By TOMIE LUNSFORD
Telegram Staff Writer
She's 6 years old, and Monday was a big day for her.
It was the first time ever for her to go the whole day at school and not get a timeout.
It was a big deal, well worth the congratulatory cake and turkey dinner prepared in her honor.
Her mommy didn't bake her that cake. Her daddy didn't cook the turkey.
Donna Merrill did. She and her husband Kenneth are foster parents.
'We were so proud of her,' Mrs. Merrill said. 'She's been working at it, and we didn't want it to go unnoticed.'
Caregiver to four other children still in diapers, Mrs. Merrill knows about the stress and work that come with foster parenting. She's been 'mom' to 15 youngsters.
Yes, she gets tired. Yes, she needs to vent. Yes, it's hard.
'But the baseline is that it's been a blessing to leave a positive mark in those kids' lives,' Mrs. Merrill said, not regretting a single sleepless night. Mr. Merrill lightly touched his wife's shoulder as he nodded in agreement.
The days in the Merrill house are busy. In between cooking meals, changing sheets, washing clothes, chauffeuring children and napping, the Merrills find a few hours to go to work. Mrs. Merrill works part time as a data entry clerk at Scott and White Hospital in Temple while Mr. Merrill is a full-time truck driver for McCoy's Furniture.
'The day-by-day bit is all the more tough when you're a foster parent,' said Ryan Malsbary, a representative of Texas Mentor, the foster-parenting agency that coordinates child placements in the Merrill family. 'Foster parents are held to a higher standard because they're now caring for abused and neglected children.'
Texas Mentor is a statewide human service network that finds stable homes for Central Texas children who have been orphaned, abused or neglected. February marks the two-year anniversary for the Temple branch located on Azalea Drive. Working with 20 foster parents, the local branch has served more than 100 foster children since opening in 2005.
The Merrills said Texas Mentor provides an emotional network where foster parents can commiserate and celebrate together. The couple allied forces with Texas Mentor in November 2005.
'Sometimes it's hard to talk about our problems to people who aren't foster parents,' Mrs. Merrill said. 'We can't divulge much information about our kids, and unless you've been through it, you just don't understand how much work it really is. Sometimes, you just need someone to listen.'
Personal information about children must be kept confidential, Malsbary said, to keep them safe.
An innocent chat between Mrs. Merrill and a friend could prove dangerous if information leading to the whereabouts of a particular child is overheard.
'It's best not to take any chances,' said Malsbary as the two longtime foster parents agreed.
But foster parents don't have to suffer in silence.
'Texas Mentor is here for you,' Mrs. Merrill said. 'Even if it's a little triumph you want to celebrate or a heartache you need to talk about. Talking with people who know what you're going through can make all the difference.'
Becoming a foster parent
On the fourth Tuesday of every month, the local branch of Texas Mentor offers orientations for people interested in becoming foster parents. This month's meeting is set for Feb. 26.
'It's a time for us to tell them about us,' Malsbary said early last week. 'We tell them what they can expect.'
Serving all types of children from medically fragile to emotionally and mentally troubled, foster parents must first go through a training program with either Child Protective Services or a comparable agency like Texas Mentor. The training usually lasts about two weeks.
'In that training, we talk about anything that might come up or happen,' Malsbary said. 'Our goal is to get kids in good homes. As many as we can. We want group homes to become the last option.'
The local branch of Texas Mentor is scheduled to get its adoption license by the middle of this year.
'The license will help our placements become permanent,' Malsbary said. 'Ability to help people like Mr. and Mrs. Merrill become adoptive parents has been something that we've been working for since we opened.'
Affiliated with the non-profit Alliance of Adolescent Children's Services, Texas Mentor's service area covers Temple, Belton, Harker Heights, Killeen, Copperas Cove and Gatesville.
All applicants interested in becoming foster parents must first pass a criminal background check and have their homes inspected for fire and health hazards.
'The background check and the house inspections are out-of-pocket expenses for the foster parent,' Malsbary said. 'The cost is fairly minimal. The need for foster parents in Central Texas is so great that trying to put too many restrictions on the application process is pointless.'
The recruiter cited application fees and 'red tape' as needless hassles.
'You don't know until you get into it if foster parenting is the right thing for you,' Mrs. Merrill said. 'It is the right thing for us. From the first evening, it was right.'
While caring for their first foster child, the Merrills said they were nervous, afraid the responsibility would be too large and the challenge too strenuous.
'The child needed love and attention. And we have it to give. That's why we're excited to help the children we can,' Mrs. Merrill said. 'The rest you learn as you go. You have to arrange for daycare, get them to school everyday, manage healthcare and buy them clothes. You learn, and it gets easier.'
The caseworkers at Texas Mentor encourage foster parents to keep the bonds they've developed with their foster children.
'We want them to keep on having those connections,' Malsbary said. 'Even after a child is moved or is placed somewhere else. That continued contact can create some sort of stability.'
Mrs. Merrill and her husband have seen some of their foster children miss other foster parents, and they miss the children who no longer stay with them.
'With regularity and stability snatched away time after time - it's hard on the kid,' Mrs. Merrill interjected. 'We try to stay in touch, but it's hard.'
It's the legal families who ultimately decide whether foster parents can maintain contact with the child, Malsbary said.
'We had a baby boy who was 3 weeks old when we got him,' Mrs. Merrill said. 'He ended up going back to his birth mom. And she is very grateful to us for taking care of her son when she couldn't. She invited us to celebrate his first birthday.'
The well-trained, well-worked Mrs. Merrill says the magic of foster parenting starts once the children sees, 'Hey, I mess up and did something wrong, and I'm not in a closet.'
'Once children understand that, they start to open up and they start learning,' Mrs. Merrill said. 'It's beautiful.'