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WWU Human Services students weave together the life stories of adopted youngsters

Story by Mary Lane Gallagher

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WWU student Claire Robinson watches Gracie, 2, look through her Life Book. The students in WWU's Human Development and Human Services class put together the scrap books for youngsters who are being adopted. The books, filled with photos and family information, are meant to help adopted youngsters fill in the holes of their earliest childhood memories. | Photo by Josie Liming
Sadie, 3, shrieked with joy when she first saw her Life Book, put together by WWU students Cameron Harsh and Mikel Townsley. The books were a project in WWU's Human Development and Human Services class. | Photo by Josie Liming
Sadie, 3, shrieked with joy when she first saw her Life Book, put together by WWU students Cameron Harsh and Mikel Townsley. The books were a project in WWU's Human Development and Human Services class. Here, Townsley shows Sadie's adoptive father, Shawn Doyle, the places in the book intentionally left blank for memories yet to come. | Photo by Josie Liming

Sidebar: "This is her story."

"This is her story."

Sidebar: Syllabus: A look at WWU's Human Development and Human Services course

Syllabus: A look at WWU's Human Development and Human Services course

How to help WWU students make more Life Books

Assistant Professor John Korsmo's students create the Life Books using scrapbooking materials donated to DCFS. Those with materials they'd like to contribute to the effort may contact Korsmo at John.Korsmo@wwu.edu.

WWU junior Clint Richmond had never seen a foster child’s case file until he was assigned to tell a child’s life story for his class in Human Development and Human Services.

The file’s stark, clinical details of how the family frayed so badly that the boy was placed in foster care took Richmond’s breath away.

Then he met the little boy and his adoptive family, whose effusive love took his breath away, too.

How could a kid live through so much, Richmond wondered, and still be a “normal” kid?

But the little boy had a more important question for Richmond: “If you could be a dinosaur, which one would you be?”

That was how an 8-year-old boy helped teach Richmond, a 22-year-old college student, about resiliency.

“I had a blast hanging out with him,” Richmond says. “He’s so friendly.”

Richmond was one of several WWU students building Life Books this winter, chronicling the early lives of foster kids before their adoptions. Students in Assistant Professor John Korsmo’s Human Development and Human Services class have created the books for the past three years as a service learning project with the Division of Children and Family Services (DCFS).

The class is one of Woodring College of Education’s foundational courses for Human Services majors. By exploring what Korsmo calls, “human ecology, how people develop within the context of their surroundings,” he helps students begin to see how human services agencies can influence the developing lives of children and adults.

The assignment also brings to life the concepts students are learning in class: resiliency, attachment, social and emotional development, and the interplay between nature and nurture.

“Students use the Life Book project as a case study,” Korsmo says, “examining the development of the books’ recipients as well as his or her biological and adoptive families in relation to what they are reading about and discussing in class.”

But it’s much more than an intellectual exercise. The assignment gives students a preview of the emotionally difficult information they’ll be dealing with in their careers in the human services field, such as counseling, program development and case management.

Plus, Korsmo says, “It has a happy ending. The children are being adopted into a loving family.”

Before starting the project, the students sign a confidentiality agreement with the Division of Children and Family Services and undergo a Washington State Patrol background check so they can be granted access to the confidential files. While scanning the files, the students search for tidbits that will help young children understand their past, anything from birth certificates and medical information about developmental milestones or biological relatives to notes from favorite childhood caregivers.

At the end of the term, students bring their projects and a pot luck dish to a break room at the DCFS office in Bellingham to present the books to the kids and adoptive families.

Miriam Burger’s soon-to-be adopted daughter, Gracie, 2, was delighted with her book, fascinated by the pictures of herself as a baby.

“She was a snuggler from the word ‘go,’” Burger says, looking at a newborn picture of Gracie, who has been Burger’s foster daughter since the day she was born.

Burger, who has adopted two other children and fostered about 50 children over the past decade, knows how important books like this are. Her two older children are also adopted. Her son, adopted at 16 months, is disappointed he doesn’t have baby pictures from his first year. And her daughter, adopted when she was just days old, sometimes asks what her biological mother looks like.

“She asks, ‘Do you think I look like her?’” Burger says. “They wonder about that.”

So far, the WWU students have made Life Books for almost 100 Whatcom County adopted children.

State law requires all children adopted through DCFS get Life Books, but adoption workers are too busy seeing families through the adoption process to put the books together, says Yvonne Lewis (‘96), an adoption worker for DCFS in Bellingham.

“It’s something everyone always wanted to do,” Lewis says, “but we haven’t had time to do it.”

Adoptive parents get a copy of the child’s DCFS file, the “nitty-gritty,” Lewis says. But Life Books are for the kids themselves.

Kids who get bounced around in foster care usually don’t have a shoebox full of family photographs they can paw through to look for family resemblances or for confirmation of fuzzy childhood memories.

“In a simple way, the books help affirm life experiences kids might remember and be confused about,” Lewis says.

Now that he’s finished with the project, Richmond finds himself wondering about the little boy and his family.

“You know so much about these kids, it’s hard not to wonder,” he says. “It’s like you jumped into the middle of a mystery and you don’t know how it’s going to turn out.”