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Foster parents open homes, hearts to hundreds
Gainesville resident Sarah Thomas, 67, and her husband, Richard, adopted Victoria, now an eighth-grader at Chestatee Middle School, when she was 1 year old. After having her fourth child in 1971, Thomas fostered about 15 children in Virginia and 40 more kids once she moved to Gainesville. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

Interested in becoming a foster parent?

  • Pass criminal background and medical health checks.
  • Home and pets must meet standards established by the Department of Family and Children’s Services.
  • Obtain references supporting positive parenting.
  • Must complete a seven-week orientation course.
  • Be able to accommodate a child for a range of time from two weeks to three months.

For information on how to become a foster parent, call 1-877-210-KIDS or visit Adopt US Kids.

As most children are tinkering with their new Christmas toys, some children in Hall County still are hoping for a home.

There are about 109 children in area foster homes or group homes, said Westlynn Benton, deputy director of Hall County Department of Family and Children’s Services.

More local foster parents always are needed to care for children who have suffered from abuse and neglect, she said.

"Anyone can become a foster parent," Benton said. "... We are constantly recruiting for foster parents. We try to make sure our kids stay in the region so we need homes for them here."

Gainesville resident Sarah Thomas, 67, answered that call. When she had her fourth child in 1971, Thomas began fostering children while living in Arlington, Va.

She took a course educating her on how to navigate a child through the court system and how to cope with their personal issues stemming from their dysfunctional homes.

Her life as a foster mother began by caring for a little girl. She fostered about 15 children in Virginia and 40 more kids once she moved to Gainesville.

In 1993, she and her husband, Richard, relocated to Gainesville to be closer to his family. They began regularly attending Free Chapel and attended a service where the church’s senior pastor, Jentezen Franklin, encouraged those who were able to become foster parents.

"Richard and I sort of looked at each other and said, ‘Oh, we can do that,’" Thomas said.

For years, DFCS would call upon Thomas to take a child or siblings following a report of abuse or neglect. On Christmas Eve in 1995, she took in three children whose grandmother, their primary caretaker, had died in a car accident that afternoon.

"They called me and asked me if I could take them while their grandfather figured something out," she said. "You don’t say ‘no.’"

Thomas said when she brought children home from DFCS, they sometimes carried with them lice and usually a plastic bag full of ill-fitting clothes. After a good bath and a careful review of the clothes out in the yard, Thomas would take the child shopping for new clothes, shoes, a pillow, a blanket, a small toy and a duffel bag to hold it all.

"We make sure we let them know these things are theirs," she said. "When they leave, they will take them with them."

Occasionally while doing laundry, Thomas said she would find food stuffed into their duffel bags. Some children, she said, were hoarding food because they came from situations where it wasn’t always guaranteed that they could get more.

The Thomases kept children sometimes for just a few hours, for the weekend or for years. Some carried a lot of emotional baggage and had difficulty receiving love. But, each night ended the same for them at the Thomas home.

"The last thing they heard when they were getting into bed was, ‘I love you. God loves you,’" Thomas said.

She said even if their time in her home was brief, she tried to love children and make them feel as safe as she could. Letting them go, however, was never easy.

"Our house was just always open," Thomas said. "It is hard, but you have to think they are going back to a family that is being rebuilt or going to another foster home where they may be adopted. There are always more children who need you."

After fostering dozens of children, Thomas and her husband took in Victoria, a 1-year-old girl. Seventeen months later, they began proceedings to adopt her.

"We loved her; we didn’t let her go," Thomas said. "She was ours then."

Victoria is now an eighth-grader at Chestatee Middle School. She said she’s grateful to have parents who love her and nurture her goals of playing soccer and going to college.

"They have a big heart — bigger than anyone else," she said. "They teach me to follow my dreams."

Not far from the Thomases’ home in North Hall lives Sabrina Cagle. She, too, was once a foster mom, but has since adopted 11 kids, seven of which have special needs.

Cagle, her best friend, Diane Slater, and her family cares for the adopted children and adults with disabilities who range in age from 1 to 30.

Cagle said she first discovered her passion for caring for the disabled 10 years ago while working as a caregiver for people with disabilities.

"One little boy pulled me in and made me realize there are some kids out there who needed a parent, not just a caregiver," she said. "I was adopted, so I guess it’s been my lifelong dream to have adopted kids."

In her tidy home, she and Slater care for Shaq, 11, who is blind, suffers from cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair. Cagle adopted Shaq 10 years ago, and also adopted Casey, 12. Both boys attend school at Lyman Hall Elementary.

She also adopted Bryson, 6, who goes to Sardis Elementary, and Evan, 8, who attends Lanier Elementary.

They also care for toddler brothers Daniel and Eric, who have Cornelia de Lange syndrome and attend Challenged Child and Friends two days a week. And then there’s Shane, 23, and Daniel, 30, who are severely disabled and spend their days with Cagle and Slater at home, in the park or at the mall.

Cagle said the other four adopted children who are not disabled are teens and live with their father.

She said as long as she can continue to care for her disabled children, she will.

"If we weren’t here for them, where would they be? They’d be in a group home or in a hospital, I guess," she said. "... I want them to be somewhere that they are loved."

Cagle said caring for her kids is a full-time job, and she is able to get by using their Medicaid and government assistance funds to pay home and medical bills. While it’s tough work, she said it brings her joy to provide her children with a safe, stable home.

"They’re the kids that most people don’t want to take," she said. "We keep them dry and clean and fuss over their clothes. I think somebody should."