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A Home Away From Home


There’s a reason a certain unassuming white house in LaFayette feels like home: It has been home for Barbara and Everett Wood for more than three decades now, along with their 141 children.

The Woods are parents of two, and foster parents to the other 139. They have four grandchildren, as well. You can be sure the walls of their cozy house have seen pretty much everything.

The children who have lived with the Wood family over the years were more than passing faces. When possible, the couple keeps in touch with the foster children’s families or adoptive parents. Photos are everywhere, and Everett Wood delights in telling visitors all about what the youngsters—some now grown and starting their own families—are up to.

Many of the Woods’ foster children have gone on to adoptive families, and some have kept in touch with the couple. Everett proudly shows off a recent photo of their first foster daughter, now 31 and attending law school. “It does your heart good to know that, maybe... in some small way... we were a positive influence on some of these kids,” Everett says. “They’re gems.”

Every picture tells a story and Barbara, like any mother, is invested in each. On a recent morning, she reflected on some of her experiences. And she cried. There is no such thing as emotional distance for her.

“I often tell people who are considering fostering, if you plan on getting over-attached, it will break your heart,” Everett says.Barbara Wood can trace the wealth of memories back to a spring day in 1977. She spoke with a neighbor whose mother was fostering. “I asked what it would take—learned all about it—and called the next day,” she recalls.

Six weeks after that first call, they were foster parents. The couple’s own children, who still live in Central New York, were teenagers at the time, and couldn’t wait to expand their family. “It seemed very natural,” Everett says.

Barbara still remembers the day their first foster child arrived. “The kids were just beside themselves with waiting. The hours dragged on that day. I told them to just do what you normally would do. They tried to go swimming, but I looked out and they’d be just standing in the pool, watching the road.”When the baby arrived, the children eagerly accepted their foster sister, forming the basis for a long-term relationship. Back then, Barbara explains, children were placed in foster homes for much longer periods than today. It wasn’t uncommon for children to spend several years with the Wood family before being placed with adoptive families or reunited with their own. Today, the foster care system in Onondaga County is committed to getting children in permanent homes as soon as possible. They may only be with a foster family for several days or several months. The state tries to get firm decisions on child placements within 18 months, Everett says.Training for foster parents is also far more extensive than when the Woods began. They still attend workshops to refresh their skills or learn new techniques.

Everett believes the process today is much better for the children, as stability is achieved sooner. It may also be easier in the long run for those who open their homes, and hearts, to foster parenting.

Looking back, Everett admits that it was particularly difficult for the Wood children not to get too attached to their foster siblings. “It was traumatic for them when (the first child) left us—particularly for our daughter,” he says.

As time went on, the family learned to let go, and established clear boundaries for their foster assignments. For example, they only foster babies and preschool-aged children. “It’s harder with older children,” Barbara says. “They have school and it’s better not to disrupt them. Older children are also more aware that they are in a strange place, with strange people. Babies are pretty happy as long as they are fed and loved.

The Woods, now in their 70s, currently foster three children. They have had as many as five at one time. “We started with a borrowed crib, then added another crib, and another,” she says. “At one point, we had five cribs set up.

The couple often fosters special needs children. The county provides support, but the couple has seen problems that would test others half their age. One of the babies they currently care for has a tracheotomy tube and breathing problems.

“We get training on how to deal with these problems, then you just do it,” Barbara says. “It gets to be second nature after a while.

Indeed, the easygoing couple has mastered the art of “divide and conquer.” She handles much of the night feeding and health care; he enjoys reading to them and serves as resident photographer. Everett makes a point of taking a lot of photos of the children, and Barbara makes little albums and gives them to the parents and adoptive families.

Many foster children have regular contact or visitation with one or more birth parents and family members. Some of the visits occur at the county’s Family Place facility, a house-like setting in Syracuse that offers a comfortable environment for family interaction. Others take place at the county offices in Syracuse. In all their years of fostering, the Woods have never had any problems with these visitations.

“If the family relationship is able to be saved, that’s often in the child’s best interest,” Everett says. “We support that.”Fostering is definitely a team effort,” he adds. “The foster parents and family have to really be there for each other when things happen.

The Woods revel in their good memories, but they are careful not to romanticize their lives. Not every placement was a joyful experience, and some ended much differently than they would have liked. Most of the time, when the children go back to their own homes, the Woods don’t hear anything—which is just fine with them.

But sometimes Barbara thinks of a little one who, perhaps, was returned to his own parents too soon, or the boy who stayed in touch for years, then suddenly ceased contact.“The most difficult part (about foster parenting) is when the kids have to go back home and you know it’s not a good decision,” she says. “You worry about them even when years have gone by, even when it’s out of your hands.”

“The sad stories, you try to forget,” Everett adds.Still, the couple says the rewards far outweigh the emotional struggle that can accompany any foster relationship. The key, Everett says, is balancing emotion with a practical approach. “You have to be a little hardhearted,” he says. “You must always remember that they are not your children. It all boils down to the word ‘foster’ and understanding what that means.

It also doesn’t hurt to have help. “There are a lot of disappointments in this business. Without a strong, loving support system, no one would last very long,” Everett says. “Barb and I have had super support from our church family.”

And so, as foster families across the nation are acknowledged during Foster Parent Appreciation Month, Barbara and Everett’s journey continues. The Woods say that they will probably continue to foster for as long as they are physically able. Barbara laughs about the time she and her husband “retired.” “After about two months, I got bored,” she says.

With eyes rolling Everett adds with a laugh, “Talk about empty nest syndrome! She just never wants to get a good night’s sleep!”
Photo by Michael Davis

© Family Times: The Parenting Guide of Central New York