Aunty B’s House aims to make life in foster care less isolating — with love and a laugh track | CBC News

A new kids show about growing up in the foster care system is set to debut this fall, after recently wrapping shooting in Toronto. 

Khalilah Brooks’s Aunty B’s House follows a foster mom and her crew of foster kids as they navigate difficult topics such as losing a parent and coming into the foster care system. But the show, meant for a preschool audience, is doing it with humour.

The show is structured like a sitcom with ’90s guitar riffs and kid-friendly punchlines — with the goal of helping all children understand that families come in different shapes and sizes.

“One of the episodes that we have is about a child that says, ‘This isn’t a real family.’ So we have those hard topics. Those are topics that I personally have gone through [with] many other children that have grown up in the foster care system currently or in the past,” said Brooks.

A woman wearing pink with a ribbon in her hair sits on a sofa with three children, in front of a colourful wall.
Khalilah Brooks (centre), shown here with cast members Nendia Lewars (left), Claire Poon (centre left) and Luke Dietz (right) created and stars in Aunty B’s House, a show about what it’s like to grow up in foster care. (Headspinner Productions)

She created the show and stars as Aunty B.

Brooks drew from her own experience growing up in the foster care system in Nova Scotia to create the character.
At the time, she’d see families on TV, but felt they didn’t tell her story.

“There was an emotional disconnect, and there was also a bit of a yearning, too, because I wanted that. I thought that that’s what family really was. But as life turned out, it isn’t,” said Brooks.

‘How can we have the heart and the humour?’

As a child she remembers being embarrassed for “standing out” — for being too tall and showing up with foster siblings to new communities and schools. 

“I might not have brushed my hair. I might not have brushed my teeth. Because when you’re so young, you don’t have those life skills or those hygienic skills,” she explained.

That led to a big lack of confidence. Brooks wanted to hide, but she says one foster parent in particular changed everything for her. 

“She taught me how to stand up straight and keep my head up high and that I didn’t need to be ashamed of my journey and being a foster kid and that she was going to teach me how to be loved, and that’s exactly what she did,” she said. Brooks aged out of the foster care system at 21.

A smiling girl stands in front of a smiling woman in a family photo
Khalilah Brooks and the foster mom (left) that made a huge difference in her life. Brooks says she remembers arriving at her foster mom’s home for the first time to be greeted with ease and love. (Submitted by Khalilah Brooks)

Now, she wants to be that comforting foster parent for other kids and is doing it with a TV show shot entirely in a Toronto studio with a cast of young kids who play her foster children. 

Brooks was doing live shows as her character Aunty B in Nova Scotia before bringing her idea to a pitch session at Centennial College.

In the audience were producers Michelle Melanson and Ken Cuperus, who own a Toronto production company and instantly knew they wanted to make the show.

Melanson and her husband have their own connections to the foster care system. They adopted their child out of the foster care system when she was 11 months old, and Cuperus himself was adopted at a young age.

“We sat down with Khalilah in the writers room, and she gave us all these great anecdotes of when she was a child, and then we were able to spin that out into, ‘OK, what’s the situational comedy in this? And how can we have the heart and the humour?'” said Melanson, who’s now the executive producer of Aunty B’s House.

It’s OK to be sad

Showrunner Kara Harun says Aunty B’s House is about a different kind of representation — showing foster children that they’re normal and their families matter, but also that family can be anything you make it.

It’s also about teaching empathy to children who don’t grow up in foster care. 

A woman with curly hair and round sunglasses holds a microphone on a street in front of a young girl.
Khalilah Brooks performed Aunty B as a live character on the east coast before she pitched her idea to TV producers during an event at her college. Now, Aunty B’s House is set to debut its first season this fall. (Submitted by Khalilah Brooks)

“I think it’s really important to introduce them to what we as adults think of as harder situations and present them in a really normal way so that they realize that, you know, their situation might not be the same as someone else, but they can empathize and have compassion,” said Harun. 

Episodes include stories about how the tooth fairy will find a recently moved foster child, how to cope with the nervousness and anxiety around a family member visit — and how to cope with the sadness that sometimes happens during that visit. In another, a child doesn’t want to part with her shoes, the last pair her mother bought her before she died.

Melanson says North American audiences haven’t seen anything like this before, but children’s programming that tackles darker subjects like parental death does exist in Scandinavia. And, she says, it’s closer to the reality that kids are living.

“Kids get upset. Kids don’t understand. Kids are confused. I think all of that we’re able to present in a way that’s still preschool appropriate but allowing kids to know it’s OK to have those emotions other than the rosy, happy things,” said Melanson, adding the show brought in a consultant from the Children’s Aid Society to help ensure the stories were consistent with the experiences of children in care.

Actor Luke Dietz plays a boy named Zachary whose parents died at a young age, and whose grandparents eventually couldn’t care for him due to their age. 

Then Zachary finds Aunty B’s house.

Dietz says the show has helped him understand that there’s always someone to look out for you. 

“Aunty B’s always there for you. Like in every episode someone’s down about something, but she always helps them,” said Dietz.

Shortage of foster parents

Daria Allan-Ebron leads Family and Children’s Services of Guelph and Wellington County.

She hopes the show will help with some of the isolation children in care can feel.

A mother, a father and two older children pose for a family photo
Michelle Melanson (right) is the executive producer of Aunty B’s House. She runs a production company with her husband Ken Cuperus (left). The couple have multiple touchstones to the foster care system. ‘We actually went to China and adopted our daughter (bottom centre), and she was in the foster system when we got her at 11 months old,’ said Melanson. (Submitted by Michelle Melanson)

“I think it gives kids and youth an opportunity to see some of their experiences that they may have had exactly the same or similarly to what is being depicted on Aunty B’s show in a way that they can probably relate to,” said Allan-Ebron.

“Some may not know that other children or youth have had very similar experiences.”

Right now, her community is facing a shortage of foster parents, particularly Black and Indigenous foster caregivers and those willing to take sibling groups. 

She said there seems to be a turnover right now with some foster families and caregivers retiring.

“Foster caregivers really play such an important role in the lives of children who come to live with them. They are there to meet their physical needs, their social needs, their emotional needs,” said Allan-Ebron. “They are some of the most compassionate, kind, warm, nurturing people that I have met, and they do make a significant difference in the lives of children and youth.”

That’s something Brooks knows firsthand and wants to celebrate and help people understand in her new show, alongside creating a strong sense of belonging for children who are going through an incredibly difficult time.

“The fact is their stories aren’t being told, and so this show is about inspiring children,” said Brooks. 

“Even though the topics are difficult, it’s all about being able to let them know that even in difficult conversations, there’s somebody here to listen and someone here to see them through those.”

You can watch Aunty B’s House this fall on CBC and CBC Gem.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

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