Northern Ireland

County Down couple named Northern Ireland's Foster Carers of the Year

Glen and Regina Mahon
Image caption Glen and Regina Mahon, from Ballykinler, said they were 'gobsmacked' to receive the award

A County Down couple, who foster five boys including two sets of siblings with a range of complex needs, have been named Northern Ireland's Foster Carers of the Year.

Glen and Regina Mahon, who have been fostering for 15 years, were praised for their "steadfastness, generosity and big-heartedness".

The couple said they were shocked when they were announced as winners.

Regina told the BBC they were "ecstatic".

"We were gobsmacked - I couldn't believe it when they said our names. When we heard the other personal stories, we both said so many other carers deserved to win."

Despite having five boys aged between seven and 17, their home is an oasis of calm.

The kitchen is the heart of the home, where football kits and boots can be seen in every corner.

According to Regina, a good routine is what keeps them all in check.

Image caption Regina Mahon said that fostering was 'tough' but that she 'wouldn't be without them'

"The boys all have chores. One brings the bin out in the morning, the other sets the table - we have chores.

"That's what makes us work."

The children arrived at the Mahons' home, in Ballykinler, at a time when they were vulnerable and desperately needed love and support.

Between them, they have a range of health issues, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and epilepsy.

The youngest boy is living with a hypoplastic heart.

Despite being strangers, a bond not only developed between the adults and the children but also between the kids themselves - all from three different families.

'Traumatised'

I caught up with the Mahons after a weekend of celebrations with the children.

In their kitchen, which is the heart of the home, Regina said they are very thankful.

"Every one of them is a character. There is no doubt about it," she said.

"These are children who are traumatised for one reason or another and they are looking for reassurance and compassion and patience, someone to listen to them.

Image caption Glen Mahon stayed with one of the foster children in Birmingham while he underwent major heart surgery

"Each one does have complex needs - it is tough. But, you wouldn't be without them."

So why did the Mahons outshine the other finalists? One particular story stands out.

When one of the children was in Birmingham for major heart surgery, which lasted 16 weeks, Glen took leave from work to be with him.

"Why did I do it? How could I not," he said.

"If it was one of your own you'd be over there with them. I didn't mind at all.

"I had to be at his bedside 24 hours a day, that was before his op and then he was in intensive care. All in all, 16 weeks.

"It was harder on him as he took longer to mend."

So why open up your home and lives to other people's children?

"You do it because these children need love and care. They need a family," said Glen.

"They arrive and they are cowering at the door. Then they come round and feel part of the natural environment.

"They call you mum and dad. It brings a lump to your throat. It feels good."

Image caption Kathleen Toner, from the Fostering Network, said that it can make a 'positive difference that lasts a lifetime'

More than 2,150 children live with over 2,000 foster families across Northern Ireland.

While that may sound impressive, the Fostering Network estimates that at least 170 new foster families are needed every year to meet demand.

There is a particular need to find foster carers for teenagers, disabled children and sibling groups.

"Foster carers can provide children with a home for as long as they need it," said Kathleen Toner, director of the Fostering Network.

"The survey results clearly indicate that children and young people want and need stability.

"If you have room in your heart, and in your home, then 2016 could be the year that you start to make a positive difference to a child - a positive difference that can last a lifetime."

'Challenges'

There has been a 14% increase in the past four years in the number of young people requiring foster care.

According to Kathleen Toner, the increase is down to a number of reasons.

"People are more aware of child protection issues.

"Also, people in Northern Ireland are more aware of the challenges that children in families are facing where there are problems and they are bringing those issues to the attention of social services."

The Fostering Network said it is keen to dispel some foster care myths, including the myth that single people cannot foster.

There is also no official upper-age limit on being a foster carer and you do not have to be a parent to foster.

According to the Mahons, winning the award has been a humbling experience.

But, they are even more jubilant that their son and his wife have been inspired to carry on the family tradition and have registered as foster carers.