
“It might be close, but the money is never exceeding what we give out,” said BJ.
And the Baumgardners don’t want to hold out on enriching their children’s lives. In addition to sports, they want them active in music-related extracurricular activities like choir and band. Sol and BJ hold concert nights at their house where the kids pick a song, choreograph it and perform with a karaoke machine.
“We do it because we don’t want them to be shy,” said BJ. “It helps with their personality and builds their self-esteem...The first few times you nudge them and encourage them and after that they’re asking when the next one is.”
In fifth grade the children can join band, which many do voluntarily because of the concert nights. “We didn’t even have to beg them,” BJ said. “They came home, got an instrument and signed up.”
The Baumgardners have at least another 15 years of fostering left in them, if not more. “Jeremiah fulfilled that void of being a mom to somebody,” Sol said. “And if he did that to me, could you imagine what I could do to somebody else? That’s what keeps us going. It filled our hearts and our nests.”
Because BJ had a 7-year-old when they began fostering, he wants people who may be hesitant to foster to know that the presence of more kids won’t have a negative impact. He said that Camyrn has enjoyed constantly having younger and older siblings and watching their sports games. “Just because you’re adding a child to your home, doesn’t mean you’re going to have to take away from anybody in the house,” BJ said. “It’s just like having another child.
“Your love surrounds all of them.”
Caption: From left are BJ, Elena, 9, Camryn, 20, Jeremiah, 11, Sol and Eli Baumgardner, 9. Not pictured are a soon-to-be adopted 12-year-old girl and 10-year-old boy along with an emancipated 17-year-old girl, Tammy. The Baumgardners have aided 71 children as foster parents. Courtesy photo.