Family is a word that can a lot of different things, and when the crew of LifeTeen.com sat down to look at the theme of “Family,” we realized that even working in the same office, we all come from different types of families. Our Director of Internet Ministry and first-round draft pick out of Georgia Tech Matt Smith came from a family that has a pretty unique story. I turned around the chair at my desk, looked over to Matt, and interviewed him about what it was like in the Smith family.
Greg Iwinski: Matt, tell me about this old family photo. Who are the people in the photo and where was it taken?
Matt Smith: Don’t you love photos from the 1980s? In the middle you see me at age five in the white T-shirt. Around me are my mom and dad and three of my siblings. On the left is Jennifer, my foster sister. She lived with us for six years. Now that I look at it, she might be picking her nose. I’m guessing that in the photo, Dad is just a little older than I am today. Nice beard, huh? At that time we probably drove a big van from the 1970s with stripes down the side.
The photo was taken at New Life Farm, our family farm in small town in mountains of western North Carolina. My parents are both from the Northeast, from Boston and New York, but they decided to settle in this small country town and start a new life. If you look at the photo closely, you can see a painting of a dove on the wall of our home. The dove, representing the Holy Spirit, was the symbol for our farm. My mom and dad wanted the farm to be a place of new beginnings, especially for the foster children that we took into our home.
Life on the farm wasn’t easy. We had to work hard in the garden and in the barn taking care of the animals. But it was a cool way to live.
GI: I think ‘foster’ is a word we’ve all heard before, but what could you explain what exactly a foster family is for people who aren’t familiar with it?
MS: A young person ends up in a foster family like ours usually after their own family doesn’t work out too well. A foster family is kind of a temporary family—usually for about two years—until the child’s own family gets better or another family decides to adopt the child. Over the course of about 15 years, my family took in over 30 foster children. Our framed “family photo” that hung on our wall was always changing because we always had someone new in our family.
GI: Matt, I was adopted as a baby into a family, but as you said, foster families aren’t necessarily a permanent thing. How did the temporary nature of bringing people into a foster family affect relationships inside your family?
MS: Now that I am an adult looking back, I think that being a foster family was both difficult and awkward. What most people want to hear is similar to that old movie Annie, where an poor orphaned girl is adopted by a rich guy with a huge house and everyone lives happily ever after. I guess in a way this happened in our home: troubled kids entered a warm and loving house that was a lot fun. But it’s not like just being in our home made their world perfect.
Let me give you an example. When I was in seventh or eighth grade, we ended up taking in what would be our last foster children, a brother and sister who were about 12 and 10 years old. It was a lot of drama. They were both rowdy and disrespectful to my parents and to my own brothers and sisters. They got into trouble at school. I was old enough to know that they weren’t inherently bad kids, but that they had suffered a lot in their childhood and this is how they acted out their anger. But we all dealt with it and slowly things got better. Me and my siblings learned to be selfless because that’s the only way we could all stay happy.
Eventually their mother got her life put back together was able to take care of her kids again. They moved into a small house not far from us and tried their best to pick up where they left off. Neither of the children has had an easy life in the 18 years since they moved out of our home. But I don’t think that means we failed as a foster family. I am satisfied knowing that we gave those two souls a happy home, even if it was for only two years of their lives.
GI: Do you still stay in contact with any of your foster siblings?
MS: I’ve run into a couple foster sisters whenever I’ve traveled back home to the mountains. Their memories of our time together are a lot clearer than my own, so both times I just enjoyed hearing them retell stories from my childhood. I imagine that if I was the same age as some of my foster sisters I would still keep in touch a little more. Whenever I was on MTV, Mom and Dad got lots of calls from foster kids they hadn’t heard from in years.
GI: Now that you have two daughters of your own and you start a new branch of the Smith family, what lessons from having foster siblings do you think you will bring into raising your own kids?
MS: That’s a good question. I don’t think I have answer for that one yet. I guess just talking about all this now reveals how counter-cultural my childhood was. The rest of the world moved along just fine without knowing about our humble lives in the mountains. We were disconnected from the glamorous things of the world—trends, music, celebrity culture, professional sports, wealth, whatever. Whatever I saw on TV about what it was like to be young and have a family – my life looked nothing like that. We were off the grid, but that doesn’t mean what happened there didn’t matter.
Somewhere along the way society has become consumed with appearances, and that has confused what it means to be a “happy family.” You know, the parents drive nice cars, they have a sweet house in a cool neighborhood where all the lawns are perfect… the kids are all hip and dress nice and have cool stuff. Fancy vacations. The whole deal. How uncool would life be if all we tried to do as a family was impress others? There’s no soul in that. I want my children to know that its okay to be counter cultural. And there’s nothing more counter cultural than loving like Christ loved.