Construction executive Brian Leaver has found a novel way to reduce stress: Bring more kids into his life.
Executive: Brian Leaver, principal and senior vice president at Tandem Construction in Sarasota. Has overseen a host of projects in the region, including work at IMG Academy, Sarasota High School and Serendipity Country Club. Firm was founded in 1980 and has about 35 employees. Leaver has worked there since 2000.
Diversion: Leaver and his wife, Katherine, have been foster parents since 2009. They have fostered at least 25 kids, from newborns to toddlers, for a variety of short-term stays. On two occasions the couple went from fostering to adoption — with their daughter, Kate, who is now 7, and now with a 21-month-old girl. The couple also has two biological children, 16-year-old Hayes and 14-year-old Andrew.
Helpful heart: Katherine Leaver, 44, volunteered at Forty Carrots in Sarasota, a family center and preschool, when her biological children were younger. She talked to someone casually there about being a foster parent, which Leaver “thought was a more hands-on way” to help children in need.
Deep questions: The Leavers went through extensive training run by the Safe Children Coalition. The coalition, under the leadership of the Sarasota YMCA, is the lead agency for pairing foster parents with foster children in Sarasota, Manatee and DeSoto counties. The weekly classes, says Brian Leaver, were mentally exhausting, filled with probing psychological questions about each participant's ability to be a foster parent. “In the beginning,” says Leaver, also 44, “it was a week-to-week decision about whether we would go back.”
First time: The couple did keep going back, and they eventually became licensed foster parents. They got their first call in November 2009, the day after Thanksgiving. The agency had a 7-month-old girl who needed a foster home. The Leavers eventually adopted that little girl, Kate, who is now an energetic second-grader. The first few days of being a foster parent, says Brian Leaver, he had the excitable uncertainty of a new parent. “When you see that the needs of this child are not being met and now it's on us, it changes everything,” he says.
Rough situations: Most times the Leavers will be foster parents for a short time before being handing the child over to a legal guardian or relative. Many of the foster children, both in the Leavers' care and in the agency, are collateral victims of the opioid and heroin overdose crisis gripping the region, particularly Manatee County. Every child is different, says Katherine Leaver, and seeing people, especially parents, in tough circumstances has taught her a lesson about not judging others. “These are just people,” she says, “people who are going through difficult times.”
Family meeting: After each foster care stay, the Leavers hold a family meeting with their children to talk about how it went, and what they can do differently the next time. In general, the Leavers say the experience has been positive for Andrew and Hayes. “I think they are much more aware of what's going on in the world,” says Katherine Leaver. “They are seeing things they wouldn't get to see with their peer group.”
Compassionate kids: The older children, in the past seven years, have also learned empathy and compassion. Hayes, for example, applied for and won a $500 Disney grant for the Safe Children Coalition. And Andrew is the rare 14-year-old who can feed a baby and change a diaper with ease, sometimes while even watching ESPN, quips Brian Leaver.
New sense: One important component of being a foster parent, says Brian Leaver, is that — contrary to what many think — it's actually brought his anxiety level down by giving him a new sense of perspective. Work problems, such as late steel deliveries or employee issues, pale in comparison to what some foster kids go through. “I'm less stressed than ever,” Leaver says.
Keep going: Many people in the Leavers circle have called them saints — a few have called them crazy, Brian Leaver points out. But both husband and wife say they get more out of being a foster parent than they ever thought they would. They have no timetable for how long they will keep opening their doors to foster children. “We don't know when this will come to an end,” says Brian Leaver. “We will keep doing it as long as it feels right.”