When people ask Sandra Barnaby when she’s planning to retire, they’re not necessarily referring to the time she splits between serving as a nanny and cleaning houses.
For more than 30 years, Barnaby, 74, has welcomed children into her Greensburg home as a foster parent and guardian. She plans to continue in that role as long as possible.
“I’m glad God still allows me to do it at my age because it’s something I enjoy doing,” she said.
Last month, with both biological offspring and foster kids along for the ride, Barnaby traveled to a Pocono Mountains resort to receive the Statewide Adoption and Permanency Network’s 2019 Permanency Family of the Year award at the organization’s conference.
“Shocked” when she learned she’d been selected for the honor, Barnaby “had a great time at the conference, and the kids had a great time going to the water park.”
Barnaby was nominated for the award by Maria Houser, a caseworker at Latrobe’s Adelphoi foster care program who has worked with Barnaby for a little more than a decade.
“She has that grandmotherly way about her that kids take to,” Houser said of Barnaby, adding, “She has a good support system with her family. No matter what child is placed in her home, the whole family takes to him or her.”
Barnaby was recognized more than a decade ago as Foster Family of the Year by the Pennsylvania State Foster Parent Association. Through the years, she’s given more than 125 children a place to call home.
“I wish we had more foster parents like her,” Houser said. “Some of those foster kids who grew up and had kids of their own, they still refer to Sandra as Mom. It’s been a nice circle for her.”
Barnaby and her late husband, Stephen, a Greensburg minister, began taking foster children into their home in the early 1980s.
“I started with girls because I had two daughters,” Barnaby said, noting she fostered a number of pregnant teens. Over time, she has taken in children of both genders and various age groups.
“Foster care has really evolved over the years,” said Shawne Barnaby-Hall of Fayette City, one of Barnaby’s daughters. “The goal is to get the child into their forever home.”
An ideal situation is reuniting a child with his biological family. When that hasn’t worked out, Barnaby has stepped up and made many of the children she has fostered a permanent part of her family — whether informally or through a legal guardianship.
Barnaby explained guardianship doesn’t change a child’s surname or sever ties with blood relations, “but I’m responsible for everything. They can come into my home and they can be just like the rest of the family. It’s no difference. They’re very involved with my biological children.
“Two of my foster daughters, their girls, they call me Grandma.”
The newest permanent members of Barnaby’s family, through guardianship, are Austin Hull, 21, and Zach Rush, 15. The teen moved in with Barnaby about a year ago and then lost his biological mother to cancer. Barnaby took permanent legal custody of him Feb. 21.
She is caring for a 10-year-old boy whom she hopes to reunite with his biological family.
Barnaby set an example for her two daughters, as well as for Rose Ross of Manistique, Mich., and Donna Ross of Crabtree — who became part of the family through the foster program, married brothers and raised their own families. All four women have taken in foster children.
“They made everybody welcome into their home,” Donna Ross said of Barnaby and her late husband. “I was a young mother at 15, and they were there to help guide me.”
“They taught us that you didn’t have to be blood to be family,” Rose Ross said.
”Once you’re involved, you realize the stigma’s not true,” said Barnaby’s other daughter, Starr Truckenmiller of Belle Vernon. “Foster kids aren’t bad kids.”
Donna Ross accompanied Barnaby when she returned to her original hometown in Michigan for a family reunion.
“It’s not just our family here, it’s my biological siblings back in Michigan who consider these kids my kids,” Barnaby said. “They consider them part of the family.”
“I’ve joked that I took in all these kids so they can all take care of me when I get older,” she said, quickly adding, “I’m not old yet.”
When Barnaby’s husband was alive, they had as many as seven children at once in their home. After he died in 1990, she continued as a foster parent but acknowledged it was more of a challenge, especially when she was matched with “some pretty rough kids.”
She stepped away from foster care for a while, moving in with Barnaby-Hall. But it wasn’t long before she established her own household again and resumed work as a foster parent.
“It was just something I missed,” she said. “I think it gets in your blood.”
“I love being a foster parent. You’re taking in kids, and you see where they have been and you see them change,” Barnaby said. “They become adults, independent.
“I get excited when (Adelphoi caseworkers) call me and ask If I want to take in another kid. It’s what keeps me going, I think.”