VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — The month of May is Foster Care Awareness Month, a time to highlight the need for loving homes and open hearts.
A couple in Virginia Beach, John and Johanna Schafer, has been fostering for years. The Schafers have a full house filled with lots of love for their three biological kids and their foster teen, or as Johanna would like to say, "three forever and one for as long as need be."
Johanna said she grew up understanding how a roof over your head can be unattainable for some. Her mother was involved in a teen runaway program for youth through Catholic Charities.
When she got out on her own, Johanna decided she had the means and mindset to make a difference.
"I thought about foster care because there's a need, I have the space, and I love kids," Johanna said.
Together, Johanna and John have taken in 11 foster kids, treating each one like a member of the family.
"We do call them 'foster friends' at first because some kids don't want to be a foster brother or foster sister because they have brothers or they have sisters," Johanna said. "We let the foster kids decide how they want to be referenced."
CBS 6 shares voices from Richmond's foster care community
Johanna said, in her experience, the adjustment period when a foster child first moves in is not as scary as some people may think.
"It is a stranger in your home, if you will, but when they come into your home you're a stranger to them," she said.
In the time John and Johanna have been fostering, they've had a few runaways. Once the kids are brought back, the Schafers tell them something important like, "Welcome home, we missed you." They're words that hold tremendous weight.
"We tell the kids that being okay in foster care doesn't mean that you love your parents or your family any less," Johanna said. "There's also no obligation that they are going to love us, and that's okay. Our goal, our point, is that we get to love on them."
In the U.S., there are more than 391,000 children in foster care.In Virginia, the state has nearly 5,400 children in the system. More than 700 foster kids in the Commonwealth are ready to be adopted, according to DSS.Virginia.Gov.
The average stay of a child in foster care is 21 months. During their time fostering, Johanna and John have seen the children they've taken in either go back to their parents or go to new parents.
"We've seen three kiddos go from our home to a forever home. We've seen kids go back to their first family. We've had some who have turned 18 and moved on and done their own thing," said Johanna.
Mary Davies is a foster care social worker for UMFS who visits the Schaffers every other week to check in. She says there are various reasons why a child might go into foster care.
"A lot of times, it an issue of abuse or neglect. So, that could be physical abuse or a neglectful situation where the biological parent or family member is not able to provide proper supervision for a child," said Davies.
Social workers said the biological parents will be given a DSS Service Plan, or a checklist, for the parent to work through, depending on why the child was removed. This checklist might require an established and approved living situation and a stable income.
Programs like UMFS will also work with foster kids who age out of the system.
There are independent living programs for individuals aged 18 to 21. Former foster children will need to be in college, in trade school, apprenticing or employed in exchange of provided services, like housing and support.
Johanna and John say the hardest part of being a foster parent is building a bond and then saying goodbye.
"It's definitely a challenge, but a rewarding one with unification... They go back to mom and dad. That is so wonderful to see that," said John.
For this family, the easiest part of it all is opening their home and heart.