Norma and Ian Shaw will never forget the forlorn little girl standing on their doorstep clutching a Tesco bag of belongings on Christmas Eve.
Flanked by a social worker and policeman, the four-year-old needed shelter and comfort on the most important night of any child’s year.
Taken into care as an emergency, she was tired and stressed and experienced foster carers Norma and Ian were the people to help.
After receiving the call late on Christmas Eve and knowing that she would be arriving soon, they sprang into action preparing Christmas morning for the little girl.
‘We didn’t want her to wake up and have no presents,’ says Norma.
‘We had a 15-year-old foster girl with us at the time, a lovely girl. She gave up some of her presents – sweets and cuddly toys and things – and we got together a few more things and wrapped them up.’
The child was devastated to be away from mum and as she sat that night in Norma and Ian’s kitchen drinking cocoa, said she was worried that Father Christmas wouldn’t know where she was.
Thankfully, it was a temporary problem, and the little girl was reunited with her family the next day.
And Norma and Ian like to think they ‘smoothed things over a little’ and made her feel more secure during a bewildering time.
The fact that situations like this don’t faze the Portchester couple is partly because they’ve been fostering children and young people for nearly 30 years.
And now that Ian is 80 and Norma is 73, they have no intentions of retiring from the lifestyle they love.
‘It’s become a way of life,’ says Ian. ‘There are a lot of people who desperately need a home and we have that to give. We have a lot of experience to offer and wouldn’t give up just yet.’
Over three decades the couple have looked after about 80 children and young people.
Some have lived with them long-term, others – like the little girl at Christmas – have stayed for a very short period.
Some have stayed in touch and one girl has even asked Ian to walk her down the aisle when she gets married. He is of course delighted.
But they’ve also repeatedly picked troubled youngsters up from police stations, had to keep valuables under lock and key and 5ft 1in Norma has been threatened by teenage lads.
‘You don’t go into this lightly. You have to be ready for anything because each case that is presented to you is unique,’ says Ian.
‘Some of them are from extremely dysfunctional backgrounds. They’ve seen violence, been sexually abused. We’ve had a lot of training, but we’re always learning.’
The couple started fostering soon after they got married. Ian had grown-up children from his first marriage but he and Norma felt they wanted to care for youngsters.
Norma believes she was meant to become a foster carer after spending most of her childhood away from her own family.
Diagnosed with TB of the spine at four, she was bed-ridden in hospital until she was 11 and was only allowed one monthly visit from her family.
‘I remember clinging to my mum and sobbing and it was awful for her,’ she says. ‘They were very hard in those days, we’ve learned a lot about child psychology since.’
So when youngsters are misbehaving, she understands.
‘I know that they feel scared and frustrated, I understand that. Although, I had a loving family at home, which made all the difference.’
Ian knows what it’s like to grow up without a father having lost his dad, who was in the RAF, during the war.
Now their aim is to provide a stable family environment – and often troubled youngsters respond.
‘One young man came in and wouldn’t look at us or talk to us, he just stared at the carpet,’ recalls Ian.
‘All you can really do is make them feel at home. Very gradually he began talking and was with us for quite a while. He’s now a man of 23 and still in touch with us to this day.’
The couple say to be a good carer you need to lead by example, have patience and a sense of humour.
‘Some children have been through so much that they’ve lost their sense of humour. They’ve forgotten life can be funny, ‘ says Norma.
Norma and Ian are sometimes amazed at how warm and well-behaved youngsters are, even when they’ve been through the mill.
But occasionally they can’t do anything to help.
One 17-year-old had tiny Norma trapped in the living room and she was only rescued when the social worker turned up. ‘I think he was just playing games,’ she says.
‘I said to him “I’ve had bigger men than you for dinner and spat them out”.’
But even when youngsters continue to have problems, they sometimes still keep in touch.
One lad ended up in prison but wrote to the couple saying he’d never forgotten what they did for him. ‘You don’t judge, you try to help,’ says Ian.
Both Ian and Norma have had health problems. She was diagnosed with endometrial cancer last year but is now clear. They have been determined to carry on caring for others and are now fighting fit and fostering again.
The couple are currently caring for a teenage lad with whom they’ve really clicked and who loves being at their home. ‘And he keeps us young, that’s another reason we love doing this, He’s even got me on Facebook,’ laughs Norma.
MORE CARERS NEEDED
Charity The Fostering Network estimates there is a need for at least 8,600 more carers in the UK.
There are many reasons children go into care, including illness in the family, bereavement, family breakdown and neglect.
Ian and Norma work for national agency Fostering Solutions, which recruits and trains its own carers to look after children and young people referred by local authorities.
Applicants must have a spare bedroom, be over 21 years of age and able to offer a safe and caring home.
Foster carers receive regular home visits by a social worker and plenty of support from a professional team.
For information, visit fosteringsolutions.com or call (08453) 700500.