Forty-five kids in 25 years: Lancashire super-parents on the heartbreak, pride, and life-changing experience of fostering
"We still had younger nieces and nephews who were toddler-age and who came to see us regularly, but we missed that feeling of watching young kids opening their presents on Christmas Day and seeing them get all excited." says Andy, 58. "That's what we wanted. So we got in touch with the council."
Spurred on by the kids' 'pure joy', as they put it, Andy and Helen registered with the National Fostering Group (NFG), a collection of local and independent fostering agencies which works with local authorities to provide safe and nurturing environments for children in need. Over the intervening 25 years, they have gone on to foster some 45 children and have never once looked back.
"It was always something Helen wanted to do - a pal of hers was a foster parent, too,” says Andy. “I was working seven days a week in construction to put bread and butter on the table, but Helen wanted to do more, so we went through the training, which was an eye-opener, to be honest. But there was never any hesitation.
"As soon as we'd done the training and gone through panel, we got a phone call later the same day saying there was a little lad coming," adds Andy, with there being some 83,000 kids in care in the UK at any one time. "Straight away, it felt natural because we treated him as if he was one of our own as soon as he came through the door.
“It was just a case of 'right little fella, let's see what you're like and get used to each other',” he continues. "People who foster who've never had kids around must find it really strange having this little human being in their house, but we've always had our own kids, nephews and nieces, and cousins around our place.
"He was a little bugger, actually!” Andy says with a laugh. “He'd go round switching electrical switches on and off and I had to watch Shrek about a 100 times. But he was brilliant. Then his little brother joined us and it was great having two little fellas about. They were with us two-and-a-half years before they got adopted."
Talk turns to the gut-wrenching reality for foster parents everywhere: that the kids who they grow to love like their own - the lives which they help to shape, improve, and nurture - can be swiftly taken away from them at any time.
"I was absolutely wounded," says Andy of how he felt when the boys left. "A big gruff, tough builder like me crying my eyes out on the doorstep… But that's part and parcel of it - now it's happened a few times, I'm a bit more used to it. But it still hurts because you form a bond with the kids. Even when they're 18, seeing them with their suitcases and saying goodbye after so many years...
"It leaves a big gap," he adds after a brief pause. "But that gap is soon filled because there's just not enough carers. And we feel that sense of parental affection straight away - my saying has always been 'give me the boy until he's seven, and I'll show you the man'. That being said, we've had lads come at nine or 10 who've been ruined by what they've seen, the poor souls.”
"What they've been through... I'll be setting the table at Christmas and you can see some kids watching you thinking 'what are you doing?' because they've never had a Christmas dinner," he says. "Being able to give them family stuff like that that makes it all worthwhile. And the emotional payoff and the pride you feel when you see kids thrive..."
Struck by a sudden wave of inspiration, Andy flicks his mobile on to speakerphone and quickly explains that his daughter, a girl he and Helen fostered for 16 years, is there visiting him at that very moment. As soon as talk turns to her, the pride in his voice shines through.
"My daughter struggled with school and, at 15, went through all the boy drama, so we didn't know whether she'd go one way or another," he says. "But we persuaded her how important education was and she stuck with it, finished sixth form, and turned into a really smart young lady who went to uni and passed with distinctions. She's got a high-flying job in IT now.
"She's an amazing human being," he adds. "She comes home quite a bit and we're just so proud - when we went to watch her graduate, we were so, so proud that day. It's all about moments like that. Her sister, on the other hand, left us after taking the wrong route, for want of a better explanation. She left under circumstances which weren't the best.
"But she came back," Andy continues. "She's now 21 and we're the proud grandparents to her child - when she asked if we'd be nanny and grandad, it was just so moving. It's lovely."
Admitting that the process has its ups and downs due to the typically tumultuous nature of foster children's lives, Andy and Helen - who themselves have 11 biological grandchildren to boot - say that the key to foster care is offering kids security and love. Give them that, Andy insists, and you'll change lives for the better.
"Treating them as if they're your own and giving them routine along with firm boundaries is the key to providing a good foster home," says Andy. "Some of these kids have never had boundaries and routines before and they actually like it! We had one girl with us for 10 years who's now 19 and she'll still say 'Andy, are you making Sunday dinner?'
"I'll just say 'get yourself round here'," he adds with a chuckle. "That's why they'll always consider this their home. We've got two brothers and two sisters at the moment and it's a lovely household."
It's almost impossible to quantify the impact Andy and Helen have had on the dozens of children they have fostered and cared for over the decades. Forthright and assured in all his answers, the only question which gives Andy momentary pause for thought is what fostering has taught him. But, after a moment, he answers.
"Fostering has taught me that, compared to some kids, I was quite privileged in my upbringing and I took things for granted," says Andy. "We get some kids turning up with a carrier bag and nothing else, so we want to share what we've got with them, because lots of them have never even had a cuddle or anyone who actually wanted to be nice to them. It's awful.
"There are kids out there who have had it tough, but they're tough themselves," he continues. "To anyone considering fostering, I'd say that the pride of having someone ask you to do them the honour of being nanny and grandad to their child is like nothing else in this world.
“Trying your best can make a big difference to a young person's life,” Andy says. “Because it changes their life entirely."