A nest refilled
Henrico couple fosters dozens of children
At the age of eight, Jamie Murray turned to his parents one day and asked why he didn't have any brothers or sisters.
Retta and Ben Murray responded by contacting Henrico County's Department of Social Services, and before long, Jamie had himself a foster sibling.
But the Murrays didn't stop there. Two years later, they began working with Commonwealth Catholic Charities' Refugee Resettlement program, taking in children who have come to the United States from countries that include Haiti, Guatemala, Honduras, North Korea and Sudan.
In the years since, Jamie Murray (now 21) has had an estimated 50 or 60 siblings come to live in his home, for periods ranging from an overnight or weekend to seven years.
At a holiday party held last month for CCC foster families, Ben Murray joined his wife in reminiscing about their first 13 years as foster parents, and noted with amusement that Jamie was not quite so gung ho about having siblings later on -- even hinting occasionally that his parents could quit fostering any time.
His later reluctance was only natural, remarked Ben, considering that Jamie's earlier siblings were playmates and often younger than he was, "so he was a big brother."
"But then," added Ben, "they became teens with attitudes, and he was not so sure."
No empty nest
His parents, on the other hand, are quite sure they want to continue fostering.
In December they were fostering a 15-year-old from Mexico, an 18-year-old from Ecuador, and a 16-year-old from The Congo.
Although their charges are teenagers and young adults, they tend to demand more time and attention than typical foster children.
"They have more drama in their life," said Ben. "Or something traumatic has happened. Some don't know if their mother or father is dead or alive. Especially the Sudanese, because they came from a war-torn country."
As Julie Atkinson of CCC pointed out in a September announcement about the resettlement program, "Most kids [at back-to-school time] are worried about classes, clothes and seeing friends again.
"For refugee kids in foster care, the concerns are much bigger. They are learning a new language, new customs, and a new way of life."
An employee of the Richmond Sheriffs Office, Ben said that his wife was formerly a private duty nurse, but now stays home to be a full-time mom. Her days are filled with errands and appointments, from obtaining immunizations, physical exams and ADD medication for the children, to transporting them to psychological counseling and therapy.
Asked why they would continue to foster special-needs children at a time when other parents of college students are reveling in their empty nests, Ben answered with the reason they got involved with CCC in the first place.
"We knew there was a need," he said simply.
‘They’ve all taught us something new’
Among the most challenging tasks Ben and Retta have faced was fostering a child who kept running away or coming in after curfew.
"Every weekend it was a challenge," said Ben. "Every time I turned around I had Henrico police in front of my door."
"I told him, 'If we're going to be here to watch over you, we need to know where you are,'" said Retta; while Ben would admonish, "I can't raise you up in the street."
Sharing space with the more rebellious foster children was hard on Jamie, said Ben.
"He would get upset when they'd get sassy or smart or disrespectful," said Ben. "But I would just tell him, 'Me and Mama are going to handle that.'"
Although they eventually had to send the runaway back to his caseworker, most of the Murray children have thrived in their care and are appreciative. Ben said he will never forget the North Korean boy of about 14 who would back out of the room bowing after dinner, to show his respect and gratitude for the meal.
Building relationships with youth from varied backgrounds and cultures has benefited the Murrays as well, said Ben. "We've had [children from] a lot of different countries," said Ben, "and they've all taught us something new."
In addition to learning to cook foods from many nations, they have enjoyed introducing the children to new foods -- of which fried chicken is the hands-down favorite -- and teaching them skills such as helping with car care and yard work.
They have also had the satisfaction of seeing the children progress from speaking no English to mastering the language, and looking on as they hold down jobs, graduate high school, and go to college.
Best of all, said Ben, is seeing the children "adopt good family values over the years, and continue to live a good Christian life."
The Murrays keep in touch with former foster children all over the country, including one that they visited while in Florida on vacation, and another who recently flew in from Arizona to see them.
The one in Florida, said Ben, calls about once a week. "And if he doesn't call us, we call him!"
Asked what advice he would give to someone considering foster parenting, Ben acknowledged that the experience is not for everyone.
"People should really search their heart and make sure they're willing," he said, "because it will be different! You really have to be passionate, loving, caring and understanding, because a lot of time kids do [hurtful] things -- not meaning any harm."
And the return for dealing with those "things kids do"?
"Being a foster parent is off the scale," said Ben Murray with a smile. "It's work, but it's rewarding.
"It's really a joy.”
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