Group offers support to those who open their homes to children
John and Carol Kotora got a call -- a 6-month-old boy needed them.
They met the child in a hospital and spent the next three days there, eventually bringing him to their home in Rural Valley.
And he wasn't even their son.
The Kotoras are members of the Armstrong County Foster Parent Association, a group that meets regularly to conduct business and provide support.
The association has become an extended family for its participants, who are of varying ages and backgrounds but have one goal in mind: providing a safe home for children.
"A support group is extremely important," said John Kotora, association president.
The Kotoras fostered the 6-month-old boy for two-and-a-half years. They were there for bath time, diapers and the child's first words.
Then the court ruled that the boy could return to his biological mother's care.
"You still have to let them go," John Kotora said.
That can be the heartbreaking part of fostering a child -- it's hard not to get attached, said association parents.
"That's the rough part, that's the part I don't like," said foster parent John Reed of Leechburg. "You gotta have a heart of gold and a heart of stone."
But the parts in between meeting and saying goodbye to the child are rewarding, association parents agreed. It may not result in a "normal" family, but association foster parents feel they're doing the right thing by providing a loving, caring and safe home -- something a child's biological parents may be unable to do.
"It's something that's near and dear to our hearts," Kotora said. "It's a very rewarding experience for us. That's why we got into it."
Adding a foster child to an already cohesive family unit can take some practice.
Foster parent Crystal Cowan said she and her husband, David, set up a bedroom in their Kittanning home for an incoming child and they buy at least one toy "so they feel that our place is their place to make them feel comfortable."
Foster children sometimes come with little clothing, the parents said, and that's when association members step in to swap outfits.
"All we have to do is pick up the phone and call someone," Carol Kotora said.
The goal is to keep the child from getting overwhelmed, the parents agreed. Foster parent Helen Schall of Rural Valley said the welcoming process has to be tailored to the child.
"Some slide in, and with other ones it's very difficult," she said.
Becoming a foster family
Families interested in foster parenting aren't daunted by all the training, tests, clearances and other red tape necessary to be considered a viable unit by the county Children, Youth and Family Services.
Some of them have been opening their homes for decades.
Worthington residents Karen and Paul Grafton have taken in more than 30 children in 30 years of being foster parents.
"We love kids," Karen said.
Association foster parents cited different reasons for getting involved.
"When our only daughter left, we didn't want to have an empty nest," said Janice King of Leechburg.
Savaana Freiters of Worthington took in her granddaughter through kinship foster care, when a family member assumes the parental role.
Mom and Dad?
Some foster children wonder how to address their new parental figures, association members agreed. There is no requirement, the parents said -- mom, dad, grammy or grandpa work, as do first names.
"Whatever they want to call us is what we let them," Crystal Cowan said.
No matter the nickname, the foster parents' job is the same. They have to be role models, potty trainers, homework helpers and advice givers. They have to teach life skills, good character and morals.
"You gotta treat them right off the bat as one of your own," John Kotora said.
But sometimes the child doesn't stick around for long. Even so, the bond between foster child and parent is strong, the parents agreed.
Saying goodbye can come at any moment and sometimes without warning -- it just depends on the situation, said Carol Pontious, CYFS foster care coordinator.
Some parents try to form a friendship with the foster child's biological parents, Crystal Cowan said, to help with baby sitting or other necessities once the child returns home.
"It's hard to let go," she said.
Making sure the child is and will be OK is important, "because you fall in love with these kids," she said.
Foster parent Jean Swartz said she has to psych herself up for a goodbye. A foster parent has to maintain control, the Templeton resident said, "but you have to let them know that you love them."
"Then you worry what they're going to get when they leave you," she said.
But sometimes the child doesn't leave, and the foster family ends up adopting, as in the Kotoras' case. They've adopted two daughters.
"Sometimes we are considered the enemy to the parents," Kotora said. "Most of the time, you try to forge a relationship with the parents."
Whatever the story or reason, Armstrong County foster parents believe in their plight -- even if it comes about unexpectedly for some.
George and Marnee Kelvington became foster parents when a child was left on their doorstep.
Now, the 3-year-old boy waits at the door of their West Leechburg home to talk to George when he gets home from work and calls the couple "mom" and "dad."
"The whole way up here: 'I love you mommy and daddy,'" Marnee imitated their foster son.
Today's edition of the Leader Times includes a 32-page, four-section special project: A source of strength: Armstrong County families. We not only celebrate the families in this edition, but all the families that make up our communities and give it character and direction. We present the accompanying story to lead into the section and highlight a special form of family relationship created by foster parents. In addition, we encourage readers to tell us about other families that would be good for us to focus on in upcoming editions of the Leader Times. Simply contact the newsroom at 724-543-1303 or via e-mail to email@example.com