‘It’s a calling’ ... for people with BIG hearts

When the little boy fell asleep he was at home, in his own bed, but when he awoke searching for comfort in the middle of the night, everything had changed. This was not his house. These were not his clothes or his toys. The caring face staring down at him and the arms reaching to pick him up were white  — not like his brown skin.

“I wondered if he’d ever seen a white person before,” says longtime foster mom Gina Crawford.

The Department of Family and Children Services (DFCS) brought this two-year-old to Crawford’s home late in the night. She’ll never forget his wide-eyed, confused gaze when he woke up and toddled out to meet her.

Crawford and her husband, Robin, have been fostering since 2006. They’ve had good times and dark days, but Crawford wouldn’t change a thing about it. She has a big hug and even bigger heart for little ones in need.

The size of Crawford’s family is testament to that.

Together, the Crawfords have seven biological children  — a true yours, mine and ours crew  — and they’ve adopted six more since they began fostering 13 years ago.

“That would be termed insanity in the real world!,” Crawford says, laughing.

But, it’s not insanity for the Crawfords. Love makes it all work.

“I just love children,” Crawford says simply, with a smile and slight shrug.

Fostering is a calling for the Crawfords, and for many other foster families in the area. They don’t take on this challenge without much prayer and careful consideration.

Blane and Brandi Hill have been fostering since 2012, and recently built a larger home outside of Patterson so they can continue opening their doors and arms to children.

“We both felt a calling ... When it’s God’s will and His plan for you, you have to accept it,” Blane says modestly. “We have been blessed.”

“This is my element,” Brandi agrees.

The Hills currently provide for their four-year-old biological daughter, three teens (two are adopted) and two toddling foster boys in their ranch-style home.

The Crawfords initially intended to adopt one child, but after seeing how great the need is, made a commitment to adopt any child in their care who wanted to stay with them permanently if parental rights were terminated.

 “And we have [adopted them all],” Crawford says.

“We didn’t think about the end!,” Crawford adds. “But when you love children, and you feel like it’s a calling ... There are so many children.”

The size of their home might soon slow the Crawford family’s growth though. Their house is currently home to four adopted children and two grandchildren. They only have room for one more child these days, but they’ve welcomed as many as eight or nine children at once into their five bedroom home over the years.

As much love as the Crawfords and Hills have to give, the need for foster homes continues to grow.

According to local DFCS records, there are currently 51 Pierce County children in foster care, but only 16 foster and/or adopt homes in the county. Some children are re-homed in other counties if there is no place for them here.

But, more children are entering the foster care system and fewer are returning to their biological families, compounding the need for foster homes. Crawford attributes that unsettling trend to the opioid and drug crisis widespread across the nation, and to poverty.

 “I don’t know what is the beginning of the vicious cycle,” she adds.

Crawford, like most foster parents, struggles emotionally when the cycle continues and things are never “fixed” for her babies. Sometimes they do return home, only to be back in the system a short while later. Other times, children are never reunified with their families.

“That’s hard as a parent. You want to see everybody fixed,” Crawford says.

Watching her adopted adult children break that cycle, however, keeps her going. Crawford beams when recounting how successful they are now.

“Most of them want to be more than where they came from,” Crawford says. “To see them be able to break that cycle is awesome.”

The ups and downs, the joys and sorrows of foster parenting can feel a bit like an emotional roller-coaster at times.

“It is the best/hardest thing you will ever do,” Hill says.

One of the Hill’s adopted teens agrees things haven’t always been easy on this journey, but he wouldn’t change it and he’s excited about his bright future ahead  — he wants to be a lineman one day.

“We have our ups and downs but we’re a family,” the Hill’s sixteen-year-old son says. “I wouldn’t change how our future turned out.”

Parenting is exhausting  — just ask anyone with an infant or toddler at home  —  but the overwhelming, sleep-deprived fog parents live in is multiplied for parents of foster children.

Many of the routine care practices for children have been neglected for months before foster kids enter care. These babies haven’t been to the dentist, their shot records are not up to date, and they haven’t seen a pediatrician regularly. Finding daycare programs for foster children is also a challenge when their medical records aren’t current.

With several years of experience now under her belt, Crawford has taken on a new role within the foster community, advising new foster parents on how to navigate these challenges.

She has some ideas for community-wide support, too.

Many foster children need tutoring after having missed weeks of school prior to entering the DFCS system. Often, they simply need a decent haircut.

Baby-sitters are also needed. Yes, even foster parents need a date night every now and then, Brandi adds.

A recent “prudent parenting” state law allows foster parents to choose baby sitters without a background check, but many are still leery of keeping foster children for liability reasons. Crawford urges people to reconsider.

Blane has another solution.

If every church in Pierce County would sponsor one foster family, the local need for homes would be met, he says.

No more would a child be taken from their family and everything familiar to them. Perhaps they would be allowed to remain in the same school, keep the same circle of friends, and play on the same sports teams if more homes were available right here in Pierce County.

Editor’s Note: May Is National Foster Care Month, a time to recognize the role(s) everyone in the community can fill to better the lives of children and youth in foster care.

FOSTER CARE SUPPORTS & WAYS TO HELP

• Foster Parent Association  — Blane Hill currently serves as president of the organization which provides continuing education resources and a network of foster parents for advice and information. The Association provides Christmas for all Pierce County children in care, those living both in and out of county. Contact Hill at 912-282-7565 to help.

• “Love the Least” at Bridge Community Church  — This ministry works to raise awareness and support for orphans and children in need. Love the Least supports the Pierce County DFCS office by providing duffle bags with toiletries, school supplies, toys, and other comfort items to each child entering care. Love the Least also stocks a supply closet at the DFCS office with diapers, wipes, shoes, jackets, and several clothing items. Every quarter Love the Least provides “blessing baskets” to all the case workers. To partner with Love the Least call (912) 807-7283 and ask to speak with Kami Roberts, Wendy Price, or Annie Copeland, or email bridge419blackshear@gmail.com.

• Project Foster  — A local non-profit formed three years ago by two foster moms, Jessica Cochran and Sarah Daniels. Project Foster serves foster children and families by providing support to DFCS in Pierce, Ware, Bacon, Brantley and Charlton counties. Project Foster helps provide birthday gifts for foster children, gift cards for teens at Christmas, stocks supply closets at regional DFCS offices and organizes infant drives for baby supplies. Project Foster also helps biological families get back on their feet after a parent’s stay in rehabilitation by providing three weeks worth of food, beds, dressers and other items as needed. Cochran and Daniels also spread awareness and solicit community involvement by speaking at various organizations and churches about foster care and the needed supports. To help, follow Project Foster’s Facebook page for posted needs, email projectfoster11@gmail.com, or call 912-276-2710.

• Department of Family and Children Services  — for more information on how to become a foster parent, contact Director Amy Yawn at 912-449-6624.