By Jenn Watt
Published Feb. 16 2017
Sylvia and George Claridge met Anthony just when they thought they were through with fostering children. They had moved up north to their place nestled in the forests of Algonquin Highlands and intended to retire maybe do some travelling. They had been foster parents for nearly two decades and it seemed like the right time to settle into a slower pace.
The couple had spent their lives taking in children with disabilities and serious illness – many palliative – along with other short-term placements when they lived in Markham. George worked in sound mixing for TV and radio and Sylvia stayed home with the kids. Now that they were in the Highlands they were being asked to help with one more case.
“They called a few times” Sylvia recalls cradling a cup of coffee in her hands as she sits with George in their cozy Highlands home. They exchange knowing glances and ready smiles as they remember their dilemma some 22 years ago.
The Catholic Children’s Aid Society said the boy was four years old and only drinking Ensure for sustenance. His body was shutting down the Claridges were told.
“Anthony didn’t die. Life went on and he improved. He turned five” Sylvia says.
So they enrolled him at Archie Stouffer Elementary School in Minden. It turned out that he was bright and a good reader.
Anthony has spinal muscular atrophy. It’s a disease that usually shortens the lifespan to early adolescence. Today Anthony is 26 has a bachelor’s degree lives in Ottawa and plays powerchair hockey with the league there. He is working on his master’s degree.
“He adopted us as his parents” Sylvia says. “He’s a neat guy. He has George’s sense of humour.”
Anthony’s appearance in the Claridges’ lives spurred on another 15 years of fostering. Over the years they have likely taken in a “couple hundred” children some of them overnight some of them for many months and others for years. The children now grown adults keep in touch and several of them consider George and Sylvia their parents.
It all started back in the mid-’70s.
“We had four children and our oldest was born in 1960 and the last was born in 1969. When he went to school … I was going to go back to work” Sylvia explains. “At that time in the Toronto Star they used to have pictures of children that were looking for adoptive homes. … Our kids came upon this and said Mom this is the perfect job for you.”
Her four young ones two boys and two girls wanted Sylvia to be there when they came home for lunch. Sylvia had already done some volunteering at a day nursery for developmentally delayed children; it was an interest of hers.
They ended up taking in a two-year-old girl with Down Syndrome named Gigi.
“She was the only one we had for a long time” Sylvia says. Gigi stayed with the Claridges for most of her life with some periods when she lived in a group home. When they retired to the Highlands Gigi was in a group home in Richmond Hill which she wasn’t fond of so they brought her north with them.
“Her health started to deteriorate quite a bit” she says. “We decided in our wisdom to bring her up here.”
Gigi lived in Extendicare until she was 43. When it was obvious that she was going to die the Claridges brought her to their home.
Throughout the four decades with Gigi many other children shared their lives with the Claridges.
“We started doing some relief for parents who had children who were disabled” Sylvia says of the early days. “We ended up having palliative care and special needs children was our focus for foster care.”
Each time a new child with a different need came into their care there would be training on how to navigate the particulars of that illness or disability. And the biological children learned a lot too.
“They were very involved with every child we had. They learned a lot of empathy” she says. “There’s a lot of things they learned that you cannot tell a child: you don’t pity someone who is disabled; they are the same as you me or anyone else. … Our kids learned that. Every one of them have a lot of compassion for people who are disabled.”
The most children they had in the house was five but most of the time there were two foster kids at once.
While there were plenty of happy times the nature of fostering is that sometimes the children are dealing with serious challenges – not only with their health but also with their biological family or the social services they’ve encountered along the way. It has led to some behavioural issues amongst some kids and means foster parents need to be flexible and open to change.
And not too precious about material things.
“You have to be adaptable” George says.
“You don’t get upset too much when someone smashes your table and breaks it” Sylvia laughs. Or when a teenager learning to drive creams the side of your car. There have been a couple of those.
George mostly smiles and nods as Sylvia talks about the foster children but he was also in for the ride over the years putting in hours with the kids.
A lesson he learned was that you have to find your own solutions to problems. There was one boy they were fostering in the later years in Haliburton County who was having a hard time controlling his anger.
George got the idea that maybe taking him for a run would do some good. So he grabbed his hand and together they ran as far as they could down the country road outside their home. When the boy got tired they reduced to a jog and then to a walk until they had made it all the way around the country block.
“We would do that. He would settle down and start talking normally and looking around at things and commenting on where he was. He was really calm. I didn’t have to shout at him. I did that a number of times and it always worked” George says. “After a while the upset times got shorter. He’d be calm. We’d still go around the block [though].”
George says he has always held two principles when it came to foster children: “you’ve got to make them safe … and you’ve got to make them feel they’re safe.”
And then there were the children who came to the couple at the end of their lives. Children’s aid would tell them not to get attached but Sylvia says that was impossible.
“You realize that more and more everyone deserves to have someone who actually ares. If you’re holding them at arm’s length you’re not caring” Sylvia says. “I could never do that.”
Belief in God is the foundation onto which their lives’ work has been built Sylvia says. They are members of St. Peter’s Church and “could not have done this without huge faith.”
Watching the paths the children’s lives have taken has been one of the rewards of fostering for the couple.
“It’s been a nice road” Sylvia says.