For the Derry couple, their interest in fostering deepened after volunteering to bring Claudia, a little girl from an orphanage in Romania, into their home twice a year for three weeks in the summer and three weeks at Christmas.
Ann Marie said: “We thought because we were able to let Claudia go back, okay, we would look into it. That had been the fear- letting the child go back, so I thought if you could do that for her, there’s no reason why you couldn’t do that for children here.”
The couple then began the fostering assessment and while initially doubts crept in, they were soon back on track.
“I went half way through the assessment and I panicked,” Ann Marie said. “I stopped the assessment, but then we thought about it again and we kept seeing it advertised. We went back a second time a couple of months later.”
Since then the couple have never looked back, and after completing the process they have been fostering children ever since.
“Our house has never emptied!” Ann-Marie declared.
And some of the children have also become part of the family. The first foster child Laura (24) and then Sophie (18) came when they were nine and ten as permanent placements, and they have part of the family ever since.
Claudia, now 23, also returned from Romania to live permanently with the family when turning 18 and the couple have also adopted two boys, as well as currently providing a home for two babies.
“All together we have seven, aged from 24 to 14 months,” Ann Marie smiled.
“At the start we went for long-term fostering and over the years the more I got into it, I do everything now, long term and short term. It’s the experience we have now, nothing would bother me now or be seen as a challenge. My house is like an open house. You never get two children the same.
“We take any age. In our house we have everything from baby toys to iPhones and computers.”
Ann Marie said there were times when it is tough going, especially if a child is finding it tough adjusting to a new life, but the Western Trust support team is always there for the parent and the child.
“It is not all rosy, but I have a link worker who would be right on the ball. Every foster parent has a link worker and the child has their own social worker and they are close to that child.
“You have to be really committed to it. It changes everything and it’s all about the children. The children just need and deserve somebody behind them.”
Speaking about the rewards of being a foster parent, she added: “It’s amazing what we have got back from the children, seeing them doing so well, making a change in their lives. One of my wee girls, Sophie, is studying for nursing, Laura did a degree in Belfast and went back packing. You do learn as you go. We wouldn’t be a family without it.”
Laura said that being fostered with Ann Marie and Gary has turned her life around.
“It is probably the best thing that ever happened to me,” she said. “We are just like a big family.”
Sophie agrees, adding: “To be honest it’s changed my life so much and I have come so far with school and everything.”
The Western Trust is now inviting people in the community to consider offering a child a loving, nurturing home ‘to grow up in’.
A spokesperson said: “Across the Western Trust area there are children of all ages who may not be able to live with their birth family. These children need a permanent home for the rest of their childhood.
“We are also committed to finding placements for children on a short-term basis. People from all walks of life can foster – don’t rule yourself out. If you are resilient, flexible and have the energy, time and commitment to take on the demands of being a foster carer, please come along to our information sessions.”
To find out more contact the Fostering Recruitment & Assessment Team on 028 8283 5264, or call the HSC Regional Adoption and Fostering Service on 0800 0720 137.
For more information on our Fostering Services visit: http://bit.ly/2kKDxZs
Fostering information evenings will take place on Monday, February 27, at the Fir Trees Hotel, Strabane at 7.30pm, and on Thursday March 2, at Da Vincis Hotel, Derry also at 7.30 pm.