Anne Arundel's top foster parents opened their home, and their hearts

Lisa and Eric Grevin's southern Anne Arundel County home bustles with activity, with six children playing, doing homework and getting ready for dinner.

With three adopted children and three foster children, it's not exactly what the Grevins pictured when they decided to start a family — but now they say they couldn't imagine life any other way.

"It changed our lives," said Eric Grevin, 41, of the couple's decision to serve as foster parents. "It made our lives richer and fuller, and I'm so glad we did it."

The Grevins recently were named Foster Parents of the Year for Anne Arundel County and will be honored at a reception with Maryland first lady Katie O'Malley at Government House in Annapolis in June.

The Grevins embody all of the attributes of successful foster parents, said Cindy Root, their social worker with the county Department of Social Services. They're kind, dedicated and, above all, flexible.

The Grevins have taken in children in the middle of the night as well as the middle of the day. While they have six children now, all told, they've had 12 total come through their home.

"They're very flexible, and they seem to understand the kinds of things that [the children] need," Root said. "Their expectations of the children are very fair. They don't try to expect more from these kids than they can give."

The Grevins got into foster parenting after Lisa, 36, was diagnosed with cancer. She says she's healthy now, but during the early stages of her diagnosis, the couple considered fertility treatment as a means of having a family. Ultimately, they felt they could better help children who needed homes.

As Lisa, a former teacher, puts it: "We made lemonade out of lemons."

Becoming foster parents also gave Eric the chance to pay back the kindness he was shown as a teenager in Naperville, Ill., after his father died unexpectedly. His family struggled, lost their house and Eric said he ended up on his own at age 17.

Other families took him in and helped him with school and other needs. Today, he's an attorney who practices in Annapolis.

When the couple discussed foster parenting, "I was reminded of my own situation 20 years earlier," Eric said."I know what it's like not to have a roof over your head."

After going through training and earning certification from the Department of Social Services three years ago, the Grevins expected to be given a teenager — or teenagers — as foster children, because that's where the need is greatest.

As it turned out, the Department of Social Services had three younger siblings who needed a home. The Grevins had no toys or games for young kids, but after they made an appeal on Facebook, friends came through with an outpouring of donations.

"They went to bed that night, and my husband and I looked at each other like, 'What did we do?' " Lisa recalled.

Now those three siblings are permanently part of the Grevins family after being adopted: William, 11; Makayla, 10; and Cheyanne, 5.

The Grevins also care for a 12-year-old boy and a pair of sisters, ages 11 and 5. The children's names and photos can't be published because of Department of Social Services privacy rules.

It takes some work to integrate children into the family — sometimes they are there for a long stretch, and other times they may not stay very long if they can be reunited with birth families.

Sometimes children who aren't used to structure and attention have a tough time adopting to rules, such as the chore system that's laid out on brightly colored note cards or the savings system for money earned by doing extra chores, the Grevins said.

"It's emotionally very stretching for us. It's a balancing act," Eric said.

But struggles are well worth it when children make the honor roll or when they start calling them "Mommy" and "Daddy." Eric proudly shows off homemade Mother's Day cards the children made for Lisa this month.

Lisa said the most rewarding part of foster parenting is "just seeing the growth. It's slow and it's hard at the beginning, but they thank you in their own ways."

The Grevins encourage other families to consider foster parenting. They've been offering advice to other families at their church, Riva Trace Baptist Church, who are considering becoming foster parents.

Foster children sometimes get a bad reputation, but the Grevins say it's not the children's fault that they come from tough situations, such as broken families or incarcerated parents.

"A lot of people look at these kids and think they're different, but they're not," Lisa said.

Anne Arundel County has about 175 foster children and 100 foster families. There's always a need for families who can take in teenagers or groups of siblings, said Root, the social worker. Anyone interested in becoming a foster parent should call 410-897-3950 for information.

Becoming a foster parent involves an application process, multiple home visits and training. Foster parents are reimbursed for some of the costs of caring for children, but it's really a community service, Root said.

"We can always use foster families for children of all ages," she said.

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