Mooroopna's Wendy Dow has witnessed more moments of wide-eyed wonder than she can count.
She's seen children experience their first birthday party.
Their first real hug.
Their first toy of their very own.
Their first taste of home, family and belonging.
Having foster cared more than 300 children in just 30 years, it's no wonder Wendy has lost track of all these firsts.
And struggles to count the tears (she's estimating it's in the millions) she's cried, saying goodbye to these children when her spell as foster mum has come to an end.
But she wouldn't trade those children, those years — even those tears — for anything in the world.
“The joy, the reward I get from seeing each child grow, develop and experience true happiness — that makes it all worth it,” she said.
Wendy started foster caring in 1990, at the age of 32.
She always had a special spot in her heart for children, so after hearing there was a need for foster carers in the Hume region, she simply answered the call.
She can still remember the first child she fostered: nine-year-old Tai, who stayed for three weeks.
She'll never forget the nervous twist in her stomach as he walked through the front door.
“It was just all so new and nerve-wracking,” Wendy said.
The first few placements presented a raft of challenges, as she adjusted to the reality of foster care.
“No amount of training can prepare you for the real deal,” she admitted.
Many children had a wall up from the moment they entered the house.
For some, it was a defense mechanism, remnants of living in a revolving door of foster homes.
Others were still grappling with the trauma, abuse or neglect they had experienced in their short lives.
“It could take up to six months before children would show any love or affection, or would have the confidence to tell us how they felt,” Wendy said.
“They were very wary, which was so normal and understandable.”
While foster care has offered its fair share of tough times, Wendy has always been backed by an army of supporters.
“We have a lot of services we can turn to, such as speech therapy and occupational therapy,” she said.
“Plus I'm part of a community of foster carers. We share tips and encourage one another.”
Wendy quickly discovered a child's greatest needs were stability and reliability.
“I needed to show them I'd always be there for them,” Wendy said.
“For some children, it was something as small as receiving a kiss on the finger after they scratched it.
“Lots of children haven't experienced that kind of love and affection before.”
While Wendy said children were often blown away by receiving toys, birthday cakes or gifts, it was a sense of belonging they valued more than material possessions.
“Even just feeling included means the world to them,” she said.
“Many children haven't experienced something as simple as a family holiday, and are blown away when we invite them to come along.”
It's moments like these Wendy will always treasure.
Then there are the moments she wishes never had to happen: the goodbyes.
“It's heart-wrenching. I get very attached, as do the kids — especially when they've been with us for two or three years,” Wendy said.
“But if they're going back to their family or to permanent care, we know that's the best outcome.
“Above all, we want children to have stable placements instead of being moved from place to place.”
While it has been impossible for Wendy to maintain contact with every child she's fostered, she has worked to build connections and relationships with many children's birth families.
These have remained in place long after a child has returned to their home or moved on to other placements.
Throughout the years, Wendy has also received unswerving support from her family.
This includes her partner of 20 years, Mick, plus their four biological children, who range in age from 24 to 40.
Wendy has done everything from respite care (the occasional weekend, to offer relief to other carers) to long-term placements of two to three years.
Or, in Brittany's case, almost 24 years.
Brittany is one of Wendy's three permanent care children, along with sons Brody and Brock, who came to her 17 years ago and are now 20 and 19 respectively.
“I started caring for Brittany when she was just eight months old,” Wendy said.
“When her mum couldn't care for her full time, we took on permanent care. She's been here ever since — I can't get rid of her,” she said with a laugh.
Brittany has been able to maintain close contact with her mother throughout the years, growing up with two families.
At 24, she is now studying social work at La Trobe University in Shepparton, with the goal of working in child protection.
“After seeing first-hand how many kids are in care, I want to help,” Brittany said.
“I'd also love to foster care like my mum one day.”
Looking back, she knows she wouldn't be here today if it wasn't for Wendy.
“I've felt so loved and accepted in this family,” she said.
Still, 30 years of foster caring can take its toll.
Wendy and Mick ensure they take a break at the end of each placement and check in regularly with their support system.
But Wendy doesn't plan on quitting any time soon.
“I told Mick I'd retire at 30 years, but I don't think that's going to happen. As long as I can provide help and support, I'm going to,” she said.
“It's a wonderful experience to be able to help children in need, whether for a weekend, several years, or their whole life.
“If you can open your heart and home, please help out — become a foster carer.”
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