A Suitcase Full of Humour
“The Smiley Family” was the nickname given to Jeanette and Dave and their four sons as the boys were growing up. Theirs was a happy home with a big focus on sporting and outdoor activities. The family’s eldest son was 18 and their youngest around seven when they began to discuss becoming a foster family.
Giving children a chance
It was the realisation of a long-held desire for mum, Jeanette, as she explained:
“I had a friend who was fostered when I was around 12 and another at 14. I remember worrying about them and really missing them as they both moved away and we lost contact. I said to myself then, if I can help children like then when I’m older I will. By the time Dave and I were in our early 30s it seemed like the right time to do it. Our boys were getting older and I wanted to give another child the chance to experience family life and discover what they are good at. Dave loves giving as much as I do and the boys were fine about it. We had a friend who was with the National Fostering Agency so she arranged for someone from the agency to come and talk to us and we took it from there.”
That was nearly 12 years ago. In that time, they have fostered 20 children, aged from four to 18. The majority have been boys and one is still with them now, an 11-year old with learning difficulties. Their 19-year old son also still lives at home.
Over the last two decades there have been many highs and lows but overall the experience has been a hugely rewarding one. Jeanette said:
“It is seeing the children achieve things, even little things. Sometimes Dave will take them into the shed to do woodwork or I will help them to make a cushion – they get quality time with both of us. Our current foster child had never been able to ride a bike so we took him down to the field to teach him. He absolutely smashed it. You should have seen the elation on his face – he was shouting and screaming. We had to record him on the bike so he could see it for himself. He’s recently made it through to the 2021 Special Olympics for disabled children, being held in Liverpool. We’re so proud of him.”
The difference you make
Jeanette recalls one young girl who came to live with them when she was nine. What was supposed to be a one-off visit over Christmas turned into a longer stay of three months. Jeanette said:
“She was a difficult girl – very angry – but so lovely too. She got back in contact with us last year and came to visit, bringing a bunch of flowers and chocolate. She is now 18 and a boy. That is where the anger came from. Having to wear dresses and have long hair just didn’t work. Now he is doing really well.
“The greatest reward for me is when they come back and you can see the difference you made. We always ensure that all the children who stay with us have a memory box, with photos and words or something they’ve made. They can take the box out now and again and, hopefully, remember some happy times.”
A different way of living
Fostering has become a way of life for Jeanette and Dave and they wouldn’t change a thing. Jeanette said:
“It teaches you a different way of living. Honestly, I don’t know where I’d be with an empty house or without a little chattery person in the morning, even when I’d prefer a bit of peace! I love taking the children to school and picking them up, doing homework together, going for long walks, bodyboarding…. I find it all so rewarding.”
Seeing beyond the behaviour
Of course, fostering is not without its challenges, as Jeanette explained:
“It’s what the children come with – the baggage they carry, what they’ve seen and been through, what’s been done to them, what they perceive as normal. It can be a long process to try and help them understand what is and isn’t acceptable. We try our best. It is about seeing beyond the behaviour and dealing with it without making a big issue out of it. We had one young boy who insisted on pulling his light fitting out. We were worried that he would electrocute himself so in the end we had to turn off the electricity to his room and put in a lamp instead.”
The family lives in a rural part of Wales and sometimes this can be challenging, as the social workers are not nearby as they would be in cities like Swansea or Cardiff. However, there is a local support group which provides a vital lifeline, as Jeanette explained:
“The social workers are great, but a child on paper is very different to an actual child living in your house. Other foster carers tend to have a really good understanding of that bit and this support can be really useful.”
The family’s birth children, who are now grown up, also act as an invaluable support network.
“They have been really fabulous,” said Jeanette. “They always turn up with Christmas presents for the foster children, they remember birthdays and often take them out onto the field for kickabout. It can be difficult for them if a foster child becomes aggressive towards me or Dave, particularly for our eldest son who is a police officer as he cannot attend any incidents at our house because he is family. Thankfully, this doesn’t happen very often.”
Pick up on the little things
Working as a foster carer for more than a decade has given Jeanette a good understanding of the qualities that someone needs to foster. She said:
“You need patience, understanding, empathy and a suitcase full of humour – you need to be able to laugh things off. You need to provide stability and consistency within your home, but you need to flexible to respond to the child’s needs. Foster children need to be listened to. It’s important to pick up on the little things that might sound trivial to you but could mean lots to the child. If they ask you to take the wardrobe doors off then take them off because it may be linked to a memory or experience that makes them uncomfortable. We always invite them to choose their own bedding because it makes their room more special and personal to them, even if it’s just for a week.”
Masks and memory bears
During lockdown, Jeanette put her sewing skills to good use by making more than 2000 masks. Her foster son and birth children helped with pinning and bagging, while she cut and measured and sewed. The masks were given away for free or sold for a donation. The money raised was used to buy goody bags for key workers at the local hospital and fire station. The family has also been busy making memory bears to remember people who have died or babies who are moving on to adopted parents. The bears are made from an item of someone’s clothing. Jeanette has made 30 so far and has orders for nine more.
To anyone who is considering becoming a foster carer, Jeanette has some simple words of advice:
“If your heart is big enough, just do it. If you can teach children new skills and set them on a new path in life, it is the right thing for you. Do your research about who you want to foster with. We went with a recommendation from a friend and it has worked out well for us as the National Fostering Agency is great and the training exceptional.”