“If they show me the spark, I’m going to give them the fire”. It is a mantra that CareSouth foster carers Jody and Stan Mikolajski have lived by since they began their journey as carers a decade ago.
The Deniliquin couple have opened their home to more than 50 vulnerable young people over the past 10 years. They have covered the whole gamut of the Permanency Support Program – from long-term care and restoration to emergency, respite and short-term care.
Asked why they became foster carers Jody replied: “You could call it selfish on my part. I couldn’t have kids but we really wanted them, so foster care seemed like the next logical step. Our neighbours at the time were foster carers and they inspired us.”
“We were keeping up with the Jones’,” joked Stan.
But jokes aside it is the Mikolajski’s who are now inspiring the Deniliquin community as passionate advocates for vulnerable young people. They are often told how amazing they are for creating a loving family for so many kids in need. But the modest couple insist that there is nothing “special or superhuman about us”.
Their first experience as carers was supporting two sibling groups of three children, ranging in age from 15 months to seven. Soon after this they were asked to care for a baby. Nurturing seven children was a baptism by fire but the Mikolajski’s were up to the challenge.
“It was the Brady Bunch, plus one,” laughed Stan. “It helped us realise that we have a limit,” said Jody. The couple are now caring for five children, aged three to thirteen, from two sibling groups.
“We consider ourselves normal, everyday people, doing something we thoroughly enjoy,” said Stan. “Somebody has to support these children so it might as well be me or Jody. We genuinely feel that this has been our purpose in life for the past decade.”
“Becoming foster carers is a decision we certainly don’t regret,” said Jody. “There’s been a few heartaches along the way, where they go home or they have to go elsewhere. But you have to be realistic, not every child fits and we might not be able to give every child what they need. That’s heartbreaking but you do more harm to the child if you’re not honest with yourself.”
Stan is quick to point out that the wins far outweigh the difficulties.
“The journey has had its ups and downs,” admits Stan. “But it’s fair to say that the ups definitely outnumber the downs. The joy that we encounter when we see the children in our care develop and flourish is the best reward we could possibly ask for.
“We really try to identify, as much as possible, what each individual child really needs. They all need love and attention, they all need school. But you have to sit back and observe the children, listen more than talk, to find out what sparks their interest.”
The couple take turns telling a heartwarming story about a teenage boy who joined their family as a 14-year-old. The teen couldn’t read or write and wouldn’t speak. A year before coming into the Mikolajski’s care he had been diagnosed with low functioning autism.
“He didn’t know his alphabet and his short-term memory was non-existent,” said Stan.
But when Jody and Stan discovered that the boy, an avid gamer, was desperate to learn to read so he could follow the instructions on his gaming console, they had their spark and set about lighting the fire.
“When he left us he was a 19-year-old who had completed Year 11 and 12 and was reading chapter books,” said Jody proudly. “Watching that light switch go on is what makes it worth it, you just have to keep encouraging them and find that interest.”
“For me that’s the reason why I do this, the reward of seeing really positive outcomes,” said Stan. “You have to be prepared to go into bat for these kids. This young fella, he was allowed to slip through the cracks right up until Year 8. But we finally found a wonderful school for him and a wonderful teacher and he progressed in leaps and bounds.”
Asked if they would give any advice to prospective carers, Stan and Jody both talk about the importance of cultivating positive relationships with birth families.
“Our philosophy is if we are able to have a relationship with the birth family, it certainly makes things easier when it comes to family contact,” said Stan. “Kids are quite perceptive, so a good relationship between carers and birth family can often be the difference when it comes to having a close, stable relationship with the children in our care.
“Several years back we had a sibling group of three young girls, aged six to eight. They were with us for four-and-a-half years before going back to family. We continue to have a relationship with their family to this day.”
The couple also stress that communicating with caseworkers is key to ensuring children and young people get all their needs met.
“We are very fortunate to be associated with CareSouth in Deniliquin,” said Stan. “They have been very supportive of us as carers, and have given us all the necessary tools and resources to be able to provide what these children need.”
Jody is honest when she points out that being a foster carer is not always easy.
“It’s not a walk in the park,” said Jody. “But it’s worth every step.”