Mark and Evelyne Salay

Fall/Winter of 2015

Keeping Families Together Through Kinship

September was Kinship Care Month, established to raise awareness about children in state protective services who are under the care of relatives. Saint Francis Community Services has always worked hard to place children in foster care with relatives because it helps maintain connections with the child’s birth family. Interestingly, September is also when we celebrate Grandparents Day. Of the 1,151 children currently in kinship care in Kansas, more than half are living with grandparents. In fact, at a time in their lives when people typically start looking towards retirement, many grandparents are beginning “Round 2,” as they care for infant or toddler grandchildren.

Mark Salay has just finished “bubble-wrapping” the legs on a large, metal coffee table in the living room of his Junction City, Kansas, home. His one-year-old granddaughter, Tessa, hasn’t quite mastered the intricacies of bipedal motion, so he’s helping her avoid accidental bumps as she learns to navigate the house. Mark and his wife, Evelyne, have had Tessa since September 10, 2014, when the Kansas Department for Children and Families (DCF) determined it was unsafe for the 2-day-old newborn to remain with her mother and subsequently removed her from the hospital. Tessa’s mother, the Salays’ youngest child, has a history of drug use and is currently incarcerated in the Geary County Jail. She’s also pregnant with Tessa’s sister, MaKenzie; Mark and velyne will care for her, too, once she’s born. And for the last year and a half, they’ve cared for their 15-year-old grandson, the son of another incarcerated daughter.

Kinship Care

“All three of our kids have been incarcerated,” says Mark. “The two girls are in there now – one on each side of the jail. I’ve been with a church for 12 to 15 years now, and sometimes, you just cry. We never thought we’d be in this position. This was supposed to be our turn. We were in a place where the kids were grown, and we were planning to visit Branson and Hawaii.” “It might still happen,” adds Evelyne, “just on a different timeline.”

They’re not bitter, though, far from it. For Evelyne, it’s simply what you do.

“Family has to take care of each other,” she says. “I don’t know why everything has happened this way, but we have to make sure the children are cared for. If that means my grandchildren need to stay with me, then so be it.”

A native of Germany, she met and married Mark when he was stationed there while in the Army. When his enlistment ended, they returned to his home state of New Jersey. An Army buddy encouraged them to come to Kansas, where he assured Mark he could find work. So they packed up and moved to Kansas, but the jobs weren’t as plentiful as they had hoped. Eventually, Mark found work and Evelyne earned a degree in family studies and human resources from Kansas State University. For the last 16 years, she’s worked for Flint Hills Job Corps, where she leads the single parent program. Mark drives a school bus for USD 475 and teaches adult Sunday school at The Light House, the non-denominational church they attend.

“I’m a praying man,” says Mark. “At first, I might have had some frustration, but then God just took it away. I believe it’s the will of God for us to be here now. Everything that has transpired in our lives up to this point has been orchestrated. I believe that.”

Fortunately, Evelyne’s workplace has a daycare facility so Tessa stays there during the day. And six weeks after MaKenzie is born, she can go to the daycare, too. Until then, Evelyne will use six weeks of saved vacation to stay home with the children. After that, Mark says they’ll deal with life in “chunks.”

Kinship Care

“Years one through five will be the first hurdle,” he says. “We’ll get that out of the way, then they’ll start school. It will be a little different, and we’ll have some of the pressure off. Then there will be sixth grade, then high school. By then, it will be a different dynamic.”

They have three other grandchildren, two of whom are staying with paternal grandparents. They also live in Junction City, so Mark and Evelyne see them often. Another granddaughter lives with her father, Mark and Evelyne’s son. Tessa and MaKenzie’s mother has surrendered her parental rights, so Mark and Evelyne intend to adopt them. They offered to adopt their 15-year-old grandson, but since he’ll be an adult in three years, he felt it wasn’t necessary.

Despite heartbreaking challenges, Mark and Evelyne have managed to keep their family essentially together - by making sure their grandchildren have a home with people who love them. Life didn’t turn out how they expected, but when does it ever? Together, they’re adjusting to an unexpected reality, surprised how easy it’s actually been to adapt to new routines. And they’ve discovered new joy in little Tessa.

“I pay a lot more attention to little changes as she grows than I did with my own children,” says Evelyne. “When I was younger and raising my children, I took good care of them, but didn’t spend a lot of time just observing them. I was too busy worrying about the day-to-day stuff. But I look at her and think, ‘Oh my, she’s doing this now and that now.’ It’s just amazing; God is good. We have kids to care for, and we have a purpose. So, I’m happy.”

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