Three children bounce together on a trampoline. They hold hands and sing Ring A Ring o' Roses before collapsing in a heap on top of each other, in a fit of giggles.
Three children who, dare I say, have become inseparable. Three peas in a pod. A deep friendship forged over months of almost daily play, and a shared love of the adults who nurture and protect them. Yet even as we watch them chase each other around the garden, on a glorious late afternoon in Spring, we know that wheels are in motion that will split this friendship asunder.
For these three children were not meant to be friends. If life had taken its normal course, and if all children could grow up safely and happily with their own families, this idyllic scene playing out in the Sussex countryside would never have happened. These three children come from different families, whose lives were destined to spin in a different orbit. One is our grandson, not yet three. His cherished playmates are our foster children, older by a year or two. They came into our lives, frightened and disoriented, their meagre belongings packed into random bags, not knowing where they were nor how long they would be staying. We were simply the latest strangers to become responsible for their care.
But days became weeks, and the weeks became months. As grown-up sought to make sense of the chaotic lives our foster children had left behind, they began to reconnect with a world in which people are kind and people are generous. They found their voice and learned to smile. And throughout this period, they found peace in the company of a little boy who looks for them as soon as he walks through the front door, and will not leave without one final hug. He has no memory of a time when they were not there to hold his hand, to sit at the table painting, or to serve pretend cups of tea. He has been a constant in their lives, and they in his.
When families decide to become foster carers, the standard advice is to wait until your youngest children are older. Usually, you will foster children who are younger than your own. When we started out we thought that was good advice, and waited until we knew that the whole family was ready. But life moves on, and now we are grandparents. We find ourselves awake at night wondering how we will explain to our grandson that his two closest friends have moved to their forever home? What advice can we give his mum and dad? Of course, the interests of looked-after children are paramount. But we must not forget the impact on other children who contribute so much to good foster care.
It takes a village to raise a child, as the refrain goes. Fostering is a commitment that affects a broad community. Our grandson will feel the departure of our foster children keenly, but he will not be the only one. Over the past 18 months or so, they have been loved by so many people, both old and young. Most are unaware of their life story, and of the journey they have travelled to get where they are today.
Our home is adorned with photographs of children and young people who have spent time among us, bringing back the happiest of memories. One day our grandson will point to the pictures, and be old enough to be told the story of his two playmates. I hope it will help him to understand that chance plays such a big part in life, and that kindness towards those who are less fortunate brings its own reward, if only in the form of a smile. Already, his generosity of spirit has helped to shape the lives of two little girls, at a time when they needed it most. And we, his grandparents, will forever be in his debt.
Welcome To Fostering, co-edited by Andy Elvin and Martin Barrow, is published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers