Renee Lard never wanted to have children of her own. She was always the one caring for family members, from a sister who was born with a form of cancer to members of her extended family.
“I just always had a spirit of helping,” she said.
That spirit was just what was needed when her 14-year-old cousin, who we’ll call Karen, was removed from her home two and a half years ago and, after a time in a group home, came to live with Renee, under SaintA supervised Kinship Care.
“I remembered as a little girl how much fun I had with Renee and with younger cousins and godchildren,” Karen said. So she agreed to move in. But things were far from easy for either her or Renee.
“She screamed and hollered and tried to pull her hair out; she was this tough little tiger,” Renee said with a big smile. “She liked being here; she just didn’t want the rules part that came along.”
Karen remembers how, when she got to Renee’s home, “I said, ‘This is what I do and this is what I’m going to do.’ She said, ‘Go to your room and come back and we can try this again.’
“She won that argument and she’s won every argument since that day!”
The two have this interesting relationship, and Karen is quick to add that they don’t really argue, rather they discuss. She is now a very intelligent and articulate 17-year-old, who admits she is a big talker. She goes round and round, and usually ends up telling everything in great detail, from A to Z.
Renee describes it like this: “She’ll start in Milwaukee, go to Chicago, then to Paris, then to Germany and finally back here. I tell her, ‘I don’t need all that detail! Just tell me what you want, and boom, be done with it! I’m not trying to be rude, but you just need to get to the point!”
They both laugh, and Karen adds that one of the things she respects most about Renee is that, when she talks, “she’s not just rambling. She has things under her belt. … And she pours positivity into me.”
Renee says she comes from a long line of strong women: spiritually, physically and emotionally. And she made it clear to Karen from the start: “There is only one queen in this household, and I’m the queen. If you want to be the princess, you have to work for that!”
She has tried to teach Karen, she said, that she needs to look at herself as a product, that she has to put good things in so that people who interact with her will want to get the good things back out. She has a very strong personal faith and tells Karen she needs to trust in God that things will go smoothly.
Karen is not much of a believer, but “I respect her beliefs. It’s working together and listening.”
She says that one of the reasons she initially resisted moving in with Renee is that, “I knew if something happened to her I couldn’t deal with it. Renee just said, ‘But that’s life.’ ”
Karen knows she has grown a lot in her time with Renee.
“I was a very bad hothead, but I’m able to control it to a degree not like before. Because Renee taught me if I’m going to go anywhere in life, I can’t be ready to jump at anything that makes me mad and doesn’t go the way I expect it to.
“I have to be a willow, to be able to bend and be flexible in order to achieve my goals.”
Karen says one of the ways that Renee really got through to her was with her caring. She says that in the four years before she joined Renee, she pretty much had to take care of herself.
“When I got here, Renee would say, ‘I’ve got that.’ It took me a while to realize that there’s an adult here who actually cares and wants to take care of me. Having that has changed my outlook on people, and on myself. … We learn from each other and help each other. And we need each other.”
Renee says that when Karen arrived she displayed a lot of anger, but she knew the best thing to do was to show the girl unconditional love and not force anything. Things would have been a lot easier, she said with a grin, if she had got Karen when she was a “sweet 2-year-old.
“But because she was already a semi-adult, I told her, ‘I can’t go back and change the clock. I have to meet you right where you are and work with you right where you are. Love had to be unconditional regardless of the situation or the problems.”
Karen said when bad things used to happen she would pull inside herself.
“It took a lot for me to go to her when I was upset, to break down the walls I had put around myself. I just never had learned how to go to someone and know they cared and would listen. She taught me that, and she taught me that this is a safe place to do that.”
Karen used to talk about hating people, Renee said.
“I’d say, ‘Oh, boy, here comes a rainy day!’ Then I’d tell her, ‘You can’t just blow up, you need to take two steps back and observe the person. If you do, you might decide you don’t want to be bothered with that person and just take yourself out of there.’ ”
Because of her innate intelligence and Renee’s guidance, Karen graduated from high school recently, after three years instead of four. She has a full-time job this summer, has saved up to buy a car, and she was accepted into three colleges, including the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She may enroll there or start out with a few semesters at MATC. She wants to study nursing or to become a physician’s assistant. Her goal is to help people.
“She helps people all the time,” she said about Renee.
“Her success since she’s been here is awesome,” Renee said. “If you ask me, Was it easy? No. It was an experience for me. Am I thankful for the journey? I’m so thankful that God gave me this opportunity. Am I proud of her? I couldn’t be more proud if she was my own child, and I tell her that all the time.”
Karen describes the last couple of years as a mini-roller coaster ride.
“But I wouldn’t undo anything that has happened to me or what was said to me because coming here really made me grow up and learn things, to learn this is what I need to do and what I don’t need to do.
“This experience has been a really great one.”