×

When family is a choice you make: How one teacher became an overnight parent to a former student in need

  • Travis Enders, 18, of South Hadley, left, and his foster parent Kim Kretzer share a laugh over ice cream  at Cindy's Drive-In in Granby. They ate there nearly two years ago on the day Enders came to live with Kretzer. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Travis Enders, 18, of South Hadley, left, puts a bow tie on his foster parent, Kim Kretzer, while getting ready for his graduation from South Hadley High School.  GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Travis Enders, right, instructs Kim Kretzer on prepping ingredients for garlic shrimp with noodles and asparagus at their South Hadley home. “Sometimes I question who is the child and who is the parent,” said Kretzer, who considers Enders the better cook. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Travis Enders, right, talks with Kim Kretzer before his graduation ceremony from South Hadley High School at the Richard Glenn Gettell Amphitheater at Mount Holyoke College. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Travis Enders, 18, of South Hadley, center, processes to the stage during his graduation ceremony from South Hadley High School at the Richard Glenn Gettell Amphitheater at Mount Holyoke College. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Travis Enders, 18, of South Hadley, expresses his surprise at receiving a 2010 Toyota Prius as a graduation gift from Kim Kretzer, in foreground, and their friends Jeriko Perkins and Jon Soutra, who formerly owned the car. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Travis Enders, center, thanks friend Jeriko Perkins (who is holding her son, Theo Soutra), after he received a 2010 Toyota Prius as a surprise graduation gift from foster parent Kim Kretzer, right, and Perkins, who formerly owned the car. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Travis Enders and Kim Kretzer wrap their arms around each other while waiting in line at Cindy's Drive-In in Granby.   GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY



Friday, June 08, 2018

Travis Enders was 16 years old when he found himself, yet again, without a place to sleep. His foster parent could no longer take care of him, so he texted a teacher he remembered from the ninth grade, Kim Kretzer, who taught life skills for students with severe disabilities at Amherst High School. 

“The only person I texted was Kim,” Travis said. “That was the only person that I thought of.”

“What Travis said was, ‘My foster parent doesn’t want to be a foster parent anymore. I don’t have anywhere to go. Can you help me?’ ” said Kim, 42, who uses they/them pronouns and now works as a special-education teacher at Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School in Northampton. “I remember those words because it was a big moment in my life.”  

Travis moved into Kim’s South Hadley townhouse the next night, June 3, 2016, and that very day Kim applied to be his foster parent.

“I wasn’t in the process of becoming a foster parent at all,” Kim said. “It wasn’t something I had planned or intended to do at that point. I literally woke up with a dog that morning and went to bed as a parent. By 4 p.m., Travis and the social worker were at my door.”

“Before I moved in, I was like, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing, I don’t know where I’m going,’ ” Travis said. But suddenly, “I had my own room. It was quiet. I felt instantly comfortable.”

Kim and Travis met through Amherst High School’s Sexuality and Gender Alliance club. At the end of the 2015 school year, Kim resigned from the high school but gave Travis their email and phone number and told him he was welcome to keep in touch.

In the foster care system, these times of crisis are known somewhat euphemistically as “disrupted placements.” Had Travis not reached out to Kim, he could have been forced into a temporary emergency placement, which can take children  away from their community, disrupting school, work and personal relationships. “Because of Travis’ age, he could have easily ended up in a group home or residential program because there aren’t many foster homes available for teenagers,” Kim said. 

“I probably would have been the person to step up, had I known something like that was even possible,” Kim added of their decision to take care of Travis. “Most people’s impression is that you have to apply to be a foster parent, and that does normally happen. But the way Travis came to me is called child-specific placement.”

Essentially, with this kind of placement, if a child has a pre-existing relationship with someone — a teacher, a mentor or any other significant, trustworthy person in his or her life — he or she can ask to live with that person.

Travis and Kim spent the summer bonding as a family. They went out for ice cream at Cindy’s Drive-In in Granby, experimented with hair dye (“Travis wanted to bleach his hair blond, so I helped him, but it was a little too … bright, like whoa,” Kim said, and laughed), and spent a day with Kim’s sister and family at the beach in eastern Massachusetts. 

