The river of mother's love that never runs dry
Andrea Smith talks to foster mum Rio Hegarty who has cared for over 140 children in need
'You have to remember that they're not your children, and they belong to other people," says incredible foster mum, Rio Hegarty (76).
"We're not all strong, and there but for the grace of God goes a lot of people. You're there to give the children as much love and nurturing as you can to help in a situation, and if there is a way back for them with their families, it's great.
"You miss them and you're very upset when they're gone, but sure you only ever have a loan of your own children anyway."
The remarkable Rio is chatting in the kitchen of her house in Clondalkin about her life as a foster mother.
Not just a regular one though, as aside from two children of her own who are now in their fifties, four grandchildren and four great-grandchildren, Rio has fostered more than 140 children on a long-term basis over the past 40 years.
"It began when a friend of mine wasn't able to look after her baby, and he was three days old when I took him. The most I ever had at any one time was 15 children."
While children are fostered for a variety of reasons, they can stay with their foster carers for anywhere from a few days until they reach adulthood. And indeed beyond, in Rio's case, as she currently has six young people aged from 13 to 25 under her roof.
"I can't get rid of the oldest fella," she jokes. "I'm having a raffle for him next week. Lots of them keep in touch, although there are some that you'd only hear from when they're in trouble.
"Some have children of their own and they drop in to visit, and others seem to think it's still their own home. They come in and open the fridge to see what's in there to eat!"
According to CEO designate Gordon Jeyes, of the HSE Children and Family Service, because of our growing population, foster carers are needed throughout the country, and particularly in larger urban areas.
At the recent launch of new fostering awareness campaign, Change a Life, Become a Foster Carer, he revealed that there are currently 4,292 foster carers providing care to 5,892 children nationally, a figure that naturally fluctuates.
Foster carers for young people aged eight to 18 are especially needed to provide a stable and caring home for children who cannot live with their own family at that time.
The unassuming Rio says that it is a hugely rewarding thing to do, which is why she was shocked to win the Inspiring Mum of the Year award at the 2010 People of The Year awards, organised by Rehab.
One of the worries that potential foster carers have is that they might encounter emotional situations that they can't handle.
'Well every child is different," she says, "and they all handle their problems in a different way. You have to watch and listen and be there for them and answer their questions, and let them know that no matter what they do, it's unconditional love that they'll get when they come in to the house.
"And when they begin to trust you, they'll come and pour out their problems to you with a big, long face on them and I listen.
"It's the ones that come in with the long faces and don't want to talk that you have to watch."
"Mind you, it can be a bit tiresome if they come in and sit at the side of the bed at two o'clock in the morning, and give you full details on what happened at some nightclub," she laughs.
Rio says that she made sure that the children in her care always knew that she was on their side, and if they did something wrong they weren't going to be 'hammered' at home over it.
She would dock their pocket money for misdemeanours, but they were given a chance to make it back up again by doing chores. A system that seems very sensible, given that it was fair and compassionate.
"I often let the children bake, and mother of Jesus, there would be flour everywhere, but you'd have to stand back and let them make the mess and not rush in to help.
"One of the guys I have now is 21 and he works in IT, but he's amazing at baking sponges that you'd die for. Mind you, he still doesn't wash up after himself!"
Unlike adoption, fostering is open to everyone, whether they are single, married or living with someone. Gordon Jeyes believes that what counts is having the passion, time and energy to make a difference to young people in times of need.
Over the years, Rio has heard some very sad stories, and says that it is really important to her that the children know that she will stand by them, "through thick and thin".
Some situations naturally upset her, and she admits that she is a very impulsive person who has been known to challenge wrong-doers on occasion.
'Sometimes what they tell you can be really heartrending," she says. "You feel that you would like to go out and murder whoever caused them to cry in their sleep, or be afraid of the dark, or just sit there and not eat.
"There are nights where I have cried for a child, when I'd hear what they experienced or witnessed, and find out what was preying on their little minds.
"I have a beautiful garden with a rockery down the back, and sometimes if I was upset, I'd go down and fling rocks at the back wall to ease the tension."
This passionate defence of her foster children made them feel secure and protected in her care.
And interestingly, she recalls how when any of them encountered trouble outside the home with other kids, her own foster children would leap in to defend them.
They may not have been a family by blood, but they were one in spirit.
The experience that Rio gained over four decades meant that not much escaped her notice. So when she discovered that one boy was being bullied at school, she sprang into action.
'I went to the school and waited until the bully came outside, and said, 'Do you know who I am?' to him. He said, 'Yeah, you're that bleedin' foster woman one.'
"So I replied, 'Yes I am, but I'm also a witch, and if you touch any of my kids or anyone else's kids again, I'll put a spell on you and your little man will wither and fall off.'
"He looked at me, shocked, and said he was going to tell his dad, so I told him that his dad's would fall off as well. The local sergeant then came to me saying that the child's family had made a complaint, so I told the sergeant that he was bullying the kids.
"I think he went and told the family that I had lifted the spell, but that child never bullied anyone again. And he used to cross the road whenever he saw me coming."
Rio says that now, at 76, she is slowing down a little, but she still loves to sing and does so at various venues. She wrote a book, 'Beneath My Wings', in 2011, which she is now revising as there are plans afoot to launch it abroad. And when asked what gives her the greatest satisfaction, she says that it gladdens her heart to see often disadvantaged young people grow into good adults.
"A lot of them have their own families now, and seeing how well they look after their own children gives me the greatest satisfaction," she smiles.
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