Ever wanted to give back to society in some way? Perhaps your kids have left home, you've cut back your hours at work and you're looking for something to do with your time. So why not become a foster carer?

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare's most recent figures, 17,415 children were in need of foster care in June 2013 - a big number for a small population like Australia's.

And the organisations that place these children are always looking for new volunteers, regardless of age, race, marital status, location or income.

In fact, older couples who have finished raising their own children or are enjoying retirement often make ideal candidates.

"Someone with a wealth of life experience will have the capability and the ability to look after foster children," explains Manisha Amin, Barnardos' director of marketing and fundraising. "This is especially true for adolescents - they need someone who is sensible and practical.

"Foster parents come in all shapes and sizes. We're not looking for celebrities - sometimes everyday people are the most extraordinary."

Read on to find out whether foster care is a good option for you.

What does fostering involve?

Foster kids tend to come from complicated family environments where drug and alcohol use, domestic violence, sexual abuse or mental health issues may have been present. While a suitable, permanent home is being found for them, they need somewhere safe to stay - that's where foster carers come in.

There are a range of care types, and not all of them are long-term or even full-time. Crisis care is often required at short notice for children at risk of significant harm; short-term or temporary placements can range anywhere from a few days to up to two years, while respite or weekend care usually requires you to look after a child for one weekend a month.

Of you're after something long-term, permanent foster care is also needed for kids who have been separated from their birth families due to safety issues.

The day-to-day role of a foster parent isn't much different from taking care of your own child. All children need a safe home, regular meals, clothing, somewhere to sleep, medical care and above all else, love.

Manisha acknowledges that some people may be apprehensive.

"It can seem a bit daunting and scary at the beginning, because you don't know what you're going to get," she says.

"But the key thing to remember is that children are children - they all crave a safe place that they can call home. Anyone who can provide that for a child is doing something that is immeasurable."

Do I need to meet certain requirements?

"One of the misconceptions about foster care is that there are a lot of rules and regulations that disqualify people," says Manisha.

"But at Barnardos, we look for people who can care for a child first and foremost, and then look at the requirements surrounding them and the child to find the perfect match."

It helps if you count patience, kindness, open-mindedness and tenacity among your qualities, and keep in mind that different lifestyles will suit different kinds of care.

For example, if you travel frequently, you might opt for temporary short-term or respite care, or if you work full-time, a teenager will require less supervision that a young child.

The only rules are that you must be over 21, non-smokers are preferred and some criminal convictions may count you out. Otherwise, anyone can apply - young or old, singles, de facto couples, married or same-sex couples, and people with or without children.

How do I apply?
If you live in NSW or the ACT, head to the Barnardos Australia website (We Care) where you can take the charity's interactive quiz to see if fostering suits you. Or telephone 1800 663 441 to talk it through with someone.

"It can take up to six months to be approved as a foster carer, then anywhere from a few days to a few months to match the appropriate child, depending on what kind of care you're providing," says Manisha.

For potential foster carers living in other states, you should contact the following organisations:

Will I receive any training or support?
Most foster care organisations provide financial reimbursement based on the age of the child and the type of care
provided. This money goes towards feeding and clothing them, and meeting their other needs.

"Barnardos also provides material goods, like cots, prams and kids' car seats, along with training and access to a wider community of carers," explains Manisha.

But the biggest support will come from your case manager.

"We make sure our carers are cared for," adds Manisha. "We're available 24/7 — you can ring us at any time, day or night, and someone will be there to help you."

Case Study

Donna from Grays Point NSW has fostered 18 children through Barnardos Australia.

Donna, 52, from Grays Point, NSW, shares her foster care journey so far...

"My husband and I already had five children - our youngest was in year one - when we received a flyer from Barnardos saying there was a shortage of foster carers in our area. I showed my husband, and he said, "Are you insane?" But I love babies and I knew caring for them was something I was good at, so we thought we'd try it with one child and see how it went.

That was seven years ago, and in that time we've cared for 18 children aged from eight weeks to nine years old.

Sometimes it's for just a few weeks, other times for a year or more.

I've learned so much from these kids. The things that your own children take for granted - like what's for dinner or
getting new clothes - are a big deal to kids in foster care.

Don't get me wrong, life is busy and it's not all rosy. When I'm ironing school uniforms at midnight sometimes I ask
myself, Why do I do this? But it's like motherhood -you don't love all the bits, but most of it's pretty good.

People say to me, "I couldn't do foster care because I couldn't give them back." I reply, "Yes you could!" It's like when you have your friends' kids to stay - you never think of them as yours. I'm sad when the foster kids go, but most of the time they go to something better. Some keep in touch, some don't, and although it'd be lovely to know how they are, at the end of the day I just want them to have a chance."

(This article was first published in Yours, Sydney magazine on 14 May, 2015)

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