Dione Mason and his new wife expect three things of the foster children staying in their Oakland home: doing homework, personal hygiene and keeping a clean bedroom come first before other activities.
But that’s it, Mason emphasized. They keep the rules simple to ensure there is no “militant structure” and the children have fun — “what home is supposed to feel like,” he said.
Mason, 27, did not pick up such parenting techniques from his own mother and father (he didn’t even meet his dad until seven years ago). Mason’s mother, conversely, had left her five children, including Mason, in a shopping cart in front of their grandmother’s house when Mason was 5. She was supposed to be right back, but never returned.
It was another home altogether — a foster home — that taught Mason structure and allowed him to enjoy his childhood for the first time. Today, Mason shares his experience with others, hoping he’ll inspire someone much like he was positively influenced upon meeting the right foster parent.
After seven years of being batted from house to house, at the age of 12 Mason was placed in what was supposed to be a temporary foster care home in Oakland. A woman named Mildred Walls, whom Mason today calls “Miss Walls,” took him in.
“I was only supposed to be there for three days,” Mason recalled. “When my social worker came back to get me, I barricaded myself in a room.”
Mason said he didn’t want to leave because, after years of living with his elderly grandmother followed by his abusive aunt, he felt he had finally found a home.
“She just basically showed me how a kid was supposed to live at that age,” Mason said of the relief he felt at Walls’ house.
Mason lived with Walls for the next decade, and upon turning 25 he in turn welcomed two teenage foster youths into his home through Seneca Family of Agencies, an Oakland-based foster service system celebrating its 30th anniversary this year.
“I can relate to about 95 percent of the kids in the system,” Mason said of why he became a foster parent.
Indeed, it is Mason’s unconventional notion of family that perhaps makes him an ideal foster parent, noted Ken Berrick, CEO of Seneca.
“[Mason] having been there allows him to understand the kid’s experience in a way that’s just a little bit deeper,” Berrick said.
But welcoming a stranger into his home — and a child with a storied past, nonetheless — is not all fun and games. Mason bonded over basketball with the first foster child placed in his home, a 16-year-old boy who lived with Mason for eight months, although the teen did not immediately open up.
“I’m new to this kid’s life,” Mason explained. “I know what it’s like to come to a house and expect to leave in two or three days.”
Not only had Mason, who was 26 at the time, and the teen both been placed in a multitude of foster homes, it turned out their childhoods prior to foster care were similar as well.
“When he finally opened up and told me about his childhood, it was exactly like mine,” Mason said.
More recently, Mason until January housed a 13-year-old boy from San Jose, who left behind his friends and family to live with Mason in Oakland. That was challenging, Mason noted, but he and his wife simply let the boy know that he had support.
“[There were] definitely some challenging moments. He wasn’t used to me, wasn’t used to my rules,” Mason said of the 13-year-old who lived with him for five months.
Though he is not fostering a child at the moment, earlier this year, Mason was hired as a program specialist at a child care center at Stanford University. He has also worked as a motivational speaker.
Mason is even scheduled to throw out the first pitch at the May 15 Oakland Athletic’s game for National Foster Care Month.
Today, Mason lives next door to Walls, his former foster parent, and hopes to continue sharing his experience to inspire troubled youths. He managed to walk past the gun battles and drug use in Oakland to graduate from high school with honors and attend Mendocino Community College in Ukiah for a year. He later pursued a bachelor’s of science degree from Walden University.
But it’s his roots in Oakland that Mason calls home, and hopes to let future foster kids call home too.
“This is my calling, this is what I want to do,” he said.