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North Bay Spirit Award winner, foster mom Keri Vellis writes books for kids about trauma

The North Bay Spirit Award

The North Bay Spirit Award was developed in partnership with The Press Democrat and Comcast NBCU to celebrate people who make a difference in our communities. In addition to highlighting remarkable individuals, the North Bay Spirit program aims to encourage volunteerism, raise visibility of nonprofit organizations and create a spirit of giving. Read about a new North Bay Spirit recipient every month in the Sonoma Life section.

To nominate your own candidate, go to www.pressdemocrat.com/northbayspirit

As a foster parent for 20 children over the last seven years, Keri Vellis has wanted nothing more than to comfort them.

She provided a loving home and safe place for kids who didn't have those things. With her husband Ted, she adopted three foster children. But Vellis felt she could do more.

One day, searching at a bookstore for children's books that addressed foster care, she couldn't find any. So she took matters into her own hands and in 2017, self-published “Sometimes,” a children's picture book she wrote while in the pick-up line at her kids' school.

“Sometimes” addresses the fear and uncertainty foster children may feel, telling them, “Sometimes kids can't stay where they live, and for one reason or another, you have to leave. . . . Sometimes you might even get scared, but know that you are always safe!”

Vellis's book marked the start of a whirlwind in her life, bringing attention to her efforts on behalf of foster kids. In 2018, she won a few thousand dollars on The Ellen DeGeneres Show and used the money to self-publish her second children's book, this one to address abuse, and to start a nonprofit called Keri's Kids, which aims to empower and comfort children by distributing the two books to children in need.

“I never thought my life honestly would lead me in the direction it has,” said Vellis, 47, who previously managed a dental office.

Keri Vellis is this month's North Bay Spirit Award recipient for her efforts as a foster mother, nonprofit leader and children's advocate.

“We're really proud of her,” said her eldest daughter, Maddy Vellis, 16. “We've all just kind of been watching from the sidelines and just rooting her on and letting her take this where she wanted it to go.”

Family life

Vellis and her husband have a bustling household with their three adopted children and three biological children, ranging in age from four to 18. Additionally, they are currently fostering a young child.

The idea to foster children came to Vellis when her now 12-year-old son was a newborn. Ted Vellis came home one day from his job as a sheriff's deputy and told her of a local child abuse case that tragically ended with the child's death.

Vellis was heartbroken by the story. “At that pivotal point in our lives, we decided quietly we wanted to do something - open up our home,” she said “But (we) waited about five years later until my son was five and started kindergarten and I quit my career.”

The couple became licensed foster parents in 2013. They foster one child at a time, and those children stay anywhere from a few days to a few months.

“When they leave, it's really hard because they become such an integrated part of our family,” Vellis said.

Her other children help out in the busy household. They describe their mom as an energetic, positive force.

“She loves to dance and sing and just make everything super fun,” her daughter Maddy said. “And she's always pretty much just been like that.”

Vellis seldom uses the phrase “foster care” around her children. In fact, one of her sons, adopted seven years ago, recently asked her, “Was I in foster care?” She told him he was.

“I don't want any of the kids to feel labeled, and I want them to feel like they're part of our family,” Vellis said. “There's such a stigma behind the word ‘foster care,' not a lot of people understand it.”

Removing labels

Destigmatizing foster care is part of Vellis's aim, as is addressing abuse. As often as she can, Vellis visits local schools, frequently at the request of teachers, to read her books aloud to students and introduce the idea that children can have different kinds of home situations. It's not uncommon for young kids to hug her at the end of her sessions.

“It's normalizing a lot of their feelings, and lots of children know kids in foster care or were in foster care,” she said. “I love kids, and this brings me the greatest joy.”

Vellis's books have been tools for adults, too, to help them comfort children in foster care and those who have experienced abuse. Her two books are distributed at Valley of the Moon Children's Home, the trauma and rape crisis center Verity, the domestic abuse treatment center Family Justice Center and schools, libraries and therapy centers around Sonoma County.

There are about 450,000 children in the foster care system across the country, according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. In Sonoma County, there are about 400 to 500 foster children at any time, said Shannon Fraley, a therapist and social worker at the Redwood PsychAlliance, a private practice where her clients include foster children.

The North Bay Spirit Award

The North Bay Spirit Award was developed in partnership with The Press Democrat and Comcast NBCU to celebrate people who make a difference in our communities. In addition to highlighting remarkable individuals, the North Bay Spirit program aims to encourage volunteerism, raise visibility of nonprofit organizations and create a spirit of giving. Read about a new North Bay Spirit recipient every month in the Sonoma Life section.

To nominate your own candidate, go to www.pressdemocrat.com/northbayspirit

These kids often feel isolated, Fraley said. She uses Vellis's books to reassure them.

The long-running TV series Sesame Street added a foster child to the show last year for the first time, a step forward, Fraley noted. Even so, it's difficult to find books or TV shows that explain the foster care system to young children, she said.

“What I like about Keri's books is that they're a child-friendly way to describe foster care,” Fraley said.

As for Vellis's book on abuse, “It helps teach abused kids that there are many adults here to help them,” Fraley said.

A kickstart from Ellen

Two years ago, Vellis received a phone call from The Ellen DeGeneres Show, inviting her to sit in the audience for DeGeneres's 60th birthday episode.

The audience was comprised of hundreds of do-gooders who entered the One Million Acts of Good Campaign. DeGeneres spotlighted a man who volunteered during the Hurricane Harvey disaster, a teacher who donated a kidney to her student's parent and a man who started an animal farm sanctuary.

DeGeneres donated $1 million for all the audience members to split, amounting to about $3,300 each. She called on them to “pay it forward.”

Vellis used that money to self-publish her second children's book and start Keri's Kids, her volunteer-run nonprofit organization.

Her second book, “When I Was Little ... : A Child's Journey in Overcoming Abuse & Trauma,” chronicles a child's journey in learning to trust adults enough to talk about traumatic experiences and emotions.

“The way I wrote both books was so it could help every child,” Vellis said.

Illustrated with meaning

While searching for an illustrator for her books, Vellis made a fortuitous connection.

She discovered Jin Lehr, a Sonoma County resident who grew up in the foster care system. Lehr created the art for both books, and Vellis said her perspective made the projects even more meaningful.

“They're beautiful watercolor. I wanted there to be a lightness to it,” Vellis said.

Sandy Hernandez, vice president of Keri's Kids and a long-time friend of Vellis's, said the nonprofit aims to distribute the books to children and agencies not just locally, but nationally as well.

“The books share amazing, comforting messages to children who are suddenly displaced and may have experienced unhappy home life and often horrific trauma,” Hernandez said. “I have seen children read these and immediately identify and open up.”

Vellis's books have also had a personal effect on adults, as Hernandez recounted.

“I have also seen adults who were once in the system praise these books, saying they wish they were available to them when they were foster children.”

Third book

Vellis is now at work on her third book, an autobiographical account of her experience as a parent of six children. It covers the struggles she and her family have faced to get necessary services for her adopted children, who have a range of diagnoses including autism, epilepsy and post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Trauma is not something that just goes away,” she said. “We worked through it to get them the best care and providers.”

Despite the struggles, Vellis said, “We adopted three children, and our family is even more blessed for it.”

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