“I know you’re nervous and I am too, so let’s get through this together” were the heartfelt words foster carer Elaine Kerslake whispered to Emily*, the teenager who arrived in her care last year.
She could only imagine how Emily, 13, felt being taken into care through no fault of her own and brought to the home of a stranger.
So Elaine, 58, took the time to reassure Emily that she was safe and that she would be there to help and support her for as long as she needed.
Since then, they have formed a close, strong bond and work together – with the support of their social workers – to ensure Emily has a safe and happy childhood.
From settling into school, forming appropriate friendships, developing hobbies and staying safe when she is out with her friends or using social media, Elaine helps Emily overcome the challenges all teenagers face – whether they are in care or not.
In the months since Emily arrived, she has thrived and her teachers have commented on how much better she is doing in school. Elaine says she is so proud of Emily and seeing her develop into a confident young woman is the only reward she could ask for.
Elaine, who is married to Paul and has four children and eight grandchildren, first began fostering with an independent agency which placed children all over the UK.
She moved to the Council’s Fostering RCT service in 2009 and now provides a local home for one of Rhondda Cynon Taf’s looked-after children , keeping them in the only communities they have ever known.
Elaine explained: “Of course Emily had a tough start in life, but it is not her fault. Many looked-after children didn’t have a consistent guardian or advocate. They don’t know how it feels to be put first and don’t benefit from the advice and discipline they need to make the right choices.
“This affects their confidence, how they behave, how they respond to things and how they react to others. This can be anything from refusing to try new foods because they are used to a restricted diet to not having the skills or confidence to manage interactions with others.
“From the moment I met Emily I just bonded with her. I wanted to show her she was safe and cared for and do everything I could to make her life and future better.
“I promised her she had me in her corner for as long as she needed me and I have not let her down. I know how much she is relying on me so I couldn’t.
“Whether it is chatting with a cuppa about an issue she has with a friend, or dealing with problems in school, I have been there to stand up for her. She has never had that before so it means a lot.
“By being the adult and the guardian and not letting her down, she trusts me. She knows she has someone fighting for her and that has made her bloom and become more confident, which is all the reward I need.
“And Emily’s needs are no different to the needs of my children and their friends – or your sons and daughters for that matter.”
Elaine explained how many people tell her they could not be a foster carer as they do not have the professional skills and strength they assume they would need to deal with children who have difficult backgrounds.
“I cannot lie and say there are not ups and downs and challenges, because there are,” Elaine said. “But then I had the same with my own children and my friends had the same with their own children. Emily is not vulnerable because she is in care, she is vulnerable because she is a teenage girl trying to find her place in the world and, until recently, she was trying to do it all on her own.
“I do not have a social work degree or psychology qualifications. I am a mum who knows how to love and care for a child and I am committed to doing what I can to help Emily as she makes her way through life, when no one else would.
“If you have those qualities and that commitment then you are on your way to becoming a successful foster carer.
“I am lucky as I have the most wonderful social worker, Lucy, who is assigned to me to support me and offer me advice, training and awareness to help me be a better foster carer.
“Emily also has a dedicated social worker too, so there’s a team of us all working shoulder-to-shoulder to raise her.
“Then, of course, there are the other foster carers, many of whom have become my close friends. We all support each other, share stories and are just there. It is a very special environment and one I am so pleased to be a part of.”
Cllr Geraint Hopkins, Rhondda Cynon Taf Council’s Cabinet Member for Children’s Social Services, Equality and the Welsh Language, said: “Elaine is one of hundreds of people from all walks of life who have stepped up to ensure the children of Rhondda Cynon Taf are raised in safe, supportive homes within the communities they have always known.
“Without people like Elaine, we have no choice but to send our children to wherever there is a place for them, which could be hundreds of miles away.
“I consider Elaine a foster care warrior, who has a firm and unbreakable commitment to the children in her care and is with them every step of the way. For some of our looked after children, their experience with people like Elaine may well be the first time that they have had someone stand up for them and put them first and, for that, she should be commended.
“Of course, you do not have to be an Elaine to foster. It takes many different people with many different skills and personalities to make Fostering in RCT a success. All you need is a spare room, commitment and a sense of humour.
“You have the undivided support of a dedicated social worker, as well as the help of other foster carers and there is the chance to train and learn. There are fees and allowances that reflect the role and the children you care for. Find out more today.”
You can find out more and order your free information pack via www.fosteringrct.co.uk and followwww.facebook.com/RCTFosterCare to meet other carers like Elaine and read their stories.
*Not her real name, Her experiences are real, but her name has been changed to protect her identity.
If you want to find out more about fostering, please visit the friendly Fostering RCT team when they visit communities across the county borough for Foster Care Fortnight.
They will be visiting:
B&Q Pontypridd from 5pm to 7pm on Tuesday, May 24
Tesco in Aberdare from 9.30am to 1pm on Wednesday, May 25
Aldi in Pontypridd from 2pm to 5pm on Wednesday, May 25
Asda Living in Llantrisant from 6pm to 8pm on Wednesday, May 25
Asda Tonypandy from 9.30am to 1pm on Thursday, May 26
Tesco in Talbot Green from 2pm to 5pm on Thursday, May 26
Aldi in Talbot Green from 6pm to 8pm on Thursday, May 26
Morrisons in Porth from 9.30am to 1pm on Friday, May 27
Asda in Aberdare from 2pm to 5pm on Friday, May 27
They will be at Aberdare Festival in Aberdare Park all day on Saturday, May 28.