Of the Baker City Herald

Mary Collard strives to bring a piece of her storybook-perfect South Carolina childhood to the children who enter her Baker City home, regardless of how long they might stay.

She and her husband, Bryan, have been foster parents since 1996. Over that time they have taken in 11 children, including two who have since joined their family permanently.

The Collards are parents of three birth children, two adopted daughters and a 2-year-old foster child in their temporary care.

andquot;The joke at church is nobody ever knows how many I'm going to show up with,andquot; she said.

Mary works as director of the Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) program. Bryan is a private investigator.

andquot;We felt like we had been blessed both growing up in our families, and we felt stable enough raising our own three children that we thought we had a lot to give,andquot; Mary said of her eagerness to bring more children into their home.

Five-year-old Hope was just 2 when she first was placed in foster care with the Collards.

andquot;When we get these children, we never know how long we'll keep them,andquot; Mary said recalling her first meeting with the little girl. andquot;Now, she's ours forever.andquot;

Their second adopted daughter, 3-year-old Eve, came to them just five days before Christmas. She was just three months old and failing to thrive.

As the former owner of Powder River Gymnastics, Mary recalled she was having a party for her gymnastics girls when she got the call that child welfare had a baby who needed a place to stay.

andquot;There were 12 little girls who couldn't wait to hold her,andquot; she said.

The party was interrupted while Collard began making calls for formula, diapers and even a baby bottle.

Although the timing could have been better, Collard didn't hesitate to take the child.

andquot;This baby needed love and even at three months she needed stability. She needed to feel safe,andquot; she said.

Searching for clothing, diapers or other basic supplies is something a foster parent soon gets used to.

andquot;I've never had a child come with a suitcase or more than one diaper or any formula,andquot; she said.

Baker County's child welfare workers are resourceful and work hard to secure whatever is needed, she said. And Collard relies on her friends to help with clothing and supplies for the youngsters who cross her doorstep at all hours.

The Collards' three birth children have been supportive and accepting of the visitors to their home, including their two little sisters who came to stay.

andquot;They, from day one, were right there with me to help and they still do,andquot; Mary said of her three older children, Addison, 16; Harrison, 14; and Mayce, 12.

This year the Collards' five children attend five different schools. Their schedule of sporting events and other activities fills nearly every day of each month's calendar during the school year.

andquot;We're just a family on the go right now,andquot; Mary says.

That means packing the family van with snacks, books and crayons and sometimes an additional child or two as they travel to the older children's sporting events.

Things were especially busy this winter after Bryan was named Baker High School swimming coach. Addison swims on the team. Mayce plays volleyball and softball and Harrison is busy with track and Babe Ruth baseball. Hope has joined the other athletes of the family in her first season of T-ball this spring.

Despite their hectic lifestyle, the Collards regularly plan a night out for themselves. The couple's recent trip to the coast together was complicated by the logistics of finding a place for all six children to stay during their absence. But they pulled it off.

andquot;If your children see you take care of yourself and your marriage, everything else falls into place,andquot; Mary said.

Collard carries her nurturing ways, complete with a soothing Southern drawl, into her role as CASA director. CASA volunteers represent abused and neglected children in court.

She says her experience as a mother has served her well in the position she has held for the past year.

andquot;I'm comfortable cheering my kids on and giving them what they need, and I'm comfortable cheering my CASAs on and giving them what they need,andquot; she said.

She has seen firsthand how the CASA program makes a difference.

andquot;I just don't think you can ever be there for a child too much,andquot; she said. andquot;I really feel one child at a time is such a strong thing to do. I felt so strongly about it that I knew it was the perfect spot for me.andquot;

The goal of the state's child welfare program is to return children to their families. But Collard knows from her experience as a foster parent and as CASA director that in some cases that is not possible.

In fact, only two of the children placed in her care over the years have been successfully returned to their birth family.

andquot;I would hope every situation could be that way, but I soon found out it couldn't,andquot; she said.

Collard is sympathetic toward the parents whose children are placed in care, acknowledging that a lack of education and job availability in the community lead to many of the stressors that push people toward drug and alcohol abuse and domestic violence.

andquot;Still, I firmly believe that a child deserves to feel safe and loved,andquot; she said. andquot;It's not their fault what adults do around them. They shouldn't have to pay for it.

andquot;I have a lot of patience and love for children,andquot; she says. andquot;I don't think you can ever have enough people around them and sticking up for them on their side.andquot;