Smells of fresh bread drift from the kitchen where Grandpop is holding the fort. Later, there will be a game of Pokemon II.
Grandpop is Lee Alley, who shares foster-parent duties with his wife Linda. They married 10 years ago, with nine kids between them. With those offspring grown and gone, the Alleys have taken in 20 foster kids in four years.
"We started just being for little guys and 'just temporary,"' Linda said, "because we felt the empty nest syndrome. It snowballed, one baby to the next."
"It's a joy to see these young guys come alive from some bad situation and blossom and bloom right in front of your eyes," Lee said. "I don't know what I would do without kids; they are just part of my life."
The state Division of Family and Youth Services could use a few more foster parents like the Alleys.
Candice Heppner, community care licensing specialist with DFYS in Juneau, said she has 60 foster homes here, but not all of them are suitable for all children in need.
Many of the 60 are family members who have stepped forward while other relatives are in crisis. Some are licensed for an emergency period of 90 days only. Some accept only babies, or kids 2 to 4 years old, or only boys or only girls. This means the actual number of foster homes that will welcome any child is low, Heppner said.
The need is rising. "We have had more kids come into state custody in the last six to eight months than in the previous year, and more sibling groups," Heppner said. At the moment, she has a "great need" for a second emergency foster home that would be on call and available 24 hours a day. Her one and only emergency foster home has taken 13 kids in the past six weeks.
"I love those people," she said with a sigh of gratitude.
Jeannie Gonzales of the Alaska Foster Parent Training Center in Fairbanks said the majority of kids in foster care are back with their birth parents within two years.
"Foster care is a temporary intervention to allow birth parents to regroup," she said.
Homes for special-needs children - those with mental illness, retardation or physical handicaps - are especially hard to find. Since 1998, DFYS has provided extra training for foster parents willing to accept these children.
To qualify as a foster parent, one must be 21, have good character and reputation, submit four references, submit to a criminal background check and fingerprinting, and have no indictments or convictions within 10 years.
"We are not looking for a 'perfect home,' if there is such a thing. We are looking for healthy people who care for children and can keep them safe. We have foster parents who are married, we have single, we have divorced. You don't have to own your own home," said Gonzales, who has 20 years experience herself as a foster parent.
Having a bigger pool to draw upon would mean better matches, said foster parent Janna Smith. "It would be nice to have 10 homes and match a 9-year-old who likes basketball with a parent who goes to games."
Rena Sims specializes in special-needs children and teen-age girls - 18 over two and a half years. She is adding four rooms to her home so she can accept more kids and give each "a hideaway."
Sims is inspired by her own history of "being floated from home to home," winding up with a supportive foster parent who still mothers her.
"She put me through college. She helped me with my own two kids," Sims said. "She said if I ever wanted to pay her back, I should become a foster parent myself. I started out paying a debt and found I really love it."
Her success stories include kids who have gone on to college. One visited recently, bringing a decorative blanket with "Mom" woven into it.
"They will do the darndest. They will slam the door or run away. But if you have the patience, if you start over every day with a clean slate and tell them you love them, it's like a flower that opens," Sims said.
The next training for foster parents is April 23-24. For details about orientation, licensing or training, call (800) 478-7307. Heppner can also be reached at 465-3740.
Ann Chandonnet can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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