To mark Foster Care Fortnight (15 - 28 May) an inspirational Manchester mum talks about her journey to becoming a foster carer - from a childhood spent in Jamaica, to landing in Manchester aged 14, and then spending three decades in the city as a nurse, before swapping her much-loved nursing career for fostering
From a childhood spent in Jamaica to first nursing and then fostering here in Manchester, Eunice Shelton is someone who has always enjoyed being surrounded by people and especially children.
Brought up in Jamaica by her grandparents from the age of one after her mum came to work in the UK, Eunice remembers a happy childhood surrounded by siblings and extended family, before she came to Manchester aged 14 to live with her mum and to eventually work alongside her.
Her mum, Daphne, was a nurse, and after a short spell as a teenager selling shoes at Lewis' Department Store in Piccadilly, Eunice joined her, completing a nursing degree and getting a job as a nurse with her mum at Withington Hospital, where she ended up nursing for 32 years whilst also bringing up a daughter.
As time passed the idea of becoming a foster carer once she'd retired from work was something she kept coming back to. Not quite ready yet to leave the job she loved, but with more than 30 years under her belt as a nurse, she decided it was time to find out more about fostering and to start the process of becoming a foster carer off, so that she was all set when the time came and she felt ready.
Eunice hadn't reckoned though with how much she had clearly impressed the panel who assessed her, and it was shortly afterwards, during a two-week holiday from her job at the hospital in 2011, that she got a call asking if she could take a sibling group of three on an emergency fostering placement.
Off work for a couple of weeks and with no particular plans, she thought about it and said yes - assuming their stay with her would be only temporary and they'd be gone by the time she went back to work at the end of her holiday.
When however, a fortnight later it turned out the children needed somewhere to stay for longer, Eunice didn't hesitate. After two weeks in the role, she suddenly knew that in fostering she had found the only thing that could possibly take her away from being a nurse - the job she had done alongside her mum for over three decades and had loved since she was a teenager.
She credits her youngest brother Leon, a project manager who worked with computers and who tragically died during Covid aged only 52, as her inspiration, and for giving her the encouragement to follow her dream and find out more about fostering - knowing that she would need a push to ever consider leaving her career as a nurse.
Now a seasoned foster carer with a wealth of experience in the role gained over the last twelve years, Eunice is clear about what it takes to be a foster carer and the commitment needed.
She says: "To be a foster carer you have to give 110 per cent. And you have to have an interest in helping children, if you haven't then you might as well forget it because you can't just go halfway, you have to go the full hog. You have to, it's all the way or nothing. It's children's lives - so it's not part-time, it's 24/7.
"When you're a new foster carer it's best to ask a lot of questions. Ask as many questions as you can about the children and their background before they arrive, and when they do arrive just try to make them feel comfortable. And treat every child whatever their age as if they're new-born, as individuals."
Being a good listener is another quality that Eunice thinks has stood her in good stead as a foster carer.
She says: "It's best to sit down and listen to the child. You just have to listen to them because each child has different needs. Don't just think that whatever you're thinking is the right thing - listen to the child, see where they're coming from, see what they've got to say, and then encourage them either way. Don't just think that you're telling them what to do and this is how it's done - no, it's not. You have to be very patient with them as well."
Eunice is a big believer in routine and in making sure the children she looks after do all their schoolwork, and always have something to do. She says: "I get up at 5:30 am every day, sort the bathrooms out, get their uniforms ready, and then start with breakfast - when it's being done for them, they'll always have a cooked breakfast.
"I might be classed as old-fashioned, doing things in the olden way, but for me it's health first, then education - and school is a main priority.
"Sometimes people come round and say oh it's quiet in here and I always say what do you expect? When they get home from school they have to be doing something - reading a book there, or doing a bit of writing here, or we'll go to the park. But it's not everyone running wild - no running up and down stairs or anything like that.
"We have supper together every night with hot chocolate and marshmallows and we'll be silly together then, just being normal, and we'll have movie nights at home - it's nice.
"Then every Friday we'll sit down and ask what's gone on with everyone, so we know where everyone is up to, what they're worried about, and the way forward for the following week. And if they don't want to discuss it in front of us all they'll just write a little note and give it to me and we do it that way.
"They're lovely kids honestly, when you see them sit down, and they do reflect - like if they do something wrong, I'll tell them to get a piece of paper and just write what happened and tell me how they would have done things different."
Knowing that you've made a real difference to the young people you look after is one of the most rewarding things Eunice likes about being a foster carer - even if you don't immediately realise the difference you're making.
She says: "You don't think about it at the time, you just try to teach them something and if it doesn't work out first time, you don't stop, you just keep at it. But then when they remind you years down the line about something you did for them, that you're the one who taught them to do something, you just think 'wow' and it brings back great memories."
Being a foster carer isn't of course always plain sailing but there is plenty of training and support available to help deal with anything that comes up.
Eunice says: "We get lots of face-to-face training, and meetings with your social worker so that's really good, and even during lockdown we had online training. And there are support groups where you can share things with other people, and if anyone is struggling or needs extra help you can advise them. There's training for every aspect you're interested in.
"Fostering can be very challenging, but you can also make it fun. Take it day to day."
Twelve years on from that memorable phone call asking her to look after her very first children, Eunice still feels the same way about being a foster carer and the difference good foster carers can make to vulnerable children and young people who through no fault of their own can't live with their own families, and she has no plans to retire any time soon.
She says: "If you've got an empty room, just think about it, because it's very rewarding. I've got no regrets about swapping nursing for fostering - even if it happened a bit sooner than I thought it was going to. They're all lovely kids and when they're happy, that's the best thing. So far I've enjoyed my journey very much and hope to carry on fostering as long as my health will let me."
And her biggest hope?
As the recently crowned winner of the Children's Champion Award at the city council's annual Foster Carer Awards for always putting the needs of children first, it's perhaps no surprise that Eunice is thinking about the children she looks after:
"I hope all the children will carry on being as happy as they are or have been over the course of their time with me."
Find out more about becoming a foster carer here or call 0800 988 8931.