November 5, 2021

Radical welcome

Radical welcome

 

The same values enliven Debbie Goonan’s work and family

STORY BY LINDA HARVEY
PHOTOS: DCN. SKIP OLSON

Debbie Goonan received her first glimpse of the future ahead of her when she was an undergraduate at Boston University.

“My first year I lived in the dorms, and my room was on the international students’ floor,” she recalls. “I landed there because of overcrowding in the dorm. So they put a few of us American students on the international floor that still had a few open rooms.”

Goonan had three roommates in her quad, all of them from the Middle East. It ended up being one of the best things that ever happened to her.

“I grew up in a small town and went to Catholic schools all my life. I was number seven of eight kids and my parents gave a great witness in taking in children in need,” she says. “There really wasn’t any racial diversity in my life, and I did not even know anyone who was not Catholic until I went to college. God used Boston University’s overcrowded dorms to teach me about humanity and to open up my heart. Pretty cool when I look back now.”

Goonan is now a victim advocate for Kentucky Refugee Ministries, where she began as a board member years ago. But her work of welcoming the stranger doesn’t end there. She is also a single woman who has brought diverse children into her home as a foster mother. Meg Campos, executive director of Catholic Charities of Lexington, sees the consistency, especially in Goonan’s welcome of often-overlooked older foster kids.

“Debbie fully exemplifies a heart of service in both her personal and professional life,” says Campos. “She is a role model for all of us.”

Found  family

Goonan has been a foster mother since 1999 and has had 28 foster children, adopting five with two more adoptions in process. Often the children have been in contact with their birth mothers with Goonan’s participation.

Debbie and Jace share one of frequent hugs.

“This is the most pro-life thing I can do and the best thing I have done with my life,” she says. “I worked with the Family Preservation program at Comprehensive Care for five years. It opened my eyes that these children needed a loving mother more than a social worker.”

Goonan knew she wanted to be a foster mother, but it was only when she embarked on this work that she realized she wanted to adopt children.

“I didn’t count on falling in love with these kids. Every time I adopt, I say this is the last one. They all come from different families. I have biracial, African-American and Hispanic children that I have adopted, and see God’s hand in all of this.”

She has adopted a brother and sister, now adults, whose mother died of an overdose. At home, she has Phillip, 20, who attends Eastern Kentucky University; Natalie, 16; Elizabeth, 16; Martin, 14; and Jace, 5. The two who are in the adoption process also live in her home. One child was in 17 foster homes before being adopted by Goonan.

Being involved with refugees has taught her adopted children much and has included times of challenge. Phillip lost his birth mother in June. She was hit by a car and killed. He had been in regular touch with her and was devastated by the loss. It’s far from the only hardship she’s witnessed in the lives of the young people she’s encountered through foster care.

“In recent years, I have seen more trauma in children than 20 years ago, coming into foster care with long waits to obtain fewer available services of therapy and child psychiatry services,” she notes. “There is a tremendous need for foster homes.”

 

And  you  welcomed  me

Goonan traces her involvement with refugees to when she served as social outreach director at the Cathedral of Christ the King.

“I became involved with refugees through Father Paul Prabell,” she says. “It gave me the opportunity to help people who are affected by war. I cannot prevent or end wars, but I can do something. It helps me to live out peace and justice.”

Father Prabell recalls being part of a welcoming team for a family of refugees in Lexington and how everyone drew energy from Goonan’s warmth and joy.

“As the family went through the variety of new experiences and stresses and joys, Debbie was with them and skillfully guided her team of volunteers to help our new friends get established,” he says.

“Working with refugees or immigrants provides the opportunity to work with people from different cultures,” Goonan says. “We may not look the same, but we respond the same when it comes to relationships.”

Refugee ministry work involves people of all ages and walks of life from children to the elderly. For three years it has been her position to advocate for any victim with a second language who has experienced a crime. Refugees are often taken advantage of and have crimes committed against them including domestic violence, fraud, burglary, robbery, assaults and trafficking. Goonan’s office works with legal aid and family court judges, has three immigration attorneys on staff and files emergency protective orders, a process that is less intimidating when done in the office and assisted by an interpreter.

“We receive referrals from schools, medical providers and courts, and provide victim services within a radius of 100 miles of Lexington. We have a huge caseload and are constantly opening and closing cases. There are two of us as victim advocates in Lexington,” says Goonan.

“The cultural differences with a woman standing in a courtroom are very hard.”

And while engaging with the challenges faced by strangers — whether they’ve come from refugee camps or the foster care system —  can be difficult, Goonan’s witness exemplifies the power of a value as old as our religious tradition. When Abraham and Sarah welcomed three strangers in the desert, they were blessed with descendants more numerous than the stars. In practicing the value of hospitality in her own life, Goonan, too, has been blessed with an ever-growing family.