Clockwise from left, Jesse, Joy, Andrea, Hannah and Mark Graves stand on the steps of their Graham Crescent deck. Ms. Graves is Ontario's Foster Parent of the Year -- an honour she says belongs to her whole family. Absent for the photos were their son Caleb and their foster children, who could not be identified for privacy reasons. BRIAN SHYPULA/The Beacon Herald
Joy Graves is Ontario's Foster Parent of the Year but she is quick to say the award really belongs to her entire family.
"We've always seen it as the family fosters," the 49-year-old city woman said over the weekend.
Family constitutes her husband Mark, 47, their four children, Andrea, 22, Caleb, 21, Hannah, 19, and Jesse, 11, plus her mother who's also approved to foster by the Huron-Perth Children's Aid Society.
Together, they've been fostering for 11 years, ever since adopting Jesse, who was their first placement as a premature infant at Stratford General Hospital.
"He's our forever child," his mom said.
At the moment the Graves family has two foster children, both girls aged 16 and 17. They were not allowed to be named or interviewed for privacy reasons.
Overall, more than 80 foster kids, including short-stay emergency placements, have lived with the family in foster care. Ms. Graves said they gave up keeping track a few years ago when the count got into the 60s.
They laughed as they recalled how one of their Graham Crescent neighbours got up the courage to point out that their home seemed to be visited by an awful lot of police cars (they would drop off the temporary placements). Another rumour that made the rounds in the south-end Stratford neighbourhood was that they had a dozen children. It was actually eight when they counted their own four children and four foster kids.
They don't fit the nuclear family mould.
"With our family, a larger family, we're probably more towards a 1950s reality where our children have had shared rooms ... space is shared space and that's not always easy," said Mr. Graves, who grew up an only child and spent time in foster care himself as a teenager.
He left home at age 15 when his parents moved to Europe.
"They say they ran away and I say I ran away -- it was mutual," he said.
But through the course of living with other family members and in foster care he came away with an identity that he described as "more wholesome" than the one with which he left home.
Part of the reason for fostering is giving back, he said.
Ms. Graves said she admires in her husband his ability to relate to their foster children because of his own troubled upbringing.
Between the two, she's more the "caregiver" type, he said.
Ms. Graves, who work part time for the Huron-Perth CAS, was raised in Nigeria. Her parents were missionaries. She landed in Stratford for the first time when her late father, Fred Gould, became pastor at Faith Bible Church about 30 years ago.
The couple met at Brock University and got married the day after they graduated 25 years ago.
Eldest daughter Andrea, who is studying psychology and religion at University of Waterloo, showed the team approach when she stepped in as temporary foster parent when her parents visited Europe for two weeks for their 25th anniversary this summer.
She, like her grandmother, is approved to foster by the CAS.
Hannah, who is studying social science at the University of Western Ontario, previously organized and led a program for the children of foster parents for the Children's Aid Society to help them adapt as "fostering children" based on her experienced.
The young women said it wasn't always easy growing up with new and strange children coming to live at the house.
Hannah said there were times when she resented the intrusion. The family usually took in girls and they would share her room. She didn't like them using her stuff.
"I think in some ways it does force you to grow up faster because there are so many other people coming through the house that in some ways you are expected to be perhaps a role model. Sometimes it is a lot of pressure," said Andrea.
This past week was Foster Family Week in Ontario. The Huron-Perth CAS said it is short of foster parents and families.
The Graveses offered their advice to prospective foster families.
Number one was controlling the circumstances of the placements.
In their case, it was only taking in children younger than their own when they first got involved.
"We were very sensitive about upsetting the natural birth order in our family with our children," said Mr. Graves, an IT manager for auto auction company Adesa.
It also took them three to five years to lose their "rose-coloured glasses" thinking they "could change the world."
"It's more like a greenhouse where you provide the environment that they can grow in and see that potentially there is something different," Mr. Graves said.
"I think the bottom line is while there are sometimes some tough times, you have to make sure that everybody's needs are being met," said Ms. Graves. "I really believe that we grow in this."