Foster parents talk about their experience - A man standing in front of a palm tree - Palm trees
Dennis and Gretchen Diage are the proud, first-time foster parents of a 3-year-old child. ALEX RICKERT/Keys Weekly

When one thinks of ways to help others, serving in the Navy and working as a nurse certainly fit the bill. For some, their passions lead them to even more. Meet Dennis and Gretchen Diage, Big Pine Key residents and proud foster parents to a 3-year-old child.

Dennis, currently on active duty in the Navy, met Gretchen while he was stationed in Virginia Beach. Not too long after, the couple received “dream orders” back to Key West. Before moving, Gretchen told Dennis about her interest in foster care, and when the couple met new friends who had recently completed foster care certification classes through Wesley House Family Services, the stars finally aligned. “We had the means and the desire to do it, so we decided to start,” said Gretchen. “I’m on shore duty currently and won’t go out to sea for three years, so it was the perfect time,” added Dennis.

For the Diages, a close personal connection to the uplifting potential of the foster care system created a “special place in their hearts” for foster care. Dennis cites the passing of his close friend Josh Hutchinson, a former foster child who was eventually adopted by his foster parents, as the major inspiration for his own decision. “Josh was in the military and was an outstanding guy. He was very successful, but without (his foster parents’) guidance, his life could have gone so differently,” Dennis said. In addition to meeting Josh, Gretchen and Dennis got to meet the role models who had the chance to inspire Josh. “We met his parents, and we really got to know them and the type of people they are. The guidance they gave him changed his life. We want to do the same for somebody,” Gretchen said.

Although becoming a foster parent is undoubtedly a large commitment, according to the Diages, couples can ease their way into the process with minimal pressure. Training classes are set up for couples regardless of their intent to adopt or foster a child, or foster a child with the intent to adopt. 

“You learn so much about each process, and it answers your own questions about what you want to do,” said Dennis. Gretchen stressed that the classes are for education purposes only. “If you decide at the end that you can’t handle it, there’s no pressure. They only want to send children to people who really want to do this.” 

Classes are designed to prepare potential parents for scenarios they may face with foster children and give them a wealth of information on parenting styles and techniques. “We still have our binders from the class, and we keep some information right on our fridge,” said Gretchen.

The couple believes it is important for potential foster parents to look past the stigma that has been placed on the foster care system in the past. “It’s not like on TV or what you hear about. The foster system has changed over the years, and they’ve made a lot of big strides to prevent kids from constantly entering and leaving the system,” said Gretchen. 

Potential parents always have the ability to review each situation on a case-by-case basis and make sure it fits well with their abilities and preferences. In the Diages’ experience, support from the foster care system and other foster parents is always at their fingertips once a child is placed. 

Classes with Wesley House Family Services begin Wednesday, Sept. 18 in Key West and are held on Wednesday nights for six weeks. Registration is required by contacting Megan Burgess at 305-809-5020 or [email protected]. 

Couples who are on the fence can take it from Gretchen and Dennis. “There’s nothing more heartwarming than helping a little kid. Gretchen’s a nurse because she wants to help people. I’m in the military because I want to serve my country, but doing this just feels good.”

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