SIX years ago, with her two sons grown up, the hard work of child rearing had come to an end for Portadown woman Bernie Mulholland.
Time to take it easier, indulge in some hobbies and enjoy a bit of ‘me time’ ... or maybe not.
The then 48-year-old had been thinking increasingly about fostering and, with husband Al feeling the same way and bedrooms to spare, she took a deep breath one day and lifted the phone.
Forty foster children on, Bernie has never regretted her decision and even though she finds fostering “challenging and hard work” she also describes it as one of the most rewarding things she has ever done.
She said, “When a child has been with you for a while and you see the positive changes in them, it is a great feeling. There’s not a lot of things I have put my mark on in my life but this is my achievement, my way of knowing that I have done something worthwhile.”
Bernie, now a grandmother of two, is at pains to point out, however, that she isn’t “some type of saint”. She said, “If I can do it, anybody can do it. There are loads of loving, caring people out there who could give a child a stable home.”
Bernie and husband Al currently care for three foster children - two teenage boys, one of whom has been with them for four years and the other for three, and a 12-year-old girl with special needs.
Said Bernie, “She came to me as an emergency for two weeks and she has been here for 15 months. She is very loveable and affectionate.
“The boys are typical boys - one loves his X-box and the other one is very into sport.”
They also have an 18-year-old girl staying with them for a week’s respite, and as Al leaves the house to give her a lift, Bernie checks that she has her phone with her - a scenario played out in any ‘normal’ house with teenagers.
Bernie has looked after toddlers as well but prefers not to any longer, simply because it breaks her heart when they have to leave. “They are just so dependant on you at that age,” she said. “The majority of the kids I have looked after are good kids - they are here because of circumstances not of their making. All they want is stability and love and to feel they belong.”
Indeed, the walls of her house are covered with the smiling faces of all the children who have stayed with her - some of whom arrived in the middle of the night as emergency placements.
Said Bernie, “A lot of the older ones keep in touch with me. We talk on the phone or meet up for a cup of coffee. It’s good for them to know that the door is never closed, and nice for me to know they want to stay in contact.”
Bernie is full of praise for the support network in place for foster carers. She said, “I have a link worker and there is always someone available on the end of the phone 24 hours a day and there are courses where you can meet other foster carers.”
She and Al get a fortnight to themselves every year, when they can recharge their batteries, and Bernie also enjoys unwinding during the week with a game or two of Bingo.
She also finds time for her sons Kevin and Ciaran, who, along with their partners, have been very supportive of their parents’ decision to foster, and for her grandchildren Shea and Leileigh - all of whom enjoy being part of this big, extended family.
And not forgetting a very important part of the family - the two Old English Sheepdogs, Molly and Dolly. Said Bernie, “A lot of the children who come here find it hard to show emotions, so the dogs are an outlet for that - hugging and patting them is a wee comfort for the children and they get unconditional love in return.”
Bernie’s advice to anyone thinking of fostering is to “take the leap and give it a go”. She said, “I would love more people to come forward for fostering. It’s the fear of the unknown but there are people out there who would make brilliant foster carers, and there are always needy kids.”