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Conway makes a great example of foster parenting
There’s never a dull moment in Kelly Conway’s house.
In fact, for the past two decades, her home has been a lively epicenter for foster children, and, now, her adopted children. The east Bremerton single mom estimates she’s fostered more than 40 children -- not including the ones she’s had for just a day or two -- and at the end of the day, she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Doing foster care and adoption is one of the best things I’ve ever done,” she said. “I don’t know what my life would be like (if I hadn’t done it).”
November was National Adoption Month, and there’s no one better to talk about adoption than Conway, an enthusiastic, no-nonsense mother who wants nothing but the best for her children. She’s adopted seven children -- now ranging in age from 23 to nine -- and one already has moved on out of the house on his own.
All -- at one time or another -- were foster children in her home. Now, they’re hers, forever and ever, she said.
“Kelly is one of the strongest women I know. She has high standards for how kids should be treated and wants only the best for them,” said Naomi Nichols, president of Kitsap Foster Care Association. “She is willing to fight for them. I really look up to her as someone that I can ask questions to about how the system works or what I should do in certain situations.”
Conway, who has a degree in criminal justice and sociology with a minor in political science, is a ball of energy and loves a good challenge. She’ll proudly admit she can feed a household with several kids for $150 a month with her extreme couponing habits.
“I won’t buy anything full price if I don’t have to,” she said, shaking a box of cake mix she got for 40 cents. “I won’t do it.”
And although she is technically a single mother, she still has help from her ex, who just happens to live across the street from her. They still go on family vacations together, and anytime she needs help, she knows it only takes a phone call or a walk across the street to get some.
“We do everything together,” she said. “It’s what’s best for the kids. They don’t have to choose.”
Her family has always been supportive, even if they don’t always understand why she keeps fostering, she said.
“I have huge family support,” she said. “They welcome every kid who comes into my house. I love it because this is really important to me. Our family does everything together.”
Conway worked for the Kitsap County juvenile court and then Kitsap Mental Health after graduating college. What she saw broke her heart and convinced her that she had to do something to help the victims she was seeing.
A young boy went through 10 homes in two years right in front of her eyes.
“It killed me,” Conway said.
She couldn’t stand seeing the torment of instability he was subject to, and, as a result, took guardianship of him for a little while. That was when she and her partner knew they should adopt, she said. They got licensed to care for young adolescent boys, and that’s when the phone calls started.
“They started calling us constantly for kids,” she said.
At one point, eight teenage boys were in the house. Even if things may have been overwhelming, Conway just remembered her ultimate goal was to give kids a “normal childhood,” she said.
In 2011, U.S. Department of Health & Human Services data shows 1,568 children were adopted across the state of Washington. However, 9,460 children were entered into foster care during that same year.
That’s where people like Conway step in.
Even now, with six adopted children and one foster child in the house, her schedule is hectic. The children all have different needs, and, as a result, go to different schools --- one child as far as Tacoma. Two of her children are autistic, and regardless of their abilities, she tells all the children that education is a priority in her household.
For Conway, the progress of the children in her care is the most rewarding aspect of being a mother. She remembers one little boy in particular who wouldn’t leave the fridge alone.
Usually, when a kid stands with the fridge wide open for several minutes, she’ll tell them to grab what they want and shut it. This foster child continuously opened the fridge even when he wasn’t hungry.
Finally, Conway asked him what was going on.
“I just wanted to make sure food is still there,” he told her.
She closed the fridge and then took him out to the garage to see her other food storage places -- shelves and extra freezers -- and told him he’d never have to worry about food. After that, the opening of the fridge door became less and less, she said.
Although finding the truth out about her childrens’ backgrounds can be painful, it is essential for Conway to know what they went through so she can try and help them, she said. Some of the children receive counseling, and one of her own main goals is to work on their social skills. She often finds the children she adopted asking her if they can do certain things.
May I have a snack? Can I use the restroom?
“What puts a smile on my face is watching their confidence improve,” Conway said. “I love finding out about these kids.”
One way she does that is as soon as they walk in the door from school or other extra curricular activities. She won’t let the kids come in and head straight to their rooms. They have to tell her about their day and show their day planner to her. Then, they all sit around and do homework for a few hours before having dinner.
“We’re very organized here,” she said. If papers to be signed aren’t on the counter in the evening, it won’t be signed the next morning, Conway guarantees. She wants to teach responsibility with her tough ways.
Another way Conway discovers more about her children is keeping in touch with their biological parents. While most came from impoverished backgrounds, she wants her children to know where they came from. She invites biological family to school functions and birthday parties.
“They have all been to our house,” she said. “We call them family.”
Even the one foster child she has now is considered part of the family, no matter how long she may stay, said Conway. Although the ultimate goal is always to reunite the child with their family, it isn’t always easy.
Conway describes it as a family having a new addition like a baby to the family.
“Our joy is someone else’s severe pain,” she said.
When the kids ask if they were given up because they weren’t loved, Conway tells them it is quite the contrary. She reminds them it is because they were loved so much that they were given the opportunity to have the best life possible.
Despite others who tell her that the children are lucky to have been adopted by her, Conway believes it is the other way around.
“I did not give birth to these kids. There was no guarantee these kids were mine,” she said.
At the end of the day, she knows they love being a part of the family. Some of her children tell her they’re considering adopting in the future.
“I don’t know what I’m gonna do when they’re all grown. I’m not sure I’m enjoying that thought,” she said. “I would encourage anyone who is interested in having children to adopt or foster.”
As of July 2013 estimates, there are 399,546 children in foster care across the U.S., according to a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families report.
To learn more about foster care, attend a Kitsap Foster Care Association meeting the third Wednesday of each month, from 6-8 p.m. The meetings are located at 1410 Ohio Ave. in Bremerton.