Kim saw Travis through a root canal and driver’s ed, while Travis introduced Kim to some new things, like wearing a bow tie and cooking shrimp scampi. “Kim had never really cooked seafood before and didn’t know how to de-vein shrimp, so I showed them.”

“I think both of us really see each other as family at this point. I think we saw each other as family pretty quickly,” Kim said. “I am technically a foster parent, though Travis just refers to me as his parent.”

**

For teenagers in the foster care system, finding a long-term living situation can be daunting; sometimes it can feel impossible. Families looking to adopt often want younger children, something Kim noticed when they attended a training session for prospective adoptive or foster parents.

The average age of a foster child is eight-and-a-half, according to an October 2017 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services report. For each additional year of age, the likelihood of experiencing a disrupted adoption increases by about 6 percent, according to a June 2012 report by the Child Welfare Information Gateway.

“Teens are more independent,” Kim said. 

“And sometimes they come with cooking skills,” Travis added. 

Prior to entering the foster care system at 13, Travis, who has four biological siblings, grew up fiercely independent, learning to feed and dress himself, and looking for loose change. From age two months to 13, Travis lived with his maternal grandparents in Athol, but feeling the environment was “unsafe and unlivable,” he said, he contacted DCF, who later took him out and placed him in the foster care system.

Once he entered the system, “It was just very huge being like, I have food in the fridge, I am able to have clothes,” Travis said. “So that was a big change that felt just very weird and unknown ... unfamiliar territory that I’d never stepped into before.”

Travis knows a former foster kid who aged out of the system now living on the streets in Northampton and sleeping in a tent. The anxiety of being unable to care for oneself after losing support can be hard for teens in the system. 

“I feel like for all foster youth, I think, if it’s heading in a good direction and you’re in a placement for a while and it’s good, you’re afraid of the time you turn 18 and you don’t get support,” Travis explained.

Because Travis is now 18 and does not need a legal guardian, he has opted to continue on with voluntary placement with DCF — that way, he can still still receive transitional support like job placement and help with housing through his early 20s.

For now, Travis works part time at Spare Time Bowling in Northampton, often doing kitchen duty, and he plans to earn an associate’s degree in psychology from Holyoke Community College before transferring to a state university where he gets free tuition. Travis started full time at HCC this past January. He got his diploma in December after completing his fall semester through the dual enrollment program at HCC and getting high school credits, Kim noted, but he still wanted to walk at graduation with his high school class.

Just because Travis is independent in many ways doesn’t mean that he doesn’t need support. “I really didn’t think I could, in that immediate sense, help the way that I would want to,” Kim said, “and it turns out that I could.”

Kim and Travis say that if more people knew about child-specific arrangements like theirs, more children struggling in the foster care system would be able to find that level of support. 

“As a teacher, there have been times in my career when I’d thought, ‘If only I could take that kid home with me,’ ” Kim said, but the awkward idea of a student living with a former teacher kept them from pursuing the idea. “I’m thinking there must be conflict of interest, but DCF said, ‘No, this is great!’ I think most people don’t know this is even a thing.”

The night Travis moved in, Kim took to sleeping on the couch and getting a sense of all the responsibilities and nuances that come with becoming a parent on the fly. Dentist appointments, school functions and meetings with the child-welfare worker were now regular parts of their schedule.

In May, Travis sat on a panel hosted by DCF focused on how the department can better provide for children in the system and help them find more permanent living situations.

“DCF needs to listen more to the children in the system about the housing that they need,” he said.

​​​​​​Travis wants to shine a light on some of these issues so that people know how they can help foster children in their communities. He speaks from experience — a good one, so far.

“I was a sad child,” Travis said. “I don’t feel like a sad child anymore.”

After moving in with Kim, Travis made fast friends with their dog, Dora, and adopted a guinea pig he named Echo. 

He started doing better in school, too.

“Having a stable home environment definitely helped,” he said. 

Last Friday, Travis graduated from South Hadley High School, and over breakfast on Sunday morning, Kim surprised him with a used Prius as a graduation gift. “I was very surprised!” Travis said. “I didn’t know what was happening … ”  

“That Sunday was the two-year anniversary of when Travis and I became a family, essentially,” Kim said. “The concept of family can be different to everyone.”