Thomasena Newton is who many would call a saint, but even more would call a personal friend. Throughout her life, she has provided over 100 children with a home, fostering children from where she grew up in Monroe County, South Carolina to where she spent most of her career in Rochester, New York. That was when the social workers at Catholic Family Center met Thomasena, and her journey as a foster parent really began to unfold.
Ms. Newton grew up in South Carolina and moved to Rochester when she was in her late twenties. Newton had always wanted to have kids. However, circumstances were never right for her to have her own. Newton decided as an alternative, she would become a foster parent. Little did she know that she would become a mother to over 100 children, from newborn babies to 21-year-olds.
She was able to provide for these children by working a full-time job at Kodak for nearly 25 years. In addition to her paycheck, she was given a stipend every month to help provide for the children’s basic needs such as clothes, food, and medicine.
Many of her children were refugees from all over the world including Cuba, Egypt, Afghanistan, Haiti, Liberia, Guatemala and Eritrea. Thomasena learned about different cultures when taking care of these kids. Her most prominent memory of culture shock occurred one evening during mealtime. Instead of sitting at the table, her two kids from Eritrea grabbed two spoons and put their dinner in a large bowl. They then began eating it together on the floor of the dining room. By taking their lead, Thomasena simply got down on the ground and began eating it with them like they were family.
Ms. Newton looks back on these unique memories fondly. Throughout these experiences, she holds tightly to the belief of letting a person do what they are used to. Taking away a person’s culture is taking away a large part of who they are. In Thomasena’s words,
“Your experience is different from their experience, and you have got to learn, and once you learn, then you can operate differently with them. But if you don’t learn, then you can’t operate.”
In addition, Thomasena makes sure that the kids who come into her house know that every religion is welcome and respected. One of her biggest takeaways from being a mother to these children is that
“Everybody is somebody and you have got to give them a chance to know that they are somebody.”
She makes sure that each of her kids know that they are human beings too. They have as much of a right to be in this country as everyone else. She explains this philosophy best by using an example of people who eat rice every day. Some who never eat rice may not understand the impact that rice has on a person’s everyday life, what it does for their body, their food preparation culture, and their eating culture. So, when kids don’t want to eat the food prepared by Thomasena, she tries to understand how their food culture shapes their feeling of comfort. She then adjusts her way of life to accommodate theirs.
Ms. Newton also takes the time to recognize that these kids are missing their families in addition to being in a foreign environment. She also understands that not everybody is going to treat her kids with the respect that they deserve. Her goal is to give them the ability to believe in themselves so strongly that when a person is doubting them, they have the confidence to walk away and let that person grow for themselves. It’s a complex, time consuming skill, but it’s necessary to learn.
“The most important thing in this journey is that they know that they are human beings too.”
On top of taking care of kids and working full time at Kodak, Thomasena worked at New Life Fellowship, a large church in Rochester. From the thirty years of working there, Ms. Newton took away a key lesson: to help one another. To help one another and remember that not only does God bless you, but God blesses you with help.
“I always know that there’s a need. Everybody has a need — and it ain’t always foster care. Kids need different things from different places. You don’t live by yourself in this world. And you have to learn how to help people. One day you’re going to need help. And you don’t know when that day is coming. But if you live right, the doors will open for you.”
Ms. Newton saw her truth play out in 2018 when she suffered from a stroke and spent a couple of months recovering in a hospital. Her strong community stepped up and helped her in every way that they could. Her recovery, however, did not stop her from getting back to taking care of kids. Even from the hospital, Ms. Newton was working with Catholic Family Center to make sure her kids were being looked after properly. And, as soon as she arrived home from the hospital, she started arranging plans for her next set of kids.
Ms. Newton’s main advice to anyone who is wanting to foster is to take the time to get to know the kids. Little by little, they will open up.
“The most important thing in the world is understanding. Whether it’s through a child or anybody else. With understanding you can change the world in so many ways. But if you ain’t got no understanding you ain’t got nothing.”
Each child still has a special place in her heart. She still talks to many of them today. She routinely gets phone calls, postcards, and even wedding invitations! One of them even named her daughter Thomasena, in honor of Ms. Newton. Ms. Newton is now 81 living out her retirement with her niece in Georgia.
“Well, all I can say is, if it’s your truth, that’s what matters. ’Cause my story is different from everybody else’s story. My experience is different, but it’s my experience. Everybody is somebody’s child, and they are wondering where and how their child is. As a foster mom, I never forgot that I was taking care of another mother’s child, who had her own dreams and love for her children.”
Catholic Family Center is the largest provider of family services in #ROC, addressing issues of need across all stages of life. See more: www.cfcrochester.org