Beech Bottom woman makes difference in lives of many foster children

FOSTER MOM — Tara Shepherd is flanked by her daughters, Gracie, at left, and Shania, at their Beech Bottom home. -- Heather Ziegler

BEECH BOTTOM — Tara Shepherd has never experienced the pangs of giving birth, but she has known the love of many children.

Shepherd and her husband, Greg, are foster parents who have shared their home with nine girls, two of whom they permanently adopted as their own. For 10 years, the pair have juggled jobs outside the home, maintained a safe, clean environment for their family and still find time to take a foster child into their home when the need arises.

Each child who has crossed the doorstep into the Shepherds’ Beech Bottom home arrived within hours of a social worker’s call. The children often come with the clothes on their backs and more psychological baggage and hurt than most adults could shoulder. But it hasn’t stopped the Shepherds from opening their arms and hearts as foster parents.

Shepherd recently was named foster mother of the year by the National Youth Advocate Program located in Wheeling. She said a medical condition prevents her from having children. However, she became an “instant mom” as a foster parent. Shepherd also works for the Community Bread Basket in Weirton. Her husband is employed at Wheeling Jesuit University, is a member of Beech Bottom Council and is a firefighter/ EMT.

“I have no biological children but God has chosen a different path for me,” Shepherd said.

Gracie was just 3 years old and Shania was 8 years old when they first entered the Shepherds’ residence, which later became their permanent home upon formal adoption proceedings. Gracie, now 8 years old, said she remembers being afraid when she met the Shepherds. Shepherd explained that Gracie also was terrified of police officers because she had only seen them during negative home situations. She has since overcome that fear with the help of Beech Bottom Police Chief Danny Casto.

“I was so afraid I him,” said Gracie Shepherd.

However, Gracie said Shania soon became the sister who made her feel at home.

From the age of 6 years old, Shania had been in eight foster homes prior to joining the Shepherd household. With proper diagnosis, it was learned that Shania had a condition that interfered with her ability to focus, causing some developmental issues. Shepherd learned quickly how “treating the whole child” can turn a life around. Today, Shania is an energetic 16-year-old who loves dance, cheerleading and is a junior firefighter. She and Gracie were quick to show off their dance portraits and beautiful costumes.

Tara said Shania’s earliest memories are of moving from house to house. She said Shania had only known advocates and social workers. They were such a profound part of her life that she asked Shepherd who would be her social worker when she dies and goes to heaven.

“That was one of the hardest things I have ever heard from a child,” Shepherd said.The best day was when Shania asked if she could call Shepherd “Mom.”

“Tara is one of the most open, kind people I know,” said Brittany Williams, community resource coordinator for the National Youth Advocate Program in Wheeling. “She has taken so many foster kids into her home. She does not discriminate. She loves all kids.”

Williams said the need is as great as ever because of the escalating drug problem among parents. She said there are 5,000 children in West Virginia who need homes.

She said Shepherd is someone who sees a need and tries to fill it.

“She really wants to see kids have a safe and happy environment, a somewhat normal life. I think she goes above and beyond,” Williams said.

Every foster home is evaluated prior to being accepted by the state. The Shepherds’ home is such that they can only accept female children who share a bedroom. The house is equipped with cribs, toddler beds and appropriate arrangements to handle incoming “placements” — the formal name for foster children.

The state helps with finances and foster children are provided with health care. The Shepherds have fostered nine children ranging in ages from 10 months old to 11.

“It’s hard to let them go, but I’ve made many friends as a foster mom,” Shepherd said. “We have a foster parents support group that helps with behavioral issues. … I was an instant mom and had to learn about motherhood in snippets.”

Shepherd said she learned the best method for making a child feel welcome is to insert them into the family routine.

“Everybody helps with household chores, age appropriate chores,” Shepherd said. “Each child gets an allowance.”

Shepherd has some advice for anyone considering becoming a foster parent.

“Do it,” she said. “The worst that can happen is you’ll learn something about you and make a difference in the life of a child. I can make a difference helping a child, knowing that we’ve touched each other’s lives.”