Vicki and Don Darland of Scio just kind of fell into being foster parents. It happened that a couple from their church asked the Darlands if they could babysit the child they were fostering.
“We kind of knew him. He was a cool kid so we said, we can take him for the weekend. When the couple came back, they said, ‘Hey, you have a cool house and five acres, you could do this,’” Don said.
Don and Vicki talked about it and then took a foster care training in Linn County.
“It didn’t seem too bad, so we went ahead and got our certificate. Then, got our first placement – the first placement is the easiest. And then we just kept doing what we were doing.”
That was 30 years ago. The Darlands have since fostered more than 70 children.
The couple concentrated on special needs and medically fragile children. Vicki, 69, is a nurse who served as an Army Medic from 1970 to 1973. The this helped in caring for children with medical needs, many needing moment-to-moment care. Don Darland, 66, a former U.S. Marine, has quadriplegia and uses a wheelchair. The couple also concentrated on getting the children back to their parents or other relatives.
“Our whole push was to get them back home. We concentrated hard on the biologic parents or relatives. We wanted to meet these folks, but sometimes it was just a card saying who we are. We made it clear we are here to help you get your child back. But we also said we’ll be the first to take them back if needed,” Don said.
Almost all the parents or relatives came to the Darlands house to spend time with their children. Several mothers came every day to breast feed their babies. Others, such as one of the last families they worked with, the parents and grandparents would spend three to four hours at their home just being with their child.
Don speaks slowly and softly and with a sense of humor. He talked about what he has learned in fostering so many children: “We’ve learned a lot of patience. Also, we had to think outside the box to manage some behaviors. We learned to develop relationships with case managers and therapists.”
As with any child raising, there were difficult moments.
But Vicki explained, “We are a faith-based home but we also talk it through together if there are difficult moments. We also have talked with other foster parents.”
Don says, “We learned to not be so rigid. For example, at first my wife had certain rules around the dinner table. But then you find out that some of these kids have a disorder eating – not an eating disorder — because they’ve been starved. Early on that was a shock to us. Some had never eaten at a table. They would start gorging their food. Finally, a caseworker said, ‘Vicki, you don’t need to feed them that much. Just give them a good plate of food, even seconds, but don’t let them start stuffing food.’ Some will eat until they throw up. Other behaviors – you just accept it. We’d just say OK, that’s new, I can handle that, and we’d move on.”
One little girl gave the Darlands their proudest moments. When she came to them, she had not learned to talk, had no training at all about living in a home, and had not had much adult or any people interaction. She kicked out at things, including the Darlands. She even kicked out some windows of their house with her bare feet. But that didn’t deter the Darlands from trying to help her and in loving her. Don started taking her for ice cream in town.
“Eventually, when I would ask her if she wanted to go for ice cream, she would say, ‘i cream, i cream,’ and she would go buckle herself in our van and we’d go for ice cream. It was one of my biggest joys and proudest moments. She just stole my heart even though she was the toughest. We had her 19 months and the improvement we saw in her… I just loved her to death. I wish I knew where she was,” Don said.
Several of the children still keep in touch with the Darlands. Many have their own children now. Photographs of the children who lived with them cover their dining room walls.
It should also be noted that Don Darland is the co-founder of the Oregon Foster Parent Association, which was created in 1997. He still serves as treasurer but has also served as the president.
The couple has received accolades for their work fostering children. In 2007 they received the Commissioners Award from the Administration for Children and Families of the Department of Health and Human Services.
They also received this special letter of thanks from the Director of the Oregon Department of Human Services Child Welfare Division Rebecca Jones Gaston, “Your advocacy philosophy in many workgroups, and steering or advisory committees over the years has resonated: rules without relationships leads to rebellion. Without establishing a relationship or commonality with a child or a parent, adding more rules will not be successful. The commonality you have both shared with others is children have the right to be safe, nurtured and well cared for and it is the responsibility of all the adults involved to keep this a priority.”
Angela Dahlke, Child Welfare Social Service Specialist who has most recently worked with the Darlands describes their special talents:
“I’ve thought a lot about what makes Don and Vicki so well equipped to care for kids in need because I’d like others to have the same courage and love. We need more people like them. Getting to know them has inspired me to expand my own comfort zones and to ask myself if I am saying yes enough to my own potential to make positive changes. While Vicki and Don are each educated and disciplined individuals who have worked hard to develop themselves, I think the reasons for their success as resource parents has more to do with their partnership, attitude and open hearts. They embrace what comes to them together whether it’s a stray kittens they found under their home, case workers navigating difficult conversations or fellow resource parents. Meeting the needs of children is always their priority. When I first began working with Vicki and Don, I was well aware they were experienced and knowledgeable leaders, in addition to continuing resource parents. Don has a strong presence. I thought I’d need to be careful. Once I got to know them, I realized that, while they are fierce advocates, they use difficult circumstances and different opinions as an opportunity for positive development of people and systems.”-Angela Dahlke
Many case workers and now supervisors with Child Welfare wrote letters to the Darlands as they departed
The Darlands are retiring. They’ll be enjoying the grandchildren from their own three children.
“It has been a feeling of great accomplishment. Also, a feeling of being blessed to have helped children,” Vicki said.
As the Don looks back on their life helping children and their families, he said, “We don’t regret a bit.”