There is no better gift — at Christmas or any time — than a place to call home.
That’s why I wanted to talk to Nellie Kelly. She understands this as well as anyone.
Since 2000, she has fostered 15 children, four of whom she has adopted.
Harley is 19. Judah is 12. Sunshine — the perfect name for this little angel — is 6. And Rosa, 11 months.
I thought I would walk into Kelly’s house and get all choked up at the sight of young people torn away from their biological families. I was so wrong.
I walked into a home.
There were parakeets chirping, cats hiding, coffee brewing and children scattering at the site of an unknown guest.
The bliss of ordinary life, you might call it.
Kelly fostered her first child when she was 24 after reading about a foster mother who had left her 6-week-old foster child in the car with the windows closed on a hot summer day. The child died a few days later.
“It just really affected me,” Kelly said. “I thought, ‘Well, I may not be the best foster parent in the world, but I could do better than that and I think I’ll give it a try.’”
Her first foster child was a young boy named Caleb. He stayed in Kelly’s care for about four months and, all things considered, things went well.
Next came Harley, who landed in her arms when he was 3.
“He was so sweet,” Kelly said. “He was the most peaceful child. He loved to cuddle. He loved to read. He loved to play with Legos for hours on end.”
Eventually, she adopted him. But Kelly cautions that people shouldn’t foster children with the intent of adopting them one day.
“What I always tell people is, if your only reason for fostering is to adopt, then this can be a very heart-breaking experience for you because that is not the goal. The goal is to love a child, to keep a child safe, to provide a warm, caring environment temporarily while the family corrects whatever deficiencies it has … and then you celebrate when the family is reunited.”
Kelly is an amiable sort who is not prone to casting aspersions. But don’t get her started on those well-meaning people who come up to her seemingly every week and say they just couldn’t be a foster parent.
Time and again she hears the same thing: “I’m just too tender hearted to do that.”
Kelly responds by telling people that fostering is not about the foster parents’ feelings; it’s about doing right for a child. There are not big, gray orphanages full of children in this country anymore because regular folks have taken children into their homes in times of need, Kelly said.
“So this theory that you can’t do this because it will break your heart is baloney,” she said. “You absolutely have to if you are tender hearted. Will you be sad when they leave? Yes, probably, and you will get over it.”
Carrie Little, communications director for the Child Protection Coalition, said the need for foster parents has become even more pressing with the announced closure of the Laura Dester Shelter, 7318 E. Pine St.
“We all know as a coalition that kids thrive in homes better than they do in shelters,” Little said.
Laura Dester, the last large state-operated facility of its kind, is not accepting any more children and will close when the young people there have been placed. Only 19 children remain in the facility. The state earlier this year closed its only other large children’s shelter, Pauline Mayer, in Oklahoma City.
“We are really trying to move away from shelter care unless it’s absolutely necessary,” said DHS Communications Director Sheree Powell.
That means more foster families are needed. The state currently has 10,500 to 11,000 children in its foster care system, and last fiscal year more than 16,000 young people passed through the system, Powell said.
Of the children currently in the foster care system, about two thirds are placed with someone they know — a family member or friend, for example — or in group homes or medical facilities to address specific needs.
That leaves between 2,000 to 3,500 children who are being cared for by foster families, and the need for those loving homes never ends, Powell said.
“We can’t do it all on our own,” Powell said. “We have to have Oklahomans step up and help.”
Toward that end, DHS and the governor’s office are working together to promote the Oklahoma Fosters initiative. The goal of the program is to get 1,000 families signed up as foster care providers by the end of June.
“The campaign is really just an effort to raise awareness about the need,” Powell said. “We are sending kids all over the state to find an open bed, and it’s a struggle every single day.”
Kelly has a simple explanation for why she has fostered so many children over so many years.
“There was always more children who needed a loving family, and I was able to make it happen, so I never stopped,” she said.
One more thing about Nellie Kelly: She doesn’t think she’s special, even if the evidence in her bustling home says otherwise. She thinks everyone can help, even those who don’t for a moment believe they can.
“If you think your home is not big enough, it is. If you think you work too much, you don’t. If you think you’ll get too attached, you will. There is no reason that regular people can’t foster. You do not have to be a perfect parent. You just have to be a good enough parent.”