John Cowan catches up with Nyree – a mum, wife and foster mum who is making the world of difference in so many little lives.
Nyree has given birth to four sons (8, 6, 3 and 1). That’s a big family, by today’s standards – especially when you consider that when she and Alan started out together, Nyree already had a daughter (now aged 21) and Alan had a son and a daughter (now 20 and 18). As well, they have a 12-year-old adopted son – “completely ours” – who has been with them since he was 10 weeks old.
Eight children? Surely that is enough – unless you are Alan and Nyree and just love kids, love having a full home and love seeing the difference a good home can make. So, right through their marriage together, they have fostered children as well, through Barnados and Child Youth and Family. Currently they have four children, from three different families, with them in long-term care.
“They are all my children. Blood doesn’t make families – it is how you love and care for each other. I will look after all their interests. There is not a sense that my kids will come first. They are all our kids and they all get loved.” Nyree was raised in a home where fostering was the norm. Her mum fostered as they were growing up, and has recently restarted fostering in her 70s.
“I grew up completely family, baby and child oriented. I was working as a caregiver and doing my foster training when I met Alan and, as a loving dad of two kids already, he was not hard to convince. He was a little hesitant at first about the ‘24/7’ nature of the commitment, but after the first baby, he was hooked!
“Your heart gets bigger to cope with the bigger number. I always love lots of kids. The house runs more smoothly with more kids, even though there are more lunches and dinners. You have to be very methodical in the way you do things, with lots of planning and routines. For example, we use coloured plates to identify meals for kids, and showers are always done in a certain order. It’s always busy, and the noise, is the noise. But it is all we have known and it is very happy.
“Holidays are a challenge. Most motels just would not be able to cope. And overseas travel is out of the question,. But camping works and it is fun. We had a wonderful time at Kai Iwi Lakes recently – just laid back family time.”
“I would say the fostering experience has been very positive for our own children. I look at my oldest – we have been fostering since she was six and she has been directly influenced by being around other children. She is very caring and nurturing. And with the boys, it’s always been their life – it’s second nature to them. Sometimes there are real sibling dynamics – someone wants to sit close to you or get all the attention – but I have never noticed resentment. The kids we foster often have very sad backgrounds – you usually do not get told the full picture but you can often tell – one thing I have noticed is that my boys have got a compassionate understanding that some kids do not get the love and care that they have had. They appreciate it.”
Nyree and Alan confess that sometimes the red-tape of dealing with the foster care system can be frustrating. “It can take a long time to get a result even for something quite small. For example, cutting their hair, or moving them to a closer school. I realise that it can be hard for the social workers though – sometimes they know things they cannot tell us, sometimes they have to work around complex family and cultural concerns. The biggest problem they have, though, is not enough people prepared to be foster parents.”
What’s the thing Alan and Nyree love most about foster caring? “Knowing that you are making a difference to these kids. I recall children that would come and they would be so withdrawn and fearful. It is just lovely seeing them open up into happy children. Sometimes they come sick and injured, and you see them become healthy. I remember one child, a preschooler with no language, broken bones and traumatised. What made the difference was Alan’s daughter, who was a similar age. She used hand gestures and taught him to communicate. It was wonderful seeing that connection, that breakthrough.”
And the toughest thing about being a foster parent? “The kids move on. When they get placed back with their family, we have a celebratory tea. They pick the food and we say good positive things about them as they are moving on. It’s a celebration. We have ongoing contact with some children but usually not. I remember one girl who had challenging physical needs – she was very sick and needed to be tube fed, but eventually she was well again and went to live with her grandmother. Three years later she saw me in a shopping mall. She ran across and threw her arms around me. It is great to know, while they are with you, you are making a difference that will last a lifetime.”
This week Nyree and Allan are one of 3,500 Child, Youth and Family foster carers across the country being recognised as part of Foster Care Awareness Week (5-11 March). Gráinne Moss, chief executive for Ministry for Vulnerable Children, Oranga Tamariki says Foster Care Awareness Week is about honouring those who provide safe, stable and nurturing homes for children who need it most.
“Any child affected by trauma needs understanding and a loving place to belong, so they can flourish,” says Gráinne Moss. “I’m always so impressed that New Zealanders from all walks of life are providing not just a home, but caring relationships that last well beyond the time a child might stay with a family. These caregivers play an important role in adding to a child’s sense of community, something every child deserves.”
To become a foster carer you need the desire to give children and young people love, support, understanding and encouragement. If foster care is something you think you and your family may be interested in, call 0508 FAMILY (0508 326 459) for more information or visit cyf.govt.nz.