Foster Family Spotlight: Ruth, Gail, and Len

In honour of Foster Parent Appreciation Month, every week we are spotlighting some remarkable Foster Parents.

How the support of her Mother, Foster Family and community helped this child live

“Every child deserves to live.”

That’s how Ruth Kakekayskung described a life-altering decision – a decision made not by her, but by those included in her Wee-chee-way-win Circle of care.

Gail Wainright and Ruth Kakekayskung

Before Ruth was even 3 years old, her biological mother, her foster parents, and Tikinagan Child and Family Services had a choice: perform a tracheostomy and she could live, or she would die in a week.

Even though she was too young to recall that scene exactly, Ruth still remembers her biological mother’s concern.

“My mom was like, sitting in the corner like, ‘I want my baby to live,’” said Ruth, now 20.

But also rooting for her survival were her foster parents, Gail and Len Wainright, who started fostering Ruth when she was three months old. Gail was working as a registered nurse part-time then, but after realizing the commitment to Ruth’s care, she retired from the hospital.

“After about four months, I said, ‘I can’t do this, I can’t work and give the kids what they need,’” said Gail, who specializes in medical foster care.

Even Mishkeegogamang First Nation, Ruth’s home community, showed their support with a jingle dress – measured and made while she was in a coma.

“They were like, ‘We’re making her a jingle dress, whether she lives or not, we’re making her one.”

Breaking the stigma

Ruth survived the tracheostomy, and many other surgeries. Gail believes it was due to the support of her biological mother, who allowed Ruth to remain with the Wainrights in Winnipeg for her to receive the long-term medical care she would require.

“For Ruth to survive, she needed to be here,” said Gail.

“It showed and it shows that you can love a child and nurture a child…even when they don’t come from the most ideal situations.”

Gail added that there is a “stigma” around a mother relinquishing the care of her own child, but said there’s a difference in their case. It was voluntary and in Ruth’s best interest, knowing her biological mother couldn’t provide the care that was needed in Mishkeegogamang due to limited local medical supports.

Today, that relationship between her community and biological family is still strong. Often, Ruth’s family, including her seven siblings, visit her in Winnipeg. She also visits has visits from members of Mishkeegogamang to reconnect with her community, culture, and family.

“Her family’s always been loving, caring, respectful,” said Gail. “I love her grandma. I love her aunt.”

“I’ve always had an open-door policy with all my foster children. I think you need to nurture what relationship is there with the biological family.”

This nurturing attitude, holistic relationships and engagement in Ruth’s life are an embodiment of Tikinagan’s service model, Mamow Obiki-ahwahsoowin, which means “everyone working together to raise our children.” Tikinagan shares the sacred responsibility held by parents, extended family and community members to care for children. When Ruth began her foster journey with the Wainrights, it was still important for her to be part of a network of caring people and remain connected to her community.

Childhood experience

As a result of her complications, Ruth’s childhood was different than most. Many of her activities, including ballet, involved her wearing an oxygen mask.

“My foster mom had to actually pick me up and dance with me in her arms,” recalled Ruth.

In school, Gail would follow Ruth around the classroom, holding the oxygen tank on her shoulder. She played soccer, but spent most of her time on the sidelines.

“I can’t run for long periods of time. I can’t because my lungs were bad. So, I would just sit there, watching the game and be like, ‘OK, this is not the sport for me.’”

Travel as a family was also difficult with Ruth’s health being too precarious when she was younger.

“Some people say, ‘Well, why don’t you leave her home?’ I said, ‘She’s a part of our family. She’s my daughter. Would you leave your daughter at home?’”

Gaining independence

Now a young adult, Ruth’s health is more stable, allowing her opportunities to travel and live independently. Still, her supports are close by.

“We’ll go to the mall and she’ll go shopping on our own, but I’m there,” said Gail. “But she wanders off and buys her own stuff.”

Throughout Ruth’s medical journey, even though Tikinagan, her family and First Nation had the final say, Gail said she felt entrusted and empowered to make decisions, while relying heavily on her nursing experience and opinions.

“Tikinagan has given me all the freedom. They’ve let me lead her medical adventure.”

Now the Red Thunderbird Girl, a spiritual name given to her by an Elder when she was younger, is starting to make decisions for herself as a university student in Winnipeg. Moving forward, she wants to make a difference for Indigenous people as she pursues her post-secondary education in Indigenous Studies. This is a personal pursuit for her, as part of her passion to honour two of her aunts who were part of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG), as well as one uncle who was one of the seven kids who was murdered in Thunder Bay.

“When something happens that’s Indigenous-related, Gail is awesome for letting me know that this and this happened, or someone found bodies of women. And I’m like, ‘This needs to change,” said Ruth.

Because Ruth requires ongoing medical support, the Wainrights are now renovating their Winnipeg home so Ruth can remain with them and pursue her studies. She will also transition into young adult services with Tikinagan, known as Neegaan Inabin, which provides culturally-appropriate, holistic services supporting youth aging out of care and young adults formerly in care.

Reflecting on the Wainrights’ decision to become Foster Parents with Tikinagan, “No child has asked to be born,” said Len. “All they want is love.”