A call came in to Kathleen and Calvin Byrd at their home last week: Can you take in this toddler?
Yes, of course.
In no time, the Chula Vista couple, who have been married 52 years, added another person to their family.
It’s not an unusual scenario for them. What is unusual is that she is now 73 and Calvin will be 80 in three months. They were taking in a toddler.
“We are dinosaurs,” she laughs. She has lost count, but says they’ve given temporary homes to more than 300 and as many as 350 infants, toddlers and teens over the past 48 years. They are slowing down though: “At this point, we have to do the math.”
Two weeks earlier, a young boy in their care had been placed with family members, leaving them empty nesters. “My husband said, ‘Oh my God, I can unlock the pantry.’ It was just he and I and our 80-pound lab. Now we’ve locked everything back up because we have another toddler.”
In past years, they have had as many as six foster kids at one time, along with their own kids, in their six-bedroom home in Chula Vista. They like to limit the fosters to one now, unless someone is in need, that is. There always seems to be room in their house and their hearts for more, if necessary.
Alfredo Guardado, assistant director of county child welfare services says the county appreciates the Byrds’ dedication and the service they’ve provided over the years. The county recognized them in 2014 for having fostered more than 300 children and have taken in many more since.
In 1993, the Child Welfare League of America honored them with the Outsanding Foster Parent Award for its U.S. western region.
Kathleen’s story began as a teen taking advanced placement classes at Point Loma High School. But then she got pregnant.
“Back then, you were shunned. …I had to leave school. People on my block would not let their kids talk to me. You might as well have had the coronavirus. My parents were devastated.
“I got married to the baby’s father. I was 16, and he was 18. We tried to make it work, but we were so young. The marriage lasted two years.”
She enrolled in continuation school, earned her high school diploma, worked for the phone company for a while and raised their son, now 56. Most importantly, she vowed to become a foster mom to take care of children of girls in similar circumstances.
“None of us is perfect. Everyone has a history. Let’s just move forward,” she likes to say. “I’ve just always wanted to be able to offer a home for children and support for them.”
Kathleen soon met and wed Calvin Byrd who, like her, had a big heart. He worked in the aerospace industry but was supportive and helped with childcare, transportation and trips to Chuck E. Cheese and Tee-ball games.
They had a son together and over the years adopted three of the children they fostered, and they became guardians of three more.
Their goal always was to reunite a child with family or, in the alternative, with new adoptive parents.
“You get relationships where the parents don’t have enough money to raise a child or don’t have a place to live. … “We have some families who try really hard, but it just doesn’t work out.”
When she started as a foster mom, her fosters were Gerber babies — the proverbial prom night mistake of an amorous high school football player and his cheerleader girlfriend.
Society has changed, and the unwed mother stigma has lessened, but drugs have entered the picture,” Kathleen says. “Now we get babies that are number six, seven or eight from the same mom, often with different dads.”
Of late, the pandemic has taken its toll. Kathleen praises the social workers for going above and beyond, working from home and trying to stay in touch via Zoom and continuing to advocate for the children.
Welfare workers wore masks and practiced social distancing. They met with kids outside the home. With the availability of COVID vaccinations, home visits have returned. “We’re all struggling, trying to get back to normal,” Kathleen says.
Guardado confirms that the pandemic also has affected the number of parents willing to take in kids. Fortunately, thanks to the increase in community and family support services, he notes the number of kids in out-of-home care actually has dropped from 3,763 11 years ago to 1,984 currently.
Nevertheless, foster parents always are in demand, especially those willing to take large sibling sets, older youth and kids with developmental, behavioral or medical needs.
Rules have changed for birth parents. In years past, they were invited to visit the Byrds’ foster home and spend time with their child. Home visits no longer are allowed.
“There have been difficult times,” Kathleen admits. “It’s someone else’s child, but we get enjoyment out of caring for them. We have good memories.” It’s not something done for the money. Considering it’s a 24-hour-a-day job, Kathleen calculates their pay at about $1.75 an hour.
She treats her fosters like family, spoiling them and loving them until they leave. “While they’re here, I’m not hands off,” she says. It’s always tough to give them up. “They give you this look as they go out the door, and it goes right through your heart like a knife.”
She does all she can to keep a child connected with its birth family. “I like working with the birth parents,” Kathleen says. She buys picture frames designed to make short recordings, asks the parents to leave a message and plays their voices when she puts their child to bed. She invites the family to call her every day and sets up video calls.
Kathleen has no idea how many will be at her home Thanksgiving Day, aside from her own family and friends. The toddler who joined them last week could leave any day. Then, too, the couple could get a call that same day from the hospital asking them to come pick up another baby.
“It’s sort of like working for the fire department. You never know when you’re going to get the call,” Kathleen says.
However many are around her table, Thanksgiving will live up to its name.
“People say it’s wonderful what you do for the kids,” Kathleen says. “It’s wonderful what they do for us. It’s a blessing.”