In 1988, Bernie and Craig Birchall, and their three boys began fostering for Durham CAS. There have been many changes since then. Craig passed away in 1996, and the boys have grown up and moved out, but Bernie remains a dedicated foster parent, having cared for over 230 children…so far.
Initially, Bernie wanted to care for a young girl, but over the years the family evolved to caring for boys age five to ten. She often cared for four foster children, therefore managing a household of seven boys all on her own. An incredible accomplishment by any measure!
Last year, Bernie was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Foster Parent Society of Ontario after being nominated by her sons. In their nomination, they said, “Having had a challenging upbringing similar to many foster children, Bernie still doesn’t know where her drive comes from. We believe it to be her focus on the one thing she has always mentioned: she simply wanted each child to have the experience of being in a loving home.”
Indeed, when the family initially applied to foster, Bernie said “I feel I have something to offer children – to give them some hope, a better outlook on life, security, love and understanding. I feel if I can help a child grow and develop in some way, it might make the difference later in their life. Every child is an individual and has something special about them.”
Bernie and her family demonstrated their dedication to children in their care by always sharing their home, involving them in family activities, and participating in school events. They involved the children’s biological family in their lives whenever they could; and they respected the children’s relationships, feelings and loyalty to their family. Bernie has worked with many biological parents, helping them to build successful relationships.
Over the years, Bernie enhanced her skills and began caring for children with special needs. She is now recognized as an expert at managing many challenging behaviours and advocating for children’s needs. She supports children through therapy, while they navigate peer and family relationships, and as they plan for the future.
Bernie is also recognized by many other community service providers and the courts for her professional manner, and meticulous dedication to the needs of the child. Everyone who has worked with her agrees that she is cooperative, patient, helpful and insightful.
Bernie provides structure and stability which is greatly needed by many children we serve. She recognizes the potential of children and sets expectations through consistency, modelling of appropriate behaviour, and ongoing positive reinforcement. She is often cited as a fundamental partner in the planning for children’s futures and ensuring children’s cultural needs are met and encouraged.
“All children have the same basic needs: love and structure. The details may vary, but there is always that common basic need. We just need to work with each child and appreciate their differences,” says Bernie.
While Bernie’s supportive and consistent manner provides a stable and indispensable foundation for children in her care, it is also a great asset when working within a system involving a variety of service providers planning for the best interest of the child.
When asked about the impact that fostering had on her sons, Bernie says that they experienced a lot of different stresses, and grew up knowing people from a variety of backgrounds which only made them better people. She believes that they are much more emotionally aware and have much greater appreciation of others regardless of their backgrounds.
Her son, Robert agrees. “When we were young, it was sometimes hard to understand everything that was happening. As we grew older, we came to appreciate the benefit of our experiences. We are more considerate of others’ struggles. We are more patient and understanding and able to see the world through different eyes.”
Upon reflection of her experiences, Bernie reiterates the same sentiment that she included in her application almost thirty years ago, “I’ve learned that no matter how little you have there is always someone who has less. Don’t judge. Get to know people and their circumstances. Help others wherever possible, even in a small way.”
We’d like to thank Bernie for her dedication to the children we serve, and echo what her sons said in their nomination, that Bernie deserves to be recognized for all the incredible things she does every day.
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