Andrew had barely heard of foster care before he started to look after a seven-year-old from church on an adhoc basis. Through various preaching messages he heard two or three years later, while he was living in Australia, Andrew was compelled to contact a Christian fostering agency that helped to support birth families through respite care. “It was more than mentoring, but it’s not having them live with you forever. It’s meant to be seen as a fun thing – as something that adds to their life. We’d do something they liked doing – go swimming, go to the cinema, or go on days out with friends.”
So, at weekends, and often during the holidays, Andrew’s house became a second home for boys aged six to 12. And later, when he joined another agency and became a full-time foster carer, he had teenagers to stay for months, and even years at a time.
As a single male foster carer, Andrew is both the “policeman” and the “nurturer”, deciding if, in each case, it is “time for the lesson, or time for compassion”. And unsurprisingly, opening his home to boys from difficult homes hasn’t always been plain sailing. “There were many challenges, and it demanded a lot of patience. My laptop was stolen - the police phoned me to tell me, before I had even realised - but on the whole, theft was rarely an issue. There were some problems with lies, but in the end, the truth came out, usually from the young person. There were several camps, long weekends away, week-long holidays, parents’ evenings, and explanations to neighbours and the young person's friends’ parents, and so on - all to make an unusual situation as ‘normal’ as possible.”
But Andrew and the boys in his care found tremendous support in his church. As a single male, working full-time and studying, the church community supported him extensively. Some coached the teens around employment; some inspired them to have vision for the future. Some had them to stay for a night, or visit for a day, and some had them for dinner every week while Andrew studied.
When asked how the Church can support the young people in his care, Andrew explained: “It can be a time of cultures clashing when bringing chaotic, un-churched people in to church, and we all need open minds. One boy told me: ‘All I want is to not be judged’; another wanted to attend church with me but said ‘no-one looks like me at that church’. The biggest support that a church can offer is to be understanding, inquisitive and permission-giving.”
Andrew is passionate about the Church learning how to support foster carers and adoptive parents. Most of the boys in his care came to church most of the time, and participated, often walking in and out, smoking and skating outside, and causing a bit of extra frustration for leaders. But for community - though far from perfect – his church was hard to beat for acceptance, inclusion and tolerance. “The most helpful practical things are to make the young person feel noticed and included, and to ask them questions. People like to feel noticed and wanted, and these kids’ parents are often preoccupied with other things.”
Andrew has story after story about the ups and downs of opening his home to these young men. “One boy came for respite care for many years, and, when he was 14, he asked if he could live at my house permanently and visit his Mum at the weekends, because there was verbal and physical violence in his home. I knew he was having problems with school, so I told him he could live at my house if he went to school. I knew of a very flexible school, which took pupils from a range of backgrounds, so we agreed he would try there. He lasted until the end!”
Andrew went away for a week when the boy was 17. When he came home, the boy was gone. Andrew didn’t hear from him for three years. One day he rang, out of the blue. “It turned out that he had taken something I had said the wrong way, and taken offence, so he had moved out. He had called me to offer forgiveness. It was remarkable to me that he knew about forgiveness, and recognised that relationships were worth restoring. He wanted to tell me about the daughter that he had had, and to share life again. He’s nearly 30, and we’re still in touch.”
On a trip back to Australia, Andrew managed to get back in touch with a boy who had stayed with him for respite over three years, and full-time for two years – and was now 30. He was married with three children, had a good job in the Council, and had put a deposit on a house. Andrew explained: “He just happened to go with me on the day that I was buying a house at auction, and when I visited his home he told me: “I would never have thought I could own a house, but seeing the way you and your friends live opened my eyes to the possibilities of living differently.” It showed me that he had learned things indirectly, just by being around. He wanted me to come and meet his family. He introduced me to his family like I was the king of the world, which was a bit out of proportion. He told me that his wife speaks to her parents most days, and on the day that they had had a stillborn child, he had wanted to ring me, but didn’t know how to find me. He had never known his father, and didn’t have much of a relationship with his mother, so, as the closest thing to a parent, he asked if he could keep in touch with me.”
Now, having moved home to the UK, after 19 years of continual foster care, Andrew became part of the leaving care program for 16-19-year-old lads. He has a teenager living with him at the moment. He says: “As far as I am concerned, it is foster care. I am not a motel, a hotel or a B&B; I am a therapeutic parent, and am not ashamed of taking daily active interest in the young person, their interests, their frustrations and their anger. I encourage them to have vision for the future and support them when they lose sight of it.”
In his 24 years of fostering, respite care, and support of those leaving care, Andrew has been a father figure for many young men. He doesn’t know exactly how many; he’s never counted, but he’s helped those who had few other positive role models. And his influence doesn’t stop with the boys that he has cared for, or even their families. Five other single people and two couples in Andrew’s church have also stepped up to the challenge of foster care, without Andrew ever having spoken to them about it directly.
Andrew sees his role as a calling, and equips himself to do it as well as he can. “There are many commandments in the Bible. I can't do all of them well, but I think that I do this one well, and make it a priority to study and attend conferences appropriate to this calling. Through living with young people and connecting with their families, I have understood more of the world, human need and the Bible. My thinking has matched my hair colour – it has become much more grey.”