Photos by Libby Rogers
A nearly lifelong resident of Madisonville, Texas, Sandy Ward is a 70-year-old mother, grandmother, and retired paraprofessional. She also has been a foster mom to 73 children (and counting!) over the last 23 years.
Tell us a little about yourself.
I moved to Madisonville with my family when I was 12 years old. My dad helped build I-45, and we stayed ever since. My husband Don was also from here. We graduated from Madisonville High School, and we were married in December of 1968. We moved to Houston, then Brenham for my husband’s work. We were away from Madisonville for about 15 years. In that time, we had 4 children: Our first son in ‘69, our daughter in ‘70, another son in ‘79, and our youngest son in ‘80. My daughter says I had two sets of children so I could raise my babysitters first!
When our oldest children were in junior high and our youngest were in kindergarten and first grade, Don’s father wanted him to come home and take over the family business. He was a mechanic, and we jumped at the opportunity to move home. It was good to move our kids to a small town. We were happy to be home.
I started working for Madisonville High School as a teacher’s aide in special education. I just loved working with those kids. We were very involved for many years in the Special Olympics. I worked with them for 30 years until I retired in 2015 because my husband became ill. Don passed away in June 2017. We were married almost 50 years.
Currently I have six granddaughters—all girls—ranging in age from 3 to 18.
When and why did you start fostering?
It was around 1995. My youngest two children were in junior high, and I was really missing having little ones around. I was reading the newspaper one day, and there was an advertisement for a meeting in Bryan to become foster parents. We decided to go and started the process of becoming foster parents. We never got into it to adopt.
We got our first foster placement in 1996, and our second in 1997, both girls. We ended up adopting our second placement, Terressa. She is now married and a licensed therapist. She and her husband live in Dallas. We have been foster parents to 73 children, and she is the only one we ever adopted. Most of the other children went on to be adopted by other families, and a few of them were able to be reunited with their birth parents.
For fostering 23 years, 73 children is a rather small number. For others who have fostered that long, the number would be much higher. For whatever reasons, all my placements have been long-term. We have a reputation with CPS that when children come to stay with the Wards, they stay a long time! Right now, I have 9-year-old girl and a 6-year-old boy, and they have been with me a year and a half.
Do you plan to retire from fostering?
I put fostering on hold while caring for my husband, but six months after he passed away, I was ready to jump back into fostering. I was retired then, so I had more time, and I missed taking care of the kids. Two weeks after I called to say I was ready to foster again, I got my placements. I keep saying to myself, “Maybe I’ll retire after this placement,” but it’s hard to say no when you get that call that a child needs a home. It would be nice to travel and visit my children and grandchildren. The foster care system is really good about offering respite care for me, so when I need to travel, I am able to.
Do you have any stories that stand out in your memory from your years of fostering?
There are so many stories! We have a tradition of taking our foster kids to go see Santa every Christmas, so we have a whole shelf of Santa photos with different children. Some children we had for multiple Christmases, so we were able to watch them grow and look forward to that tradition.
One time we got a 4-year-old girl and a 6-month-old boy the morning of Christmas Eve. We had to scramble to get Christmas presents. I put a call out to the community, and they really came through to make sure the kids had a special Christmas. A couple of local businesses gave us $50 gift cards. We couldn’t have pulled that off without our community.
I had one baby who was 5 days old when I got him, and he weighed just 4 pounds. I had never seen a baby that small. I had him until he was two, then he was adopted by his aunt and uncle in Louisiana. That was a hard one for me, because he was my baby, and I was the only mom he had ever known, so I decided to drive him to his adoptive family myself. It made me feel a lot better to place him directly into the hands of his new family and know he was going to be okay. It’s always tough to let the kids go, but they bring me so much joy when I’m with them, and it makes it worthwhile, because I know they would be worse off without me.
One last story I’ll never forget is when we first picked up the girl we adopted, Terressa. It was Good Friday, and she had been at a shelter in Bryan for about a week. She was wearing this frilly white dress that was worn and way too big, and these white dress shoes that were peeling and cracked. Clearly she was trying to look her best for us, but she just looked pitiful. The first thing we did when we got her was go shopping for new Easter clothes, including new white dress shoes. I said to her, “Now we can throw these old shoes away,” but Terressa protested. She said, “No, we should paint them and give them to someone else who can use them!” She has always been wanting to help other people. I suppose that’s why she went into counseling. I did convince her those old shoes needed to go in the trash, though.
Are you still in contact with any of the children you fostered?
Most of the children went on to be adopted, and I don’t have contact with them. Many were so little while they were with me that they probably don’t remember me, or have very little memories. Some have tracked me down, though! One little boy moved to Bryan, and he found my adopted daughter on Facebook. They had been fostered at the same time and were like brother and sister, and he was carrying around this question in his heart about why I had adopted her but not him. It was heartbreaking to me that he may have thought I didn’t want him. I explained that he was so young when he was here—six—so many families wanted to adopt him, and he was scooped up right away, while Terressa was ten, and there aren’t many people wanting to adopt an older child. I think that helped him understand, and we are still in touch.
I keep a book of all the children we ever fostered, with their names and birthdays, when they came to stay with us, and when they moved on to their permanent home. Even though I’m not in contact with most of them, I always remember them and wonder how they are doing.
One girl I would love to find came to me when she was 18 months old. We had a special bond. She was adopted when she was three. I called CPS to get updates on how she was doing after the adoption, but they could never tell me much. I knew she had trouble bonding with her new family, and I think about her and want to know that things worked out. She would be 23 now. I’ve tried to find her on Facebook, but haven’t had success. I hope I get to find her someday and see how her life has turned out.
What advice do you have for people thinking about becoming foster parents?
Just do it! There is such a need for good foster homes. I have had children placed with me from many hours away because they could not find a closer foster home. I believe I’m the only foster parent in Madisonville. And really you can be a foster parent anytime in life. I fostered while I had my own kids at home, while I was working full time, now that I’m 70 and widowed. We need more foster homes!
People always come up to me and say, “I couldn’t do what you do. I’d get too attached.” You think I don’t get attached? Of course I do! But the pain I feel when they leave is worth it for their sake. It’s like how Jesus gave everything and experienced all that pain for me so I can have eternal life. There has been pain, but the rewards are way better.
These children who are removed from their original home can have a completely different life thanks to great foster homes. These kids need us.