You may have seen her on her way to work or in a grocery store and noticed her friendly and welcoming smile. She may look a lot like one of your friends or neighbors. She might even look a bit like you. What sets her apart is that this woman, Barbara, has been a foster parent since 2002.

“I always knew I wanted to work with children,” Barbara explains. “And the 30 years I spent teaching special education were tremendously gratifying. Yet I always wanted to do more. Being a foster parent has allowed me to make more of an impact. Together with my family, I have been able to change the lives of children from all different backgrounds and a variety of circumstances. There are challenges, to be sure—as every foster parent will tell you—but the rewards have been beyond what I would ever have expected.”

There are currently 513,000 children in the foster care system in the United States, and there is a dire need for committed, caring adults willing to take these children into their homes over the short or longer term. In her seven years as a foster parent, Barbara and her husband have taken in 25 children for stays ranging from a few days to nine months. They have adopted two of these children (one a toddler and the other a teenager), who are now a permanent part of a family that also includes Barbara’s two college-age biological sons and, at present, one additional foster child.

After having done this for seven years, Barbara tells us: “Now, I wish we had made the decision to start even earlier. Each one of these children has contributed to our home and family life in a special way.”

Barbara is especially grateful for the FAST program, which sends professionals into foster homes to help address the children’s unique needs. She tells us that the first few days of a placement can be especially trying, as children act out in different ways and can be particularly needy when first separated from a parent. FAST provides the information and support Barbara and her family need to make the transition as smooth as possible. “The reward is when the child begins to trust you,” Barbara says. “The first time he comes to you for comfort or she places her head on you. Those are the moments that make everything worthwhile—just knowing that you have created a safe and loving place for this youngster. For some of these children, the time they spend in our home is their first experience of a healthy, nurturing environment. We show them the sort of home life they deserve. And I don’t mean with regard to home size or material possessions; I mean having a place to live where everyone has your best interests at heart. A place where you know from one moment to the next what to expect and don’t have to live with fear or hunger or neglect.”

Barbara’s eyes light up as she speaks of a three-year-old currently in her care: “She is so bright and says the funniest things. She has been identified as gifted by the teachers at the nursery school she attends, which doesn’t surprise me at all. I’ve met with this little girl’s mother, and she has so much potential. We are all hoping she will be able to turn things around and be reunited with her child. Until then, she knows her child is in a loving home.”

The most difficult part of being a foster parent, according to Barbara, is seeing the children leave, especially when there is no contact afterwards. “It’s not possible to adopt every child,” Barbara says, “and of course we worry about the children after they’ve left our home. We just have to take comfort in the fact that, for as long as we had them, we loved them and gave them a stable, structured family life. Sometimes, we are able to keep track of a child when he or she leaves. One of the children was adopted by her grandparent, and we get together and talk on the phone often. It is such a joy to know this child is in a caring home and is being given a good chance for a healthy and happy life.”

What makes an ideal foster parent? According to Barbara, there is no one formula other than enjoying children, being able to provide a loving home, and being willing to fight for what they need. Barbara considers foster parenting her calling and encourages others to join her in providing a temporary home for one or more of the thousands of local children in need.

Foster parenting is a commitment—and an opportunity to make a big difference in a child’s life. FAM (Foster Adoptive Mission) has presented this vignette of Barbara’s experiences as a foster parent in hopes of encouraging other caring adults to reach out to children in difficult circumstances. If you have any interest in becoming a foster parent, please call FAM today for more information.

This article was written by Alan Murphy for Foster Adoptive Mission.