Having a family was always part of Orla’s life plan. Growing up, it never occurred to her that circumstance would take her down a less conventional path. Sometimes surprising, often challenging and at times heartbreaking, Orla has never looked back.
When her husband Garth took on a job as a welfare worker at a youth refuge, Orla volunteered to help with cooking and other activities. At the refuge, Orla and Garth saw first-hand what a difference a loving and stable home could make to these young people who had slipped through the cracks. It was then that they decided to enquire about becoming foster carers.
Since then, the couple has provided a safe and loving home to around 20 children providing respite, short-term and long-term care, including three long-term placements from infancy. Brooke who is now 18 came to live with the couple when she was only 5 months old. Brooke very much calls their rural property on the central coast home.
Doing what’s best for the child
Placing children in the right family is a critical part of the foster care process. Challenge Community Services interviews everyone in the family as part of the assessment and authorisation stage and there is an intensive training program to help prospective carers prepare for some of the challenges they might face. Once a child is placed, Challenge provides 24-hour support through a dedicated team of caseworkers.
It’s a thorough process focused on what’s best for the child. A good relationship between the foster carer and agency is critical. “I have found Challenge Community Services to be very supportive and easy to talk to,” says Orla. “Sometimes as a foster carer you need to be honest and say ‘no’ if you’re asked to look after a child but don’t feel you can take them. If you do say ‘yes’ and then find it’s not working out, it’s important to talk to your case worker. For example, Brooke’s younger sister Carly had been coming to us for respite care so the girls could get to know each other. Then when Carly was 7, she came to live with us full-time. It all looked good on paper but in reality it was heartbreaking. It soon became obvious that Carly needed a different kind of care. Our caseworker was so understanding and advocated on our behalf so that Carly could get the help she needed.”
New horizons after two decades of dedication
Orla is now about to embark on a new phase of her life. “Now that Brooke has almost finished school and with Garth passed away, I want to be closer to town. I’m also planning to do a Certificate III in Individual Care with Disabilities.”
Orla is still in touch with many of the children she and Garth cared for. Some now have families of their own. “I always knew that most of the children would only be with us a short time. Sometimes it was hard to let go, but that didn’t change the fact that we loved them all and I hope we made a difference to their lives. No one ever owns a child, not even the birth parents.”
Orla never expected her life to turn out the way it did. Of one thing she is certain – if she and Garth hadn’t followed this path, she would be left with huge regrets now. “Being a foster carer gave me a purpose and made me part of a community. It can be hard to take that first step, but I would encourage anyone thinking about fostering to just give it a go. After all, it takes a village to raise a child and every little bit a caring adult can give adds up to a big difference in a child’s life.”