Bouncing a young baby on her knee, Carolann Bullock glances at her husband Malcolm and smiles warmly as they recall their 22 years of fostering in Middlesbrough.
“The day that we don’t burst into tears when the little ones leave us, that’s the day we’ll know we’re probably ready to stop,” said Malcolm.
Over the years, more than 200 children have been welcomed with open arms, showered with love and warmth and understanding, by the pair and their family.
“I see it as a privilege. These children just need a helping hand, they need a decent start in life,” Carolann says, as the baby boy on her knee coos happily and another sleeps soundly in the next room.
And it’s an honour for us to play a little part in that.”
When the couple became foster parents more than two decades ago, they led the busy lives of working parents with their own young children that thousands in Middlesbrough will be familiar with.
But during this year’s Foster Care Fortnight, the couple say there’s no better time than now for families to start their own fostering journey.
“Everyone always thinks they’re too busy to start, but it was without doubt the best thing we’ve ever done,” said Malcolm.
“One thing people have always asked me is – ‘did it affect your own children?’
“I’d say the opposite – they all blossomed with it. They’ve always been supportive.”
Instead of decreasing through being shared more ways, it seems, the love in Malcolm and Carolann’s house has only multiplied as more children come through their door.
“When ours were younger, we’d ask them before every child arrived if we should have a break,” remembers Carolann.
“But they’d say ‘NO!’. They loved it. They’d come home from school asking if there was going to be a new baby at home.”
Over the years the couple have taken in children of all ages – sometimes temporarily for hours or weeks, but some for months or even years.
Carolann and Malcolm now mainly look after young babies, some of whom have been born with a dependency on drugs.
“They need love and affection just like any other child,” said Carolann, who’s 52.
“It’s hard for the babies as their bodies are withdrawing, but with our experience we know how to help, and know that they’ll get through it.
“A lot of children who come into care have had a difficult start – there’s a few sleepless nights for us at first, but we say it’s not a job, it’s a vocation and we support each other.”
The pair are modest, but are aware they’re changing lives - Carolann has just received a video call from the family of a young boy they’d recently fostered, on his birthday. She and Malcolm were asked to be the boy’s Godparents.
They make a bond with children at the most vulnerable point in their lives – and remain involved with those they help, where they can.
“You always know when the schools are back, as Carolann’s phone will light up and go non-stop,” said Malcolm, proudly.
“It’s messages from families sending pictures of the little ones in their new school uniform.”
Carolann continues: “It’s gorgeous, when we can get the kids back with their family or when we see them move on to another lovely foster family, or when they’re adopted.
“I love seeing every single one.”
Not long ago, a man in his 20s – now with a family of his own – contacted Carolann out of the blue to thank them for the time he spent with them as a young boy.
Others still come to the house to visit, while one girl likes to look round the bedroom she lived in.
“What you’ve got to remember, is the things that our kids take for granted feel out of this world to some children,” said Malcolm, 56.
“We just introduce some routine, some order, and some love into their lives.
“I’ve had children tell us that they’re just naughty, but we don’t use that word. No child is ever born naughty. Everyone deserves a childhood and a family.
“We need a sense of humour, and a bit of patience, but after a couple of weeks of proper bedtimes and knowing when they’ll eat a meal, it’s amazing how quickly they become part of the family.”
Malcolm continued: “We get incredible training and support from Middlesbrough Council, I would urge anyone who thinks they can help to give it a go.
“We’re also involved in the Middlesbrough Fostering Association and we speak to other foster carers regularly, for support, advice, and just to be with people who have gone through it too.”
Middlesbrough Council’s Fostering Service is always in need of new carers who could give a new home to one child, or brothers and sisters.
The service is also looking for people to provide Supported Lodgings for teenagers who are ready to leave care.
If you could change a child’s life, you can find all the information you need here on the Fostering for Middlesbrough website.
Rachel Farnham, Director of Children’s Care at Middlesbrough Council, said: “Malcolm and Carolann are such a wonderful example of Middlesbrough’s amazing foster care network.
“Foster Care Fortnight shines a spotlight on them, but the fantastic work they do all year round is hugely appreciated by the young people whose lives are changed by the love and support they show.
“But there are always going to be lots of children in Middlesbrough that need a loving home, and we need new people to follow in the footsteps of Malcolm and Carolann and become foster carers themselves.”