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Making a difference one child at a time: Looking at foster care in western Wisconsin

Tom, left, and Donna Winkler sit in their home where they fostered many kids during their time as foster parents. They said the need for foster parents in the area is great. Gretta Stark / RiverTown Multimedia.

Town of Oak Grove resident Tom Winkler was working at the St. Croix County Jail as a chaplain's assistant. One day, an inmate told him, "it was great that I came in and tried to 'save' the inmates, but maybe I should try to save somebody before they get put in prison," Winkler said.

"I came home and I said, hey, this is what this guy said to me," Winkler said, "And we talked about it, and at the time, our kids were gone, and where we are in this big house with not enough people in it, and a desire to help people who need help, and off we went."

That was how Tom Winkler and wife Donna Winkler decided to become foster parents.

They contacted Pierce County Social Services.They went through an interview process, filled out paperwork, and had their home inspected, background checks run, and were fingerprinted.

Social services checked on Tom and Donna's character references. Then the couple went through a training process, taking many classes to prepare them to be foster parents. They learned things like strategies for making kids feel more at home

Once they were licensed, the Winklers could enter the foster care system.

The two levels of foster care the Winklers have provided are short-term and long-term care.

They started with short-term care.

Short-term care

"It's not a long term commitment, and that was our initial desire was to do that."

They took in kids for up to 72 hours. A lot of time they cared for children on what was called a "72-hour hold."

Sometimes these kids had done something that required them to be out of their home for 72 hours.

"It was kids who were having a hard time with whatever authority figure there was in their lives," Tom said, "So they needed a change of venue for three days, to kind of give them an opportunity to reset their thinking maybe. And we were always very fortunate in the kind of kids that we had because we never had any real problem."

When their first (short-term) foster child came to them, a teenage boy, the Winklers were excited and nervous.

"He was really nervous," Donna said. "For me, it was about making him feel comfortable, not knowing really what he needed. But it was about making him feel safe and comfortable."

Tom, who enjoys carpentry, would help any boys who stayed with them make birdhouses.

His goal was to do something interactive with them that was also an accomplishment.

"We'd be hammering and painting and nailing and whatever else," Tom said, and he'd tell them, "'You're not only building a birdhouse, you're building a sanctuary for something that would otherwise not have a sanctuary.

"I don't know how many of them ever got it or not but that was a connection that I tried to make with them."

Long-term care

It wasn't very long before the Winklers made the transition to long-term care.

They were first asked to take a child longer term when a boy who was in a group home needed to be out of the group home, but his parents wouldn't take him.

He came for a weekend to see if he'd be a good fit.

"I thought he was a very nice boy, very polite," he said. "I think he wanted to belong someplace. He kept asking us all weekend, 'Am I going to get to come here?'"

He ended up coming to the Winklers long-term on Mother's Day weekend. He stayed until he decided to leave, Donna said.

"I think that he had been in and out of a series of revolving doors most of his life," Tom said.

The Winklers looked after many children during their times as foster parents, including a set of twins they have now adopted.

'Foster grandparents'

Tom and Donna were older when they became foster parents in 2011. They already had four grown children who had left the house.

"We were approaching this a little bit more like grandparents," Tom said. "Properly termed we would have been foster grandparents, as opposed to foster parents, because of our age."

Tom and Donna worked to make the stay comfortable and enjoyable for each child.

Each time they welcomed a child to their home, they watched the movie "Secondhand Lions" together. The film tells the story of a boy who comes into the care of two older uncles.

The Winklers were foster parents for several years. That, and the birdhouses, were part of the Winklers' efforts to make kids feel comfortable and at home.

In addition to drawing on their training and doing things like asking kids' favorite foods in order to get to know them better, the Winklers relied on their own experience as parents.

The need for foster parents

Though the Winklers are no longer foster parents, they said the need for foster parents is still great.

It isn't easy for kids who are in the foster system, Tom said.

"And these kids who have been through things that we can't imagine," he said. "The feeling of abandonment and of being lost and left, and nobody cares and trying to deal with that stuff as an adolescent. It's hard enough to be an adolescent in a normal world."

Tom said kids in the foster system often, though not always, have parents who have "substandard parenting skills" or aren't able to raise the kids properly for one reason or another.

He said this parenting behavior can also skew kids' perception of how parents should act.

Tom said he's written letters to the editor to encourage others to become foster parents.

"This country needs more foster parents," he said. "We do need people who can help people who just need help so they can be successful. Because in the long run, it helps everything. It helps the culture, it helps the school system, it helps the country, it helps the economy, it helps the county budget.

"Kids need a chance, and that's what foster parenting is all about," Tom said, "Giving kids a chance, and giving parents a chance too."

The Winklers said they saw many instances where small changes in one direction or another could have a big impact on someone's future.

Challenges of foster parenting

The Winklers said foster parenting was not without its challenges.

"When you have children, you watch them go from eating, pooping machines to thinking, feeling machines," Winkler said. "Through that process, parents get to help their children grow as individuals.

"When you're a foster parent, you have someone walk in the door who has opinions and beliefs and values that A. you don't know, and B, are different than yours. As the adult in the room, it becomes incumbent on you to manage that and try to get them all to work together."

The Winklers' twins came to them at age 11.

"They expected to be able to just pick up where they were in the summertime," Tom said, "leave in the wee hours of the morning and not come home until whenever they wanted to come home."

They also were not used to being asked to do chores.

"It's the coming to grips with the difference in values and the way you express your emotions and working together as human beings to make it from one day to the next," Tom said. "You are accustomed to your mother's cooking or whatever. Imagine if you had to eat at Aunt Bertha's all the time. Aunt Bertha uses a lot of cumin or cinnamon and you're not used to that.

"You're accustomed to your laundry soap. You're accustomed to the soap that's in your soap dish. You're accustomed to how your towels smell and what your pillow feels like ... all those things that we take for granted that our normalcy."

Those little "normalities" often change for foster children, when they find themselves in a new environment.

'The cool part'

The "cool part" of foster parenting is watching the kids grow and develop on the way to adulthood, Donna said. Watching them "become people."

And seeing the impact they've had on some of their foster kids' lives.

One of their former foster kids, after he left, asked if he could come back to visit and used to visit often.

"That was very touching that he called us, and he didn't know if we would want to talk to him, because of how he left our home, but he reached out anyways, and then he continued to reach out," Donna said.

Tom said he'd heard a story once about a guy who was walking down a beach, and the waves were pushing starfish onto the beach. The beach was covered in starfish. And the guy comes across another guy picking up starfish and throwing them back into the water.

The first man asks him what he's doing.

The second says he's saving the starfish.

The first man pointed out how many starfish there were and said it wasn't going to make a difference.

The second man threw another starfish back into the water and said, "Well, I can make a difference to this one," said Tom.

"You hope as a foster parent that you have the ability to make a difference," Winkler said.

For more information

For more information on foster care in Pierce County, contact the Pierce County Human Services Department at 715-273-6766 or 715-273-6770 or click on the Human Services Department page on

For more information on foster care in St. Croix County, contact the St. Croix County Alternate Care Coordinator at 715-246-8317 or visit " target="_blank">

Gretta Stark

Gretta Stark has been a reporter for the River Falls Journal since July of 2013. She previously worked as a reporter for the New Richmond News from June 2012 to July 2013. She holds a BA in Print and Electronic Media from Wartburg College.

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