By Erika Webb
Shirlene Berrien understands she can't change the world, but it doesn't stop her from trying.
Over the past 10 years, she and her husband, Gary, have taken 33 foster children into their Deltona home.
Through the Florida United Methodist Children's Home in Enterprise, they have been united with kids of all ages, from three-day-old infants up to 18 years old, "when they're aged out," Ms. Berrien said.
"My mother inspired me because she did foster care with four of my nephews," she said. "At first we were just helping her, but our heart just went out to the children so we decided to do it for ourselves."
Mr. Berrien didn't have any biological children. Ms. Berrien had three sons from a previous marriage; her eldest passed away 13 years ago.
The devastating loss was another factor in her decision to become a foster parent.
"This was very fulfilling and it helped me through that," she said, adding that her two grown sons help out with the children whenever possible.
Mr. and Ms. Berrien both come from large families. Each has nine siblings.
"So a house full of people is not a big deal for us," Ms. Berrien said.
They've cared for as many as seven children at one time, and once fostered twins in addition to four other children.
"That was challenging, but we made it through. One time we had three teenagers and, whew, that was the roughest," Ms. Berrien said, laughing.
The couple makes sure the kids stay busy. They plan plenty of outings, including trips to theme parks, the zoo and lots of birthday parties.
"We just try to offer a good, structured environment," Ms. Berrien said. "They know what they're going to do every day."
Last fall the state Department of Children and Families announced its recruitment goal of 1,200 new foster homes in 12 months.
Tanya Wilkins, the Governor's Child Advocate for Foster Care and Adoption, is leading statewide efforts to recruit the "ultimate soccer moms and dads -- who would care for and offer a child in foster care the same quality of life that they would offer their own biological child," according to DCF's website, myflfamilies.com.
As of January, the goal was halfway met.
Children end up in foster care for a variety of reasons. Ms. Berrien said she once had two in her care who came from an abusive situation. Even so, they grieve the absence of what's familiar -- another hurdle the Berriens have to overcome.
That situation has turned out OK, she said. The children were reunited with their mother whom Ms. Berrien now mentors. The kids and their mom have become Mr. and Ms. Berrien's family and the children visit the couple regularly.
"They call me Mama B," she said.
Reunification is the most common outcome, Ms. Berrien explained. But many leave foster care to join adoptive families as well.
Open Hearts Family Services is a ministry of the Florida United Methodist Children's Home, which was founded in 1908.
The program -- to recruit and license foster homes for the placement of children in need -- was launched in 2002. Open Hearts serves children and families in Volusia, Flagler, Seminole, Orange, Osceola and Hillsborough counties.
Merrilu Bennett, the communications and media director for the children's home, said the biggest challenge facing the organization in terms of recruitment is "getting the word out."
"So many people don't know we exist and aren't aware of the services we provide," she said. "We are here to help children."
Ms. Bennett said some people shy away when they hear the words "faith-based" in conjunction with Open Hearts.
"We certainly encourage religion because it helps children and families," she said. "But it is not mandatory. What matters most is that you can provide a warm, loving and stable home for these children."
Potential foster parents must meet other criteria as well.
After attending a question and answer session presented by Open Hearts and/or calling to speak with one of the organization's specialists, candidates are invited to attend an orientation meeting in their region. They are given a detailed overview of the foster care program and the application and licensing process.
A pre-service course, home study and law enforcement background check of prospective foster parents and family members are required. Finally, friends, relatives and employers are contacted to provide character references, according to information provided by Open Hearts.
The entire licensing process should be completed in about four months from the date of attendance in the orientation class, Ms. Bennett said.
Each year individuals continue as foster parents, they are required to take eight hours of recertification training on issues such as child development, attachment disorder and how to support relationships between children and their families.
Foster parents also are required to renew their foster parent licenses annually.
Ms. Bennett said there are only 48 foster families in Volusia and Flagler.
"The state would like to see 60 to 80 at the very least," she said.
Her personal goal is to find as many qualified homes as soon as possible.
"I think the biggest benefit is knowing you are making a difference in the life of a child, and in some cases you may actually be saving their life," she said. "It breaks my heart to hear what some of these kids have been through. These children are innocent victims."
While the rewards are many, so are the challenges. Ms. Bennett said foster parents are tasked with showing children what "normal" looks like.
"Normal is getting up and going to school every day, then coming home and playing with your friends and eating dinner with your family," she said. "Normal for the children that come into foster care may be watching their mom and dad do drugs or fall asleep drunk all the time ... having no clean clothes or shoes and not knowing half the time where their parents even are."
As the Berriens discovered, the children love and miss their parents despite their offenses; they don't understand why they've been taken away. If siblings aren't placed together, there's additional loss to deal with, Ms. Bennett said.
"The last challenge has got to be when you fall in love with a foster child and then they are taken away because either a family member is found or the parents actually get their act together," she said. "What you have to remember, if that happens, is whether you had that child for a month or for four years, they were loved and you had a positive impact on their lives."
But, she added, many foster families stay in touch with the biological families -- as the Berriens have -- and remain a part of the child's life.
"Efforts to retain foster parents are sometimes challenging, as in many cases these parents adopt the very same children they've cared for and retire from fostering," DCF reported.
That could end up being the case with the Berriens, who have already adopted three girls, ages six, seven and nine.
Ms. Berrien said they would like to adopt the sibling group of three presently in their care.
"I think that will probably be my over tap," she said. "We'll focus on raising them."
But she sounded wistful.
"Me, I would just take them all," Ms. Berrien said. "My husband says, 'Baby, you can't save the world,' so I'll just take my six and do what I can by them."
For questions about foster parenting or to attend the next question and answer session, contact John Gill at email@example.com. Organizations willing to offer space for the sessions may also contact Mr. Gill.