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Julie and Gary

As soon as you cross Julie and Gary’s threshold in Bolton you feel you’re in a loving family home. The walls and shelves are covered in framed photographs of their children, grandchildren and foster children, and before I’m sitting down Julie is offering me a hot drink. A loud snoring confuses me until I realise it’s coming from the family dog, who’s too relaxed to get up and investigate their visitors.

I’m there with Wes, their supervising social worker, to present them with an Everyday Hero Award for the commitment they’ve shown to attending training and support groups and for their determination to make their foster sons’ contact with their birth mum work.

Julie and Gary have been together 38 years and married for 33, having met when Julie was just 15.

They started fostering in 2013, when the youngest of their three children was 15. Julie was working as a teaching assistant with children with special educational needs and had been drawn to a small boy who was clearly neglected at home. She washed his uniform and cleaned him up, and he blossomed under her care.

Around the same time, Gary faced redundancy after more than 20 years as a paper maker – so for a couple who had always run an open and welcoming home, enquiring about fostering seemed an obvious step.

Their first experience could have put them off for life, as their placement was a troubled 13-year-old girl, whose mother had died suddenly and who had been put into local authority care by her grandmother.

“She had real emotional problems, understandably,” Julie remembers. “She trashed her bedroom, ran away and was excluded from school for nine of the 12 weeks she was with us. But we didn’t want to give up on her and did our best to help her.”

Despite their efforts the teenager decided she didn’t want to stay there after three months, and was placed in a residential home. Julie was able to keep track of how she did from a distance and smiles as she reports she is now in a steady relationship with her own fledgling business and a baby. She had also emailed them to thank them for their kindness to her.

Their next placement happened suddenly after a five-month break, during which time Gary started a new job and Julie did lots of training with Fostering Solutions.

“We had a call to say there was a court order going through for two boys, the youngest of six siblings, and they came to us straight from school that day,” Julie says. “They didn’t know anything about fostering or what would happen so we sat them down and I explained we were going to look after them and I was going to do everything a mum would do for them.”

Rico*, who was eight, and Joshua*, seven, had experienced changes, chaos and neglect in their short lives. Julie and Gary established routines for bedtime and family meals around the table, predictable rituals that helped the children feel safe.

Gradually the nurture and structure of their new life had a positive effect. Rico, who had spent most of his later time at primary school on report, is now in secondary school and in the top sets for his favourite subjects, while Joshua has been described as having an outstanding attitude to learning. Both brothers play football and cricket for local teams and are very much part of the clan.

Julie and Gary also have a grandchild or two in the house most days of the week, including the 20-month old daughter of their ‘adopted son’ Darren, their son-in-law’s brother who arrived as an unsettled teenager needing a family and found what he was looking for.

Before I leave I ask if they have any advice for anyone thinking about fostering. “You don’t have to be young – we were in our late 40s when we started,” says Julie. “Just go for it.”

*the boys’ names have been changed