If you go
■ What: “Fiesta of Caring Hearts,” Innovative Services NW’s annual award ceremony and fundraiser.
■ When: 5:30 p.m. May 4.
■ Where: Red Lion Hotel Vancouver at the Quay, 100 Columbia Street, Vancouver.
■ Cost: Admission is $55; $20 of that is tax-deductible.
■ Information, tickets:http://innovativeservicesnw.org.
Carol Springer occasionally runs into a child of hers on the street, all grown up and glad to reconnect. They tend to recognize her more than she recognizes them, she said, because they’ve changed so much since the childhood years when Springer was their mom.
Their foster mom, that is. Springer says there have been just under 660 of them across the past 37 years, so chance meetings are not that rare.
Springer, 69, is being honored for her extraordinary commitment to foster parenting -- especially for medically fragile or special-needs children -- with a Caring Heart award from Innovative Services Northwest. That’s a homegrown nonprofit agency that trains, educates and advocates for people of all ages with disabilities of all sorts.
Also being honored are transit agency C-Tran for its employment of people with disabilities, and the Andrus Family Fund for its support of young people who are aging out of foster care.
‘We’ll show you’
Springer started out as the champion baby sitter of her Orchards neighborhood, she said. After she married and had three children of her own, she started her own formal day care business -- and discovered she needed a license. That led her to the Department of Social and Health Services. And DSHS led her to fostering the neediest little beings she’d ever seen.
Some had just been removed from abusive homes by police or social workers, and showed up half-naked and sporting broken bones or other injuries. Some were awaiting needed surgery or were recovering from it. Across 37 years of fostering, four children actually died on Springer’s watch. You’d better believe there were investigations.
Why take on these profoundly challenged children, with all the accompanying troubles and heartaches? Because of the desperate need and the satisfaction of filling it.
“They had such sweet personalities. They were always appreciative,” she said. “I loved getting the ‘failure to thrive’ kids. It was like, ‘We’ll show you what we can do.’” She never pursued her formal nursing ambitions, she said, but she learned a ton about nursing in doing this work.
Truth be told, she added, in recent years she’s burned out on high-needs, high-stress children -- not to mention their parents. Springer was astonished, she said, by parents who literally walked away from a handicapped newborn in the hospital; who parked children with Springer in order to go enjoy their own carefree summer; or on the other hand, parents who felt violated by the child welfare system. Springer said she’s been threatened plenty of times by parents of the children she’s trying to nurture back to health.
“Some of the abuse is so extreme. I’m through with that now,” Springer said.
But she’s far from through with fostering -- and she’s full of happy tales of children who conquered the doomsday predictions that accompanied them to her home, now in Ariel, east of Woodland. Many stayed for weeks or months, but some stayed for years, she said. She and her husband adopted three as their own. And Springer has facilitated more legal adoptions by loving families she knows.
Springer’s favorite example of a foster child who arrived as an iffy infant and thrived beautifully is one she adopted as her own daughter: Tiffany, now 27.
“She shouldn’t be here,” Springer said. Born three months premature, Tiffany’s prognosis wasn’t good. “You could hold her in the palm of my hand, she was so tiny,” Springer said.
That tiny girl proved a fighter, and the Springers legally adopted her when she was 1. Tiffany grew up to be Springer’s right-hand woman, tending the children -- and sometimes Mom, as well.
“She was always there to help with the kids. She’s done as much for me as I ever did for her,” Springer said.
How was it, growing up amid a parade of other needy children? A mixed bag, Tiffany conceded.
“It showed me how to be a good parent,” she said. “There were jealousy moments, but you learn not to be jealous. You learn there are more people in the world than you. I think that’s good.”
Tiffany has always been a hard worker, usually holding down more than one job. She’s married and expecting a child; she’s also making Mom proud by aiming for the nursing program at Clark College.
“She did it all right,” Springer said. “She’s one of the good stories.”
“Carol is the walking, talking proof of the impact of early invention,” said Kathy Deschner, Innovative Services’ vice president for development and marketing. The agency provides pediatric therapies of all sorts -- speech, occupational, physical and educational. Over the years, the agency has seen plenty of Springer and her foster children.
“I have seen how hard she works to get the children the care they need, and I have seen how well it works out,” Deschner said. People like Springer, she added, “are the people quietly doing these amazing things, every day.”
Currently, six children live in the Springer home, ages 9 months to 24 years, plus Springer and her husband, who’s 79 years old and looking for a job after being laid off. There’s also an infant staying at Doernbecher Children’s Hospital in Portland, where Springer frequently visits.
Her day begins at 6 a.m., getting the kids ready for Yale Elementary School -- where individualized attention is excellent, she said. She sometimes drives upwards of 100 miles in a day, between medical and therapeutic appointments, legal visitations with parents (chaperoned at the Innovative offices) and the day-to-day staffing of an overfull house.
“The laundry is ridiculous,” Springer said. “If I let it go for one day, we’d be buried.”
Pay and support for foster parenting used to be a lot more generous, Springer said. Clothing allowances have been cut to the point that she and her husband are eyeballing the rule they set for themselves: Foster parenting is an acceptable livelihood as long as it isn’t a money-loser.
“It’s getting harder and harder,” Springer said. “If you’re in it for the money, forget it. But I can’t imagine not doing it. I don’t know what I would do.”
Springer will receive the EveAnn Classen Leadership Award, presented every year to someone who makes a difference in the lives of local children who are disabled or disadvantaged, or who defines service to local families.
Also being recognized at the event are C-Tran and the Andrus Family Fund.
C-Tran has long participated in Innovative Services’ Employment Services Program, providing “jobs, fair wages and benefits for individuals with disabilities,” according to a statement from Innovative Services.
The Andrus Family Fund, based in New York City, provides money, training and advocacy for young people aged 15-24 who are leaving or have left foster care. It has touched the lives of more than 375 foster youth in Clark County with $600,000 in grants over the last six years.