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Carl and Mary Brown don’t define their family by genetics or even the length of time they have together. For them, choosing to love a child for however long they can is the key to their purpose in life.

The Browns, who live in Columbia, are not necessarily in their prime years for child rearing — Carl is 76 and Mary is 73 — but their home remains open to children in South Carolina’s foster care system. They also recruit and mentor foster families across the state. Currently, they are caring for two children, ages 8 and 3, and investing in their future. In more than 40 years as foster parents, the Browns have served more than 150 children. They have three biological children and six adopted children, ages 20 – 52.

A journey begins

Mary Brown said her family’s journey began in 1974 when she and her husband already had two children.

“Carl and I were visiting a young couple who had visited our Sunday school class,” Brown said. “She worked for DSS (the South Carolina Department of Social Services).”

While they were visiting, their new friend received a call about a teenage girl in immediate need of a foster home.

“She was frantically trying to find a placement,” Brown said. “If she couldn’t find a home, she would have to go and stay in a safe place at the jail. As a result of that, we became licensed as foster parents.”

Soon, the Browns took on a larger role in the system.

“We realized there was no support, no training,” Brown said. “We became involved on the national level. My husband became president of the National Foster Parent Association.”

The couple then formed the South Carolina Foster Parent Association.

“Heartfelt Calling is our recruitment of foster-adoptive parents,” Brown said. “It’s one of our programs. We provide all the training for foster parents. We do all the pre-service training — that’s 14 hours — to become licensed.”

Through their organization, Mary Brown said ongoing training and re-certification is provided to foster parents, while young adults who are transitioning out of the system are supported in a variety of ways, including being provided a car so they can have transportation to work and school.

“All of our services are for the whole state,” Brown said.

And they lead by example.

“We’re still doing it,” Brown said. “Our youngest adopted children are 20 and 22. We still have contact with many of them after they return to their birth families or even after they are adopted.”

All are welcome at Sunday dinner.

“We had 35 people at lunch Sunday,” Brown said. “All my children and grandchildren come for lunch. It’s a wild time.”

A busy household has been part of everyday life for the Browns, so crowded dinner tables are just part of the bargain.

“You have to have a heartfelt calling,” she said. “We believe to truly be a good foster parent and want to adopt, you have to feel called to do that. It’s not easy all the time. Just knowing you are helping these kids is worth all the bad times.”

Opening their doors, even temporarily, to children in need shaped the Browns’ children as well.

“Our children are the most unselfish children in the world,” Brown said. “They have never complained. Even now, they help us so much.”

Their investment has not been without sacrifice.

“That is the worst part — when a child leaves,” Brown said. “We know it’s temporary and we want their family to have their children back. We love working with our birth families and it’s good for the kids to see us working with them, but when they leave, it’s very hard. We have an ache in our heart for them. But that’s OK. If anybody has to hurt, let it be us and not this child.”

Brown said families considering serving as foster parents should not be afraid of it, even if they already have children at home.

“There is a great need for good, loving homes,” she said. “We need homes that will take teenagers. Most of our teens are in group homes. We need homes that will take sibling groups. One of the saddest things is when siblings come into care and have to be separated.”

Brown said her family continues to grow, as does her love for the children she cares for, whether for a week or a lifetime.

“We’ve been blessed with good health and the ability to parent these children,” she said.

“God has really blessed us. People ask when we will quit. I say, I don’t feel like I need to quit right now. Even when we became foster parents, the word ‘adoption’ had never entered our minds. It’s taken us places and to people we would never have dreamed we would come in contact with. It’s been an amazing journey and we’re still on it.

Find out more​ about fostering

To learn more about how to become a foster or adoptive parent, visit http://www.heartfeltcalling.org.

To learn more about the South Carolina Foster Parent Association or to support programs through in-kind, visit http://scfpa.com.Programs include laptop bundles for youth; providing musical instruments for children in foster care; providing household items and used cars to young adults transitioning to college or out of foster care; and more.

Find more at www.upstateparent.com

Looking for things to do with kids in Greenville-Spartanburg? More stories relevant to families? Visit www.upstateparent.com.

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