SHELBY -- Nathan and Mandi Martin were once adamant they would never become foster parents.
Nevertheless, the Shelby couple eventually changed their minds and felt called by God to become foster parents. They’ll celebrate this Mother’s Day with 10 children under their roof -- including three foster children.
"She has to have like 5,000 different hats," said Nathan of his wife. "It's not just being a mom, it's being a counselor. It's being a therapist. It's being a nurse. You have to be that child's advocate constantly."
The Martins had six children when they began their foster-care journey. After seeing friends go through the process and meeting a family whose children were in placement, they began to consider opening their home.
“We had always said that we were open to adoption one day, from early on in our marriage,” Mandi said. “But we had always said we’d never foster. We could never let them go, that’d be so hard.”
They signed up for foster care classes through Richland County Children Services, then got licensed as a foster family. Just a week after receiving their certification, they got a phone call about a 15-month-old girl named June.
“June was super quiet, very in her shell. She didn’t talk; she didn’t play. She would just sit and watch,” Mandi recalled. “Now fast forward and watch her as an almost 6-year-old, she doesn’t know a stranger.
Less than four years after June moved in, the family adopted her. They found out they’d been given a court date during a family trip to Disneyland. It’s still one of the couples’ favorite memories.
“We took a sign and did an adoption announcement,” Nathan said. “I still tear up when I watch the video.”
June, who was 4 years old at the time, was over the moon.
“Just seeing the pure elation -- She's running around from family to family at the Magic Kingdom and holding her own sign and saying ‘I'm getting adopted, I'm getting adopted,’ ” Mandi recalled.
Mandi asked June that day if she knew what being adopted really meant.
“I get to have a new last name -- Martin -- and I get to stay forever!” she responded.
The Martins three current foster children have been part of the family for over a year -- they snuggle on Mandi’s lap and play with their other siblings. Their pictures hang in a collage of family photos.
For Nathan and Mandi, watching their foster children begin to thrive and feel safe is the most rewarding part of the process. Getting there takes time.
“When you first meet the children who are coming into your home, it's the worst day of their life,” Nathan explained. “They're being taken away from everything that they know. Even if it's a bad situation, it still is everything they know and they don't understand it.”
Children entering foster care often feel sad, scared and angry.
“It's a very big time of confusion and fear for these kids when they first come. They don't know if you're safe,” Mandi said.
Sometimes, those feelings cause foster kids to act out -- damaging property or getting into fights with other members of the family. The Martins say it’s important not to take it personally.
“When they're acting out, it's not against you. It's not that they're mad at you or they're that they don't like you,” Mandi said. “They are just really confused and really hurt and you're the person that's there.”
Going from a family of six to a family of 10 created many changes. Homeschooling was no longer feasible. Doing laundry is a constant process. The family has two washers, two dryers, two refrigerators and two freezers. It takes two crockpots and baking sheets the size of oven racks to make dinner.
“When we became a foster family, we have multiple appointments every day between therapies, counseling and visitation," Mandi said. It was a significant change, being on the road all the time.”
Some changes have been beautiful -- like the transformation they’ve seen in their older kids.
"Seeing how tenderhearted they've become -- it's opened up their eyes to the world outside of our house," Mandi said. "This has caused them to kind of see that sometimes people have had challenges that you aren't aware of.
"Sometimes when you see a little kid at school that's just being super unkind, a lot of times he's being unkind because he's having a situation."
Several of their children are now interested in becoming foster parents, going into social work or doing non-profit work or political advocacy on behalf of foster children.
The Martins have also learned the importance of community.
"You can't do it by yourself," Mandi said. "There's this army of people that literally support our family. We have a circle (of friends) around us that it doesn't matter if we bring three new kids -- come on over and have dinner."
Fostering isn't always easy, but the Martins wouldn't have things any other way.
"It definitely has challenges but the rewards are far beyond what the challenges are," Mandi said.
"Before you're a foster or adoptive parent you wonder, 'Can I love these kids like my own? It's amazing how quickly they're yours. Even if they're yours for six weeks. They're a part of us. They're part of our family."
Richland County Children's Services is in need of foster families, said foster family recruiter Joetta McCruter-Polk. There are more than 60 licensed foster care homes in the county; however, the agency typically has between 100 and 120 children in its custody at any one time.
McCruter-Polk says the most important qualities a foster parent needs are simple -- space in their home and in their heart to care for children who are hurting.
"We need foster parents to really be committed, patient, willing to go through the training, and who will not give up on the children," she said.
Foster parents also need to be willing to work with the agency and a child's biological family in seeking the best outcomes for their foster child.
"We can't stress enough that foster care is temporary care of children coming into placement. The goal is reunification," McCruter-Polk said.
To learn more about becoming a foster parent, call 419-774-4100.