Mothers’ Love Knows No Bounds

On this Mother’s Day weekend, Benchmark is proud to tell the story of two women whose extraordinary Call to Care fills their
professional and personal life.

Two women in senior home

Families who are avoiding taking in a foster child because they don’t want to get attached are missing the point, said Melanie Barbieri, Benchmark’s Senior Director for Benchmark Customer Engagement and Programming.

“The point is to get too attached – that’s what these kids need,” said Melanie, whose family began opening their home to children in need about 10 years ago. The infant in their care recently was their 25th foster child.

Is it hard to let them go when the time comes? She says it’s always hard and she always says she’s not going to do it again, but then the phone rings and another little one arrives soon after.

“It’s the hardest, best thing I’ve ever done,” she explained.

Melanie exemplifies one of Benchmark’s values – Called to Care. On this Mother’s Day weekend and as part of National Foster Care Month, Benchmark is proud to shine a spotlight on Melanie and fellow associate Ashley Meloy for their heroic work caring for society’s most vulnerable.

Woman and babyBecause they could
Melanie remembers being 10 years old and seeing an article in the newspaper about a foster and adoptive mom pictured with 17 loaves of bread, which is what it took to feed her family for the week, and saying, “That’s going to be me. I’m going to do that.” It took until her three kids gained more independence and the support of her husband, Rick, before Melanie decided to make the move.

“We just decided to do it – just because we could,” she said. “We felt that we had been very blessed that we could and should do it.”

After receiving training and getting licensed by the Connecticut Department of Children and Families (DCF), they got the first call. “I don’t know if we expected it to happen so soon,” she admitted.

The first was Luke. He was about three years old and living in a homeless shelter. What was supposed to be an emergency stay for the weekend led to a new addition to the family. Three years after he arrived and multiple attempts at reunification with his family, the Barbieri’s adopted Luke.

They’ve had 24 more foster children since Luke, most of them infants. Over the years, their garage has been a storage area for cribs and toys, clothes and other items. “They often come with nothing but the clothes on their backs or a few items in a backpack or garbage bag,” she said.

Family outdoorsMelanie stressed that reunification is the goal, so often the children go back to parents or to grandparents or other family members. She tries to maintain good relationships with the parents and guardians, adding that she’s “very family focused.” Even after the children leave, the Barbieris continue to have connections to them.

“We don’t want them to think that people who love them disappear,” she explained.

Luke is now 12 and her other children are 21, 20 and 16 years old. The two oldest are in college, but their love and hard work are called upon when back at home.

“They come home and join in the madness,” Melanie said with a laugh.

Connecting people
Melanie is also an advocate for foster parenting and has hosted events for future foster and adoptive families. At Benchmark, she works with Program Directors. During her travels, folks have learned of her work with the foster care system. As a result, one Program Director who works at The Village at South Farms attended a presentation after talking to Melanie. It led to an addition to her family.

“It was a great connection. I never thought my career choice would connect me to my daughter,” said associate Ashley Meloy.

Woman and childAshley and her husband, Mike, had been thinking about adoption after experiencing challenges with infertility. They discovered there were “lots of hoops to jump through” and in some cases a multi-year long waiting list. After speaking to her husband about Melanie’s experience with foster care they took a leap of faith and attended pre-licensing training. “Our experience is unique as we were part of the first ever Weekend for a Lifetime training offered by the Connecticut Department of Children and Families (DCF). We spent an entire weekend undergoing most of our trainings.” The experience seemed surreal as it was moving quickly for the couple.

The Meloys were licensed on July 15, 2019, as a Foster to Adopt household.

“Foster to adopt involves a great deal of legal risk as DCF’s primary goal is reunification with family. Once DCF determines adoption is in the best interest of the child they look for permanency with extended family or a foster to adopt family,” Ashley explained.

On July 16, 2019, the Meloys received a call about a two-year-old girl needing a foster to adopt household. “It all happened so fast; we didn’t receive our foster parent license in the mail yet.” Ashley recalled. On July 26, Aniya arrived for the weekend. “On Monday, I called DCF in tears asking to move forward with placement as soon as possible. On July 31, Aniya was officially placed in our household,” she said. After 722 days in foster care, Aniya was adopted on July 15 2021.

Their story continues. On Aug. 17, 2021, the Meloys received another call. Aniya’s biological mother had just given birth to a baby girl. “I nearly had a heart attack,” Ashley said. “I called Mike in a panic and his response was ‘What do we do?’ I said we go pick up the baby!” They picked up the baby girl at the hospital and are now in the process of adopting Aniya’s sister.

Like Melanie, the Meloys have a good relationship with their daughter’s family. She said they are part of Aniya’s “extended family. I didn’t know what to expect, but everything just worked out.”

Family dancingNot always easy
Ashley said that she would “absolutely encourage anyone thinking about fostering to do it. Like me, people can fill their head with scenarios of what it might be like to be a foster parent. However, none of those made-up versions will ever be as chaotic or as extraordinary as the reality of foster care.”

It helped that her Benchmark co-worker was very familiar with DCF and foster care issues.

“Melanie was a big support for my family while we were navigating our journey through foster care,” she said.

Melanie agreed that although DCF is generally supportive, “I can’t say that I’ve not had challenges.” Although DCF is doing “the best that they can,” she has picked her battles.

“I’m in this for the kids,” she said, adding that her own family has gotten used to calls anytime and accepting new members of the household. It’s changed their lives. One of her daughters is planning to earn a master’s degree in social work and wants to become a DCF investigator.

“We have a tremendous amount of faith in our house and that helps,” she said.

Both Melanie and Ashley encourage others to “Get too attached!”

The Village at South Farms