There can be no question that Angela McCallister deserves the weekend in Paris she was awarded last month as the Fostering Network’s Northern Ireland foster carer of the year.
She was nominated by her foster daughter, Rachel, who described her as her “hero” who, despite being diagnosed with cancer last year, “has remained a bright, shining professional foster carer”.
McCallister, from Carrick, came to fostering through a Barnardo’s befrienders scheme for children with a disability when, after years of IVF treatment, she was unable to have a child herself. After two years as a Barnardo’s volunteer, one of the scheme’s directors asked her to consider fostering and, with her husband, she went ahead.
The couple were accepted in 1995 after an assessment process lasting 18 months, a length of time that she feels could deter some potential foster carers. In the same breath they were told they had their first two placements. A month later McCallister gave up her job and became a full-time foster carer for Rachel, then seven, and her eight-year-old brother.
Rachel, who had been struggling at school, is now at university and “this is still very much her home”, says McCallister. Her brother, soon to be 21, is living independently but is still “part of the family”.
Eight years ago, McCallister had another placement, a boy of two who was meant to stay for a day but who she has since adopted. And two years ago she took on another boy who had had a series of placements that had broken down. Now McCallister says: “He’s making great progress as you’d hope for any child.”
“My experience of fostering has been very rewarding,” says McCallister. “It is hard at times, it’s 24 hours a day because some of the children have such severe trauma that they can’t sleep. They need you to sit by their bed and hold their hand. They are afraid of the dark, afraid of shadows.”
“The most rewarding part is seeing a child who has been written off by education boards and by others making progress and moving forward,” she adds.
McCallister does not regret giving up the council office job she had before becoming a full-time foster carer. “I don’t miss it, I regret the time I spent there. I think it was wasted years when I could have been fostering. This is rewarding and challenging and stretches you, whereas that was mundane and boring.”
McCallister can be a full-time foster carer because she receives a fee for her work. She says foster caring involves daily paperwork, involvement in reviews and being available to visit school if a problem arises. The sense of fostering being a vocation must go hand in hand with its recognition as a profession, she argues.
If fostering four children did not seem a demanding enough job in itself, Angela has also had to cope with cancer and the associated chemotherapy and radiotherapy.
When she spoke to Community Care she was awaiting test results on whether the disease was in remission. She says the children coped well with her hair and weight loss and sickness but occasionally directed their anger at the situation to her. “I never took literally what they say said, it was just frustration that they might lose mum and would have to move on. But they were stars throughout.”
Of her career so far as a foster carer, McCallister looks back fondly: “I just think of Rachel and her brother arriving with their suitcases, their emotional baggage and seeing how far they’ve come. It’s been an enjoyable, wonderful journey that I’ve had the good fortune to share.”