Kathy Crothers of Strabane has more than 300 reasons to celebrate Mother’s Day.
Over the past 30 years, Crothers, 66, and her husband, Rick, have opened their home and their hearts to more than 300 foster children.
The mother of five children – three biological and two adopted – felt she had something to offer foster children when she became involved with Washington County Children and Youth Services three decades ago.
A product of a broken home (her father left the family when Crothers was 1, leaving her mother to raise four children), Crothers believed she could relate to kids who were experiencing family conflicts.
“I can understand where a lot of these kids are coming from, how they feel,” said Crothers. “I didn’t have the best childhood so I know what they’re going through.”
Crothers has become adept at handling emergencies (CYS has called her at all hours of the night for emergency placements), drying tears and comforting frightened children, juggling schedules and appointments and cooking for a crowd. Those are skills all mothers need, but perhaps foster mothers need even more.
More than 400,000 children in the United States are in the foster care system, and CYS is always in need of foster parents. Currently, about 75 homes in Washington County are open to foster children and lengths of stays range from overnight to several months.
Or, in some cases, for life. Crothers’ adopted daughters, Katie, 26, and Charity, 27, were foster children. Katie arrived when she was 8 and was adopted by Rick and Kathy at age 12, and Charity was a foster child with the Crothers for two years before she was adopted at age 15.
“It’s been the best thing that ever happened to me,” said Katie, who remembers how frightened she was the first time she met the Crothers. “It was scary. I remember it vividly, from what I ate for dinner to falling asleep on the couch crying. I was young and didn’t really know what was happening. But it turned out to be the best thing. I talk to my mom every day and I visit her every week. I was an only child, but now I have two great parents and brothers and sisters.”
Michelle Lober, foster care supervisor at CYS, applauds the department’s foster mothers, who are compasionate enough to embrace other mothers’ children and strong enough to handle the challenges that go along with fostering.
“You name it and foster moms do it: taking kids to regular appointments and activities like moms do, with the addition of taking kids to counseling, visitation appointments with siblings, or anything that might come up, often while having kids from different families,” said Lober. “In Kathy’s case, and in the case of some of our longstanding foster parents, they serve as mentors to the biological parents and those relationships are often maintained.”
Crothers said she still keeps in touch with many of her foster children through telephone calls and visits.
She has a treasure box filled with pictures, notes and letters they’ve drawn and written for her.
“The best part is when the kids appreciate it and they write you notes and do drawings, send thank you letters and tell you they love you,” said Crothers.
The presence of foster children in the Crothers home has benefited her own children and her nine grandchildren, too, Crothers said.
“They’re compassionate toward other people and I think that comes from seeing the problems other kids went through when they were growing up. Even my grandkids now, they get along well with my foster kids,” said Crothers. “They love it whenever I get foster children and they have new kids to play with.”
Dan and Susan Biwer of Ellsworth are foster parents through Try Again Homes, a private foster program.
Seven years ago, Biwer, 52, who was unable to have children of her own, felt compelled to become a foster parent.
Her own mother, a school teacher, had been a wonderful mom and Biwer wanted to share what she had learned from her.
“My mother was great. She was a good listener, a great friend, very supportive and she never judged you,” said Biwer. “I wanted to pass that on. I wanted someone to call me mom.”
The couple adopted the first foster daughter they hosted, now a 16 years old, and are fostering an 11-year-old girl who has been with them for several months. Both girls came from abusive and neglectful homes and Biwer worked to make their lives as normal as possible.
Foster parents go through a screening process, which includes interviews and background checks, and they must complete a training course.
Currently, Crothers fosters four teenagers every other weekend, providing a respite for the childrens’ full-time foster parents.
One of the teens, a special needs boy, calls Crothers “Grandma.”
“He told me, ‘Miss Kathy, you’re not old. You look old but you don’t act old,’” Crothers laughed. “I love doing this. There’s never a dull moment. And I never have to worry about having an empty nest.”
May is National Foster Parent Appreciation Month, and CYS will host a recruitment event from 7 to 9 p.m. Thursday in rooms 103 and 104 at Courthouse Square, 100 W. Beau St., Washington. Staff and foster parents will attend and answer questions about foster parenting.