An inspirational couple from Draperstown have been named Northern Ireland's Foster Carers of the Year.

Patricia and Colm Gray have been fostering for 11 years as well as running a busy sheep farm and raising four children of their own.

And the big-hearted Draperstown family have helped to care for 37 people over the years, including toddlers, teenagers and mothers with babies.

The Fostering Network gave them the top accolade for 2018 at the Foster Carer of the Year awards held in the Hilton Hotel in Belfast last Saturday night (May 13).

Mrs Gray previously worked in adult care before leaving to look after her children. Later on, wanting to offer something extra during school hours, a social worker recommended she become a foster carer.

“Within five months I took in a newborn baby and the rest is history,” she said.

"We have some that are with us for just a few days and the longest was two brothers who came for the weekend and stayed for over two years. You just take it as it comes.”

Trust, she says, is the biggest hurdle for the children who come from many different backgrounds. "It's an alien environment. Even if their home was bad, that's what they knew.

“Over time the barriers do come down and they'll form attachments to me, Colm or the kids. We've been very lucky.”

The family still keep in regular contact with nearly all of their previous foster children.

“It’s so sad when they leave, especially when you've had them from a baby. It’s heartbreaking but at the same time it's so nice to see a new wee family starting. You see a couple's house become a home.

“The adoptive parents of one of the babies is actually building a house two fields away from us so we speak to them all the time, it’s amazing.”

There are currently 2,100 foster families in Northern Ireland, with a demand for 200 more this year.

Mrs Gray urged anyone thinking about becoming a foster parent to contact their nearest recruitment office straight away.

“There's no job better. We've had children coming in scared and who didn't know what vegetables were. One of them called broccoli curly grass, so we called it that too and before he left he was loving curly grass.

“The boy we have at the moment didn't have great reading, but now he's sitting right at the top of the class.

“But for me, it’s not those achievements, it's the fact he can just slob out on the sofa. He sings in the shower too and I think it's the best sound in the world. When he first came to us he didn't want to be seen or talked to. Hearing them giggling is just amazing, when you think of the difference you can make.

“When you see them leave they’re different people in a good way. That's not always the case with foster-caring but we have been very lucky,” she said.

Unusually, the couple received three nominations from a fellow foster carer and two social workers who praised their ability to bring out the best in children.

Social worker Laura Cummings said: “Patricia has an innate insight into reading children, recognising when something is wrong; and she can adapt her responses to the child based on how they are feeling on that day.”

Another social worker added: “The couple provide a warm, caring and loving home which enables children and young people to thrive and develop.”

Kathleen Toner, director of The Fostering Network in Northern Ireland, said of the Grays: “Their commitment and determination to support children in foster care is inspirational.”

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