116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Empty nest full again for Cedar Rapids mom
‘Mama Denia’ adopts son, fosters his baby brother
CEDAR RAPIDS — You might think Denia Davis would welcome a quiet house once her day care kids go home for the night.
But as an empty nester — her older children are in their 20s — Davis, 52, felt like a part of her had died when her children moved out. Then a family member asked Davis if she would consider fostering her cousin’s infant son.
“I was like ‘Oh my gosh! My kids are grown and out of the house’,” said Davis, who lives in northeast Cedar Rapids. “I would be starting over.”
But Davis knew she had time and patience and love to spare, so she said yes and started over. She now has adopted Gabriel, 3, and is fostering his baby brother, Josiah, 10 months.
Life is busy, but full of moments of joy, like when Gabriel saw a frog in a picture book Friday morning. Frogs are his favorite. She laughs at a memory of Gabriel being scared of a shark painted on his shoes because he thought the fish might nibble his toes. The Crocs, though, now are his go-to shoes.
There are tense moments, too. Like when Gabriel or day care kids get mad. Davis’ trick is to have them look in the mirror and see their angry faces and ask themselves, “How do I get out of it?”
Fostering turns to adoption
Davis agreed in 2020 to foster Gabriel — then eight months old — thinking it would be a temporary arrangement while the boy’s mother, Davis’s cousin, worked on making some changes in her life.
Davis took an 11-week class through the Four Oaks Foster & Adoptive Family Connections Program. It was fall 2020, and COVID-19 and the derecho that damaged much of Cedar Rapids were on her mind as she drove over to Marshalltown on weekends to see Gabriel.
“I started fostering him and we fell into the perfect routine,” she said.
That routine included him joining Davis’ roster of eight children at her in-home child care center during the day. She doesn’t treat Gabriel or Josiah any differently than the other children — each one getting love and care from “Mama Denia.”
“When day care it over, it’s our time,” Davis said, adding they have dinner and Gabriel plays with his toys, including a tablet.
That rhythm was temporarily disrupted in November 2021 when Gabriel’s father asked for his son to live with him, Davis said. That lasted for six months and then Gabriel came back to Davis for good.
“I asked him, ‘Do you want me to be your mommy?’ And he said ‘Yeah’.”
Older siblings ‘on board’
Before adopting Gabriel in December, Denia talked with her older children, Denisha Davis, 28, and Demitree Davis, 23. Denisha, paralyzed from the knees down by a bullet fired into a party at an Iowa City apartment complex in 2014, now lives in California.
“When they met Gabriel, their cousin, they fell instantly in love with him,” Denia Davis said. “They said, ‘We know you have a big heart and you would take care of any stray cat, dog or child.’ They were on board.”
Davis worried fostering her cousin’s child would cause tension in her extended family, but it has knit them closer together. Family and friends hand down clothes and toys, stop over to help out or take Gabriel on outings to give Davis a break, she said. The boys’ mother still is involved in their lives.
“The fact that he’s white and I’m Black, everybody thought, ‘That’s going to be a challenge. But it’s not. There’s not any difference.”
Davis has been doing child care so long — 24 years — she’s cared for two generations of some families. She knows the amount of time she spends with the youngsters makes her an influential person in their lives. She teaches them how to use good manners and control their emotions. They prepare lunches together.
“My reward of being a day care provider is seeing them succeed out in the real world, seeing them become doctors and car mechanics,” she said. “Some of the kids come back and say, ‘If it wasn’t for you I wouldn’t be where I am today’.”
Should I be a foster parent?
Davis doesn’t hesitate when asked whether she recommends becoming a foster parent.
“I would say do it,” she said. “When people do drugs or go to jail or do unexpected things, it’s not the child’s fault. We need y’all. These kids need you too.”
Iowa has 4,000 kids a year who need temporary care, said Tonya Watters, a recruitment and retention specialist for Four Oaks. The pandemic weakened some communications channels they used to recruit new families, but those ties are reforming.
The Family First Act, a federal law passed in 2018, says relatives should be first in line to be foster parents, followed by a family friend or teacher who already knows the child.
People who want to know more about fostering and adoption can browse on the Foster & Adoptive Family Connections website. By clicking on the “learn more” button, you can sign up for an online orientation led by someone like Tonya Watters, a recruitment and retention specialist.
“They can get the whole presentation and we answer questions one-on-one,” Watters said. “If interested, you do application and background checks.”
Community groups also can sign up to support foster families by clicking the “ways to support” tab at the top of the website.
In Davis’s case, she’s glad every day that she said “yes” to fostering Gabriel and Josiah. While she traded in after-work free time for the chaos that comes with small children, she gets to relive all the fun moment she made with her older kids.
“Gabriel brought back a part of me I thought I’d lost,” she said. “Now I have a little best friend that needs me. I get to live again.”
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