Growing up, she wanted to have her own orphanage. Sharing her home with over 100 children over the last 18 years, she’s come close.
Curled up on a couch in her south Cambridge home, Sandy Falkiner, an easygoing woman with light brown, greying hair in a loose ponytail, says her passion for helping kids led her to fostering. It’s a passion she’s shared with her husband Reid, her son and their two Australian shepherds.
A single mom when she began (her son was seven), she recalls when Reid asked her how many kids she had and she replied, “One; sometimes two; possibly three …”
With a day job as a physician’s secretary, she soon found the double responsibility too much. “At the office I was around all these ailing patients, and then I came home to ailing children.” Rather than giving some of her kids up (“How could I decide which ones to send away?”), Sandy quit her job. She now works from home writing transcripts for court reporting.
When she tells people she’s a foster parent to teen girls, she often gets one of two reactions: “Oh, that’s so good!” or “Are you crazy?”
Having an average of four to five teen girls in the house at one time, Sandy admits there’s often a lot of “drama.”
Patience and a sense of humour are important, she notes. Many of the girls start out angry and “It’s important you don’t take it personal.” Her motto is “Hope for the best; prepare for the worst.”
“There’s a stigma attached,” Sandy says, to kids and youth who are in foster care – that it’s because they’ve done something wrong, and “That’s never the case.” Often with teens, she said, it’s a parent-child conflict that causes the separation.
It wasn’t just the kids themselves that took getting used to. Each girl came with an “army” of people: their child service worker, their own doctors and dentists and for many, their own lawyer.
The agency provided her with a resource worker as a mentor, and covered expenses such as clothes and school trips. Sandy still continues training (she receives a raise periodically as an incentive to keep learning). She and
Reid also enjoy a yearly foster parent appreciation dinner, which includes “entertainment and a free meal!”
Two of Sandy’s current charges are “Smurf” and Melissa (a.k.a. “Hurricane”). Smurf is a short (hence her nickname), shy blond with braces and a soft, child-like voice and personality, despite the fact she’s 17. She arrived at
Sandy’s house at 13, and the nickname, given to her by Reid, stuck.
When asked what makes a good foster parent, Smurf says, “You gotta have the feeling you can trust them,” then adds, tellingly, “They won’t kick you out if you’re having a bad day.”
“She calls me Mama Smurf,” Sandy says. “Melissa calls me Mamma Mia.”
Melissa, in contrast, is tall, brunette, and sassy – but doesn’t show an ounce of the bad attitude she came to Sandy’s house with. “I was crazy!” she says. “I was always angry.” She’s nicknamed Hurricane because, according to Sandy, “You can tell where she’s been.”
She says while some girls eventually return home, preparing them for a future life on their own is something she makes a priority. She helps the girls make appointments, grocery shop and do laundry. Everyone has chores. If somebody skips school without permission, Sandy grounds them and “hides the TV,” Smurf adds, who is an A student.
Sandy also makes time for one-on-one conversation with each girl, often in the form of shopping or coffee. Reid is an outdoorsman, and “he does the fun stuff,” she says with a chuckle.
Sandy’s had to learn to use social media to keep in contact with her tech-savvy girls. “I had to learn a new language,” she says, referring to text-messaging. She plans to keep fostering until she can no longer keep up with the learning.
A lot of people balk at the idea of being foster parents for fear of the effect it will have on their own kids. “My son is the better for it,” Sandy insists. He learned about the dark side of life at an early age but it was a “healthy learning experience.” Her son considers some of the girls sisters and, according to what Sandy’s heard from his girlfriend, he’s grown into a “sensitive and kind” young man.
“The fun thing about fostering teens,” Sandy says, “is you develop relationships.” Her first foster child, now 31, has three kids and still keeps in contact, calling Sandy her “Young Nana.”
Smurf once made a poem for Sandy about “house number three” (the Falkiners being her third foster home). Smurf recites a line, bringing a beaming smile to Sandy’s face: “If you’re looking for the house to be, it’s house number three.”
For more than 100 kids, Sandy’s home has been the eye in the storm of their young lives. The house to be, indeed.