News

Mel and Travis Blair became foster carers six years ago

By Charmayne Allison

Mel Blair will be forever grateful to the teenage boy who broke into her car in 2014.

Because if it weren't for him, the Invergordon local and her husband Travis wouldn't be foster carers today.

“I was working night shifts at Big W when it happened,” she said.

“I was pretty annoyed at first but when I heard his family story I thought, ‘Well, no wonder'.

“So we decided we would jump in and help some of these kids to change the outcome.”

In just six years, the couple has cared for 27 children — boys and girls, young and old, each carrying their own traumas and challenges.

But each had an immense potential to blossom.

Alyssa, 17, is just one of them.

While she has asked not to share her photo or last name, she's eager to share her story — because if it weren't for the Blairs, she knows she wouldn't be where she is today.

“Mel and Trav have shown me what a real family is like,” she said.

While the Blairs are now parents to two little girls, Eliza, 3, and Kirrilly, 18 months, they were childless and in their mid-twenties when they signed up to become foster carers.

After completing training with Berry St, they welcomed their first child — an "angel" Mrs Blair still jokingly insists was a hired actor.

“We only had her for about five days before we had our next foster child,” Mr Blair said.

“That's when we realised we were in foster care.”

While their first child was a breeze, their second was a tempest.

With high needs, an intellectual disability and foetal alcohol spectrum disorder, seven-year-old Taleisha functioned at the level of a three-year-old.

Her hyperactivity, mixed with the developmental delay, wore the Blairs down until their mental health and relationship also began to deteriorate.

“We were 25 and didn't even have children of our own back then,” Mrs Blair said.

“It got to the point I'd get into bed at night and say to Trav, ‘I don't want to get up tomorrow and face this again'.”

Finally, after four months, the couple made the heartbreaking decision to place Taleisha with more experienced carers.

“That decision was so tough, it nearly broke us,” Mrs Blair said.

“We felt like we were giving up on her. But in the end, it was the best thing for Taleisha.

“She was put with two carers who were much better for her.”

A month before this tearful farewell, they had welcomed another foster child — Taleisha's older sister, Alyssa.

Heading into her teens at the time, Alyssa had struggled to find a long-term placement.

“She was bouncing around in respite care — they'd find her two days at one spot and then two days at another spot,” Mrs Blair said.

“We'd said `no teenagers’, because we were fresh foster carers.

“But after meeting Alyssa we were like, ‘We'll take her'.

“We're so glad we did.”

Born in 2002 in Shepparton, Alyssa had a "messy" childhood.

Her dad was in and out of jail from when she was seven years old, while her mum struggled with mental illness.

The oldest of three siblings, Alyssa quickly took on a parenting role, forced to become an adult before her time.

There was also an ever-present threat of homelessness, as she and her family were kicked out of houses and tossed between caravan parks and hotels.

“Those early years impacted me badly — I hated it,” Alyssa said.

Then suddenly, one day, she was placed in the foster care system.

“That's how it normally happens,” Mrs Blair said.

“There's just a court case and the kids are picked up from school by DHHS and dropped on someone's doorstep.”

Alyssa had seven placements before she found a stable home.

“Because I was almost a teenager, no-one wanted me,” she said.

“Meanwhile, I was getting bullied at school as I kept arriving late because of all the placements and court dates.”

Finally, one night, she was driven out to a farm in Invergordon.

“I was very nervous,” Alyssa said.

“I was worried I wouldn't be here for long.”

While Alyssa immediately warmed to Mrs Blair, she kept Mr Blair at arm's length — nearly breaking his heart in the process.

“I wanted to gain Alyssa's trust so bad, but I just couldn't get it for a long time,” he said.

“Unfortunately, for a lot of kids, men haven't been a positive experience.”

But after two months of the silent treatment, Alyssa finally thawed.

“You came home from school one day — I'll never forget it — and asked me how my day was,” Mr Blair said to Alyssa.

“From there it was fine.”

“I think Travis became the favourite after that,” Mrs Blair said.

The following year was one of the happiest of Alyssa's young life.

There were bacon and egg breakfasts each weekend — a decadence she'd never experienced.

And then there was her birthday.

“We went down to the Melbourne Show,” she said.

“It was the first time I'd ever done something like that. I'd always organised surprises for my siblings’ birthdays, but it was never done for me.”

After a year with the Blairs, Alyssa returned to her mum's care.

“We were devastated when Alyssa left, we didn't foster for a month,” Mrs Blair said.

But once they were ready, the couple resumed foster caring, having since looked after more than 20 children of all ages.

They have also stayed in touch with Alyssa, and have even cared for her part-time since her initial placement with them ended.

“We have a good relationship with Alyssa's mum, so Alyssa has still been a big part of our lives. She even came to the hospital when I gave birth to Eliza,” Mrs Blair said.

Alyssa is now living at the Education First Youth Foyer in Shepparton, which provides accommodation and coaching for young people at risk of homelessness.

Currently in Year 12, she's working towards big dreams of becoming a youth worker.

“I've experienced what it's like to be in the system,” she said.

“I want to help others going through that.”

And Alyssa knows if she ever needs support in the years to come, Mel and Travis Blair are just a phone call away.

“We've watched Alyssa grow, to the point she's now working, independently living, studying and saving up for a house,” Mr Blair said.

“Foster care can have its ups and downs, but it's rewarding.

“The problem is, there's simply not enough foster care available in the Goulburn Valley.

“I just encourage people — look within yourself and see if you can do it.

“You're never too young or unqualified, there's so much support and it can change children's lives.”

And, as Mrs Blair added, tongue-in-cheek: "It does potentially stop them breaking into my car.”

READ MORE ABOUT FOSTER CARE IN THE SHEPPARTON NEWS

Shepparton first-time foster carers Danny and Kylie urge others to help out

“Desperate” need for more foster carers in Greater Shepparton