At her wedding earlier this month, bride Kate Brittin was able to include two new family members in the festivities -- the two young girls her parents have opened their home and hearts to as foster parents in the past two years.
"They'll be part of our lives forever," said Shirley Brittin, who, along with husband Dale, took in a 16-year-old girl in 1996 and now cares for a 6-year-old.
The teen-ager, who had lived in several foster homes since age 3, "is in a group home now, being prepared for independent living. She has just blossomed. It's very exciting to participate in that," said Mrs. Brittin.
The 6-year-old "has come to the point of feeling that she's not a bad person to have experienced all of this pain in her life. She's an extraordinary, magnificent, charming, personable little girl," Mrs. Brittin said.
The Brittins are part of the "Global Village Community Services" therapeutic foster care program, a project of the Randolph Children's Home, which will soon merge with the Wyndham Lawn Home for Children in Lockport.
The Brittins are one of only a handful of families in Niagara County participating in the program, which is in dire need of more local families.
"We like to help kids stay as close to their (birth) homes as we can," explained Allen Yasgur, the program's training coordinator and family resource specialist. "There has been a tremendous number of requests in Niagara County that we haven't been able to fill because we don't have the homes. It's tough turning a kid down."
Yasgur said that when Niagara County children in need of this service can't be placed in this county, they are either placed in Erie County homes or referred to other agencies. Last year, the agency helped place 40 children in therapeutic foster homes.
Therapeutic foster care trains foster families to work as part of a treatment team. The team consists of a social worker, youth worker, birth families and other foster families. Together, the team assembles the resources to help children and families experiencing significant emotional and behavioral difficulties.
The foster homes offer a safe haven for children who need more care than their own families can provide at the time, but who do not require institutional care.
The agency's goal is to reunite families as quickly as possible -- as soon as the children and birth families are ready. If the children do not return to their birth families, they may be prepared for independent living, if they are old enough, or for adoption, Yasgur said.
The children are referred for care by their county's Department of Social Services and family courts. The program serves children throughout Western New York's eight-county area. Each child's need for foster care is reviewed every six months. The average length of stay in foster care is two years.
The foster families are carefully selected and offered intensive professional training. In fact, the foster family receives 30 hours of state-approved training before even being matched with a child.
The agency offers its support 24 hours a day, seven days a week, Yasgur said. And, because this is therapeutic foster care, each foster family receives "a very generous" and tax-free stipend for the child's care, he added. In addition, a clothing allowance is issued and all medical care is covered.
The Brittins have been very impressed with the level of training and support they have received from the agency.
"They really want to match the child to the family the best they can," said Mrs. Brittin, a former teacher. "They want to be successful and they want the child to be successful. We have received excellent training. The agency's just wonderful."
Mrs. Brittin added that the support of her entire family -- which includes another daughter and son -- neighbors, friends, even fellow church members has been crucial.
"I look at this personally as what would I want someone to do for my child if I wasn't able?" she said. "You don't have a perfect home or be a perfect family to do this. But you have to have the desire to be selfless and giving . . . You have to have unconditional love."
Unconditional love has helped Ruth White, a mother of three grown daughters and grandmother of five, open her home to four foster sons ages 8 to 14 in the past two years. The 8-year-old and a 12-year-old currently reside with her in her Buffalo home.
"I find I'm renewing my parenting skills," Mrs. White said with a chuckle. "I was always involved with my daughters' schools and Girl Scouts and such, but there's an interesting difference between girls and boys.
"I'm implementing the values instilled in me as a child," she added. "Back then the neighborhood was a safe environment and our neighbors looked out for one another. They say it takes a village to raise a child."
Mrs. White doesn't gloss over the hard facts: These children are in need because of dire circumstances in their young lives, and she said it's been a "real eye-opener."
"You're dealing with children, so there are good days and bad," she said. "But you know you're making a difference. It's a lot of work being a parent -- it's a 24-hour-a-day job."
To find out more, contact Yasgur at 854-4299 or Wyndham Lawn at 433-4487.