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The day was warm and spring-like as I traveled up and down the long hill leading to Donna's country town. The trees along the way were clothed in an array of blooms and buds, some with leaves about to emerge, some with buds almost ready to burst into bloom, but seeming to hold back, as if fearing a weather change. The lush green of the new grass and the vivid spring green of the leaves were intensified as the sun passed behind a cloud. Donna's house appeared on the right, an historic old colonial style home, surrounded by a traditional white picket fence. To the left of the house, a fenced play yard stood out with its brightly colored toys and swing set. Currently, Donna and Paul share their home with four foster children. Although this particular story is Donna's, it is important to note that Paul plays a continuing supportive role as a foster father to these children. Foster fathers are valuable members of the DCYF/Foster Parent team.

Donna appeared at the door. "Come on in," she said, "the kids are napping. Coffee?" I declined, fearing afternoon jitters. The house is the kind of place where you immediately feel comfortable and safe. As I took my place at the lovingly well-worn dining room table, my attention was drawn to an antique wood cook stove located in the nearby kitchen. Donna tells me that it really works. A pair of lovely country craft rabbit dolls, the kind with ribbons, lace, fancy clothes and pink cheeks, smile down at me from their place on the sideboard across from where I am seated. Donna introduces me to her grandchild, lovingly snuggled in her arms. She looks too young to be a grandmother.

She says that she married young and had her children early in the marriage. They are all grown and on their own, but retain a loving relationship with their mother. The grandchild is carefully laid down in the playpen where he snuggles down in the covers and is soon fast asleep.

Our interview begins as Donna begins to tell me her story of the heart.

Donna and her first husband began fostering in Rhode Island in 1984. There, they fostered a Jamaican sibling group of three children who eventually returned to relatives in Jamaica. They continued to foster after their move to New Hampshire. When their marriage dissolved, Donna continued fostering the child who had been placed with them prior to the divorce. This current foster child, Helen, will remain with her on a long term basis. Donna has been very involved with Helen's mom. In fact, Donna, Helen and Mom were all involved in therapy together. This was very important and done at Helen's request, so that she could feel safe and protected. It was an emotional time for both Mom and Donna. Helen saw both Donna and Mom cry together as Mom signed papers agreeing to allow Donna to raise her daughter. Helen signed papers, too, saying that she chose to remain with Donna. Helen, Donna and Mom maintain as much of a co-parenting relationship as is possible, even though Helen remains with Donna. "Unconditional love has to extend to the children's parents," Donna says. She tells me about a Christmas letter she received from the mother of one of the foster children, telling her how glad she was that Donna was caring for her child as she knew that her child was safe and loved.

Donna becomes animated as she tells me of her most memorable foster parenting experience which occurred one Halloween. "Holidays are big celebrations for kids under age ten," she said, "and I had three foster children at the time, Helen and two boys, Stan and Mike." Helen and Stan's mothers were involved with their children, Mike's mother was not able to be involved and he missed her. Money was in short supply for Helen and Stan's mothers and they apologized for not being able to help out with Halloween as they had done in the past. "I sensed the discouragement in the mother's voices," Donna said, "so I arranged a `cooperative Halloween.' Helen's mother, Carol, contributed a pattern for Halloween costumes that she had bought the year before. Stan's mother, Amy, brought face paint. I made all three costumes for the kids." The three women were excited about the coming holiday and the fun it would be for the children. Carol and Amy arrived at Donna's house in good spirits, ready to get their children costumed for a big night of trick or treating. Donna took charge of Mike, giving him extra attention in his mother's absence. The three children looked great and were excited and begging to get started. "I noticed how close in age we three mothers were," Donna said, as they all left together for an evening of trick or treating fun. "We were like three girlfriends, out with our kids on Halloween. No one knew that we were `foster parent and "real" parents.' It was great, so much like a normal situation. We were all laughing, squabbling and cuddling, and there were treats to spare."

Donna cautions that we not think that birth parents do not love their children, even if they can't live with them. This Halloween story demonstrated, for me, that fostering with unconditional love, whether the child is eventually reunited with his or her family or not, can make a difference in the life of the child, the parent(s), and the foster parent(s). Donna's ability to give unconditional love was evident throughout our interview and I had to fight to keep my own emotions under control as this story from her heart unfolded.

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