With three children under nine, it was all-hands-on-deck for Elizabeth and Philip. But life was not too full to welcome another little person into their home one weekend a month.

“From the very beginning of our relationship, Philip and I knew we wanted children,” says Elizabeth. “Twelve years ago, we weren’t even sure whether having children was possible and we have always been open to the idea of fostering. After the birth of our children, we knew we would not have capacity to foster a child full-time or long-term, but we still wanted to help a child in need in whatever way we could.”

Making a difference

Ten months after completing the rigorous screening and training process, 5-year-old Ryan was welcomed into Elizabeth and Philip’s family one weekend a month. “We all look forward to weekends with Ryan, who has been coming for about a year now,” says Elizabeth. “We so wanted him to feel part of our family, although the first few visits were a bit fraught for Ryan as well as us.”

Although it often felt like a tricky balancing act for Elizabeth and Philip, patience, consistency and clear boundaries paid off. “Ryan was understandably anxious at first,” remembers Philip. “He was pretty hyperactive and sometimes wet the bed at night. We just kept reassuring him he was not in trouble when he wet the bed or broke a toy, and he gradually started to relax more.”

Not sweating the small stuff

As part of this nurturing approach, Elizabeth and Philip use positive reinforcement and avoid drawing attention to little things that don’t really matter. “When something does go wrong, we try and understand why Ryan is behaving a certain way,” confirms Elizabeth. “It’s important we maintain his routines as much as possible and respect the values he has learned from his auntie who he lives with the rest of the time. We have also taught Ryan the rules of our home, like taking his dishes to the sink, so he can feel part of our family. Whenever Ryan comes to stay, we always do a family activity – Ryan’s absolute favourite is bushwalking which our boys also enjoy.”

One of the biggest challenges facing Elizabeth and Philip as parents, is making sure all the children in the home receive the attention they need. “The children are very sociable and willing to share their toys but they each still need one-on-one time with us,” confirms Philip. “For example, our youngest Tim, who is close in age to Ryan, is always excited about Ryan’s visit. But after the first 24 hours he wants his mum back to himself. This is partly because of his age and we’re confident this will change in time.”

Little things can also make a big difference. For example, Ryan’s usual bedtime at his auntie’s is earlier than the other boys’ so this gives Elizabeth and Philip an opportunity to dedicate some time with each of their own boys without feeling as though they are ignoring Ryan. “It was exhausting and difficult at first and you think it’s going to be like that all the time,” admits Elizabeth “You have to give it time and it does get better.”

Finding new strength

Many foster carers speak about the rewards of making a difference to a child’s life, and Elizabeth and Philip are no exception. But the couple experienced another unexpected outcome. “This whole experience has brought Elizabeth and me closer together,” says Philip. “It has been tough sailing at times and I have tried to be a rock to support Elizabeth. We talk about the challenges with each other and share the responsibility. This has actually brought us closer together and strengthened our relationship.”

A little compassion goes a long way

“I think many people are hesitant to foster a child because they have this stereotyped image of a ‘difficult’ child, or they think they can’t afford to take on another child,” says Elizabeth. “Ryan is such a caring and bright boy. As foster carers we also receive some financial support from the government which helps cover the cost of food and activities. We weren’t expecting that, so it’s a bonus, but with three growing boys of our own it really helps.”

Compassion and acts of kindness, however small, can make a big difference to a child’s life. As a foster carer – whether respite, short- or long-term – you can create a ripple effect that helps a child in need grow into an emotionally and physically strong adult. Elizabeth and Philip are quick to agree, it is a wonderful legacy to leave a child.

You can find out more about foster care and how to become a foster carer with Challenge by calling 1800 084 954 or email fostercare@challengecommunity.org.au

*Identifying details have been changed

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