With the average-sized household in Canada at 2.9 people, Natalie and Merv realize their family of 12 is somewhat unusual.
They have five of their own children and began fostering in 2012. They have adopted two of these children and are currently fostering three more children.
October is Foster Family Month and November is Adoption Awareness Month in B.C., a time to honour British Columbians who step in to care for children and youth who for many different reasons are unable to live with their families.
“Adoption was not at all the original intention of getting into this,” said Natalie, whose biological children range in age from eight to 24 years. “I was a stay-at-home mom, my youngest at the time had just entered kindergarten and I was sort of wondering, well, what do I do now? I met a woman at a church breakfast who was dealing with a fussy baby. I offered to help, we began talking and it turned out the woman was a foster parent. I came home and told my husband, ‘I could do that.’ ”
They went to a fostering information session and it just reinforced their enthusiasm. “I had always enjoyed little ones, and we had the space,” said Natalie, whose home has nine bedrooms. During the application process, they also learned there was a need for more multicultural families. Merv’s father is from Guyana and his mother is Jamaican. Both Natalie’s parents are Jamaican.
With three adult children, Natalie and Merv have a lot of support, she said. “My oldest son will take the eight-year-old to jujitsu lessons. I take a sign language course once a week, and my oldest daughter will make dinner and put the young ones to bed. If Merv and I want to go out to a movie, we have a 19-year-old here. We have the freedom now that we didn’t have when everyone was younger.”
Early in their time as foster parents, while on vacation in Kelowna, Natalie was called and asked if she could take a six-day-old boy. “I said to the kids, ‘We can go to the zoo, or we can go home and get this little boy.’ The kids said, ‘Let’s go get him!’ We packed up a day early, went home and picked up the little guy.
“We fostered him for two-and-a-half years, and he eventually became available for adoption. At that point, there was never any question,” said Natalie. “He has FAS (fetal alcohol syndrome), he has ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), he has sensory disorder, he has a lot of high needs. He’s done so well, and we didn’t want to even think about him having to start over with another family. We love him and he loves us.
“When he was 10 months old, I got another call. They told me they had a little boy in the hospital. He was two. He was very delayed and had the development of a seven- or eight-month-old. I had a 10-month old, my own child was almost three and this new boy was two. I told them I had to think about it.
“But I thought, I have all this help from my older kids, and because of his delayed development he would match up well with the 10-month old. I called them back an hour later and said, ‘Let me meet him.’ He was just a tiny little thing and he couldn’t even sit up. After two months in the hospital, we brought him home. We were going back and forth to Sunnyhill (Health Centre for Children) three times a week for occupational and speech therapy, and feeding required everything to be blended and pureed. But he’s now seven, we’ve adopted him and he’s done so well over the years I think because he’s had his younger brother to follow. When the younger one started to walk, the older one was right behind him. They look nothing alike, but they’re the same size, I dress them the same. They’re the most unlikely set of twins, but they know they’re brothers.”
The three children they are currently fostering are a younger sister of their first adopted boy, and two sisters. The latter two were first mentioned by a resource worker who asked if the family could manage cultural visits as they are essential in the girls’ lives. “We took them out to the Caribbean Festival, introduced them to ethnic cooking, things like that,” said Natalie. “We had two visits before they asked, ‘Please keep us.’ My oldest daughter would braid the girls’ hair and my youngest was excited to have two new siblings close to her own age. It’s like one big slumber party.” The sisters have been with them for two years.
This unconventional family of 12 helps each other out in many ways. “Not many 19-year-old males can burp a baby and change their diaper,” Natalie said. “But mine can.”