Martha Coley sits in her living room sometimes, flipping through photo albums she keeps on a shelf below her TV. They’re albums filled with hundreds of photos of children she has known throughout her life, but they're not just friends or acquaintances. They’re family.
Coley, 82, has been fostering children in the area for 33 years and doesn’t show signs of stopping anytime soon. As a foster parent, she’s seen more than 100 children pass through her home — and she herself has passed through fire in her time caring for her kids.
She remembers every part of June 8, 2016 — from the child she was fostering running back to tell her she smelled smoke, to Coley dismissing it, to actually seeing smoke seeping from the vents in the living room, she remembers it all.
Coley grabbed her car keys, ran out the door with the foster child and drove the car to the top of the driveway and watched as the fire began to build in the attic, until she remembered her dog LuLu, a golden retriever, was in the backyard.
Coley ran down the driveway, tried to unlock the fence, but was suddenly hit with a cloud of smoke that knocked her out.
“It just got me,” Coley said. “And by the time I turned around, I hit the ground.”
She broke her shoulder and a couple ribs, but a neighbor carried her to the top of the driveway to safety and went back for LuLu.
“It burned,” Coley said. “Everything burned.”
The home couldn’t be salvaged, but it was rebuilt in just six months, and even after the scare and the struggle, she continued to foster as soon as she got back in the brand new home.
At last count, Coley said she’s fostered 103 children. She’s had them from Texas, California and New Jersey, along with many from Georgia and in the Hall County area. She’s kept them for as little as eight months and as long as nine years. One of her most valuable attributes is that she's always willing to foster teenagers.
“Typically, teenagers are the hardest foster kids to place and they are often placed miles away, sometimes hours away, so anytime a child can stay in the community it’s so much better,” said Janet Walden, executive director of the Hall-Dawson Court-Appointed Special Advocates. “That’s just a real blessing when we have people who are willing to step up and be a resource for teenagers.”
Those children she's fostered, sometimes three at a time, lived in a mobile home with Coley when she first began fostering. The three-bedroom she was renting was good enough, but not what she ultimately needed to care for the children.
“I had a futon in the living room,” Coley said. “There were beds in the other rooms, so each child could have a room. Most of the time I just slept on the couch.”
So, a case worker told Coley to apply for a home through Habitat for Humanity. After listening to her advice, Coley applied and was given a new home, built from the ground up in 2007.
She lived in that house, fostering even more children, for the next 11 years, until it caught fire.
“Just think of all the lives that she’s touched,” Walden said. “And it’s not just the 100-plus kids, but their families as well. And the people that those children interact with, and who they become … that child always remembers the person that stepped into their lives.”
Even with her home lost to fire, Coley remembers each child she fostered there. She still gets calls from them sometimes.
“They know my number,” Coley said. “I’ve had them come back and want to spend the night, too.”
Through fostering more than 100 children, Coley has seen a lot and learned more. The children she’s fostered, Coley hopes, have learned a lot too. That’s partly why she continues to foster to this day.
“I hope that something I say or something I do or some way I live … something might rub off on them,” Coley said.
Her fostering started when she told one of her previous foster children who came back for dinner one Christmas that she was lonely. The former foster child — who was actually her first foster child — offered a simple solution: foster again.
“I’ve been fostering ever since,” Coley said.
She’s been taking care of others for most of her life, though, starting with her first job as a babysitter when she was 11 years old.
Coley has always had the motherly instinct, she said. She can’t trace where it came from, but it’s what led to her fostering children, even after having her own, in the first place.
“It’s always been my thing,” she said.
Her son and two daughters grew up bringing friends over to the house regularly, so she got used to having children around.
“My house was just wide open when the children were growing up,” Coley said. “I always had an extra one for dinner or an extra one at night.”
So when they grew up and were no longer in the house, she had to find a way to fill the void.
“I don’t like to live by myself,” Coley said. “And I like to have children around.”
So she began fostering children through the Division of Family and Children Services and now works with Bethany Christian Services, fostering special needs children, too.
Her home catching fire hasn’t been the hardest part of her fostering years. She said it’s when a foster child leaves.
“Letting my foster children go … that’s the hardest thing,” Coley said.
But the joy comes when she sees them out and about, doing well, and oftentimes giving back in the same way Coley has for the past few decades.
She recalled a time when she was shopping and heard someone from behind her say, “Martha, I bet you don’t know who I am.”
Of course, Coley knew exactly who it was. She remembers almost all of her foster children. On that day, the one she saw told her she was now helping people just like Coley taught her.
“It’s very rewarding,” Coley said. “Especially to see one that’s doing well that you've had. It’s just a blessing.”
When asked why she continues to foster, even at her age, Coley had a simple answer.
“I just like to,” Coley said. “I’m happier when everybody else is happy.”