It’s funny how you notice things isn’t it? Sometimes it is only in hindsight that you see patterns or a spike or difference in the normality of life and sometimes it occurs over a long period. When we were looking after Alice there seemed to be extensive times where life felt completely indiscernible. It was too hard to read if there when parts were helpful or progressive.

Recently James had the opportunity to meet with Alice’s new carer and discussed how she was getting on. He shared that she had recently done a catering exam and was sceptical as to its outcome. There was a large amount of work involved and it required a logical and considered approach to produce the required outcomes. Neither of these qualities were something which he was clear she would demonstrate inside an exam environment. He then spent the next 10 minutes in reflective amazement as to how well she had done. He said that not only had she cooked well but had held it together emotionally as well as produced the food at home for critique and praise. This, he concluded, was amazing.

Recently I was in the privileged position of going to a Social Pedagogy development network conference in Dublin. It was my first time so I was a bit nervous and had no idea what to expect. To add to the nerves I had been asked to share a story about Alice at the first evenings event along with a whole load of other people who would also be bringing stories from their lives and work. As soon as I walked into the main room I could already tell that this was no average conference. We were encouraged to make our own name badge with glitter, sparkles and fuzzy felt. Soon after, the whole conference was invited into a massive icebreaker game and before long we were all killing ourselves laughing and there was an immediate feeling of connection in the room.

However, soon after I noticed however that I was among some very serious people. I met people who were working with some of the toughest kids in Ireland and were employing social pedagogues to work with them to achieve fantastic relationships with the kids. I met people who were from the world of fostering. I met people from education and local authorities; I met clinical directors and trainers. All kinds of people were there but regardless of anyone’s distinction or academic pedigree there was an absolute feeling of respect and equality in that room. No one was more important than anyone else and every single one of us wanted the person sat next to us to succeed using social pedagogy in their work and lives.

This was why I wanted to share about the time I had in Dublin. The talks and stories shared were fantastic and I learnt a lot but it was that feeling of connection with people from all over the place that I most valued. There is something about being amongst people that hope for a brighter future in our field of work. When I was chatting with the guy who was involved in the conference setup I shared that I really hoped that social pedagogy would bring our country the reform that it needs. He looked slightly taken aback and declared “not reform but revolution!” We smiled and he was absolutely right. The equality that we had together over those couple of days was the intrinsic hope that we all have in fostering. Every person’s story, opinion or piece that they had to share mattered. It reminded me that it is the way we want to work: a way in which we champion those around us and work where all the people in our network are raising up the person next to them and making sure the kids are being put front and centre. Being in that room of all of those people from different disciplines and capabilities cemented a long lasting memory for me. One that tells me that I am not the only one out there who wants to see a better way of working and connection with those around me and one where we value relationship above all else.

I met with another foster parent this week. I’ll call her Sharon. The two children she is caring for have multiple needs relating to early trauma and attachment. One of the children needs high levels of supervision and has little sense of danger. It can be exhausting looking after these children. As I was helping Sharon get one of the children into her car, I chatted away to him (it’s really helpful to know a bit of sign language now and again!). I don’t even remember what we said to one another but it made him smile. He really smiled. Sharon said, right in the middle of the faff and negotiation “He’s got the most amazing smile, hasn’t he?” “Yes”, I said, because she was absolutely right. It was so beautiful I wanted to capture it and keep it with me.

Being a foster parent is tough. Sharon spends so much of her time having to stay close to the children just to ensure their basic safety. She endures endless hours of the children calling to her, even when they are in the same room, because they need to believe she still exists – that she is still there and that they exist within the context of her care. She often needs to apologise to friends and strangers alike for her children’s bizarre or distressed behaviours. Then she has to manage other people’s (often well meaning but) unhelpful responses.

At bedtime Sharon and her husband each spend time with one of the children, talking with them and answering their many questions. They have an advanced baby monitor with mod-cons I didn’t even know existed to ensure that they can still watch over the children while they are sleeping. One of the children required play schemes suited to children with special needs so even finding the right kind of daytime respite during the holidays is tricky.

Why does Sharon do it? I don’t know. I haven’t asked her. But I think I can guess. She does it because of that little boy’s incredible smile. She does it because the other child never used to cuddle and now she does. She does it because, like all foster parents, she believes there is a jewel, no, many jewels inside her children that can be found and enjoyed. When you are training to become a foster parent, nothing prepares you for how hard you will work or how much emotional energy it will cost you. But once you find those jewels in children, they rarely get lost again and it makes it worth it. Even when children move on, you can feel ok about the work you have done with that child and it negates any sense of regret you might have had for loving a child who could not fully love you back.


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