Helen Kincaid has been a foster parent to more than 400 children over the past quarter century, and even though she turned 84 earlier this month, she has no plans to stop sharing her love with them.
"I'm still in good shape, and I just love children,'' she said. "I love to see them progress and what I can do for them."
Kincaid has been a foster parent the entire 18-year tenure of Murray County Division of Family and Children Services' Kelli Reed, and she "is such a caring person, (with) a huge heart for babies and toddlers," Reed said. In fact, "we often call her 'nanny' in the office, because that is what she is to the children she takes into her home."
Kincaid is the grandmother "we all wish we could have," and her specialty is babies and young children, said Elaine Campbell, guardian ad litem for Murray County children in foster care. In fact, local Division of Family and Children Services agencies often reach out to her first when they have a baby in need of care while a parent works their case plan, and when she receives one of "her babies," they immediately become part of her family.
While she's fostered children of all ages, she prefers babies, as "they are so precious," Kincaid said.
Having someone like Kincaid who is not only willing, but eager, to take babies is critical for the foster system, as many would prefer to foster older children, but "I feel very comfortable with the babies."
Many foster parents also balance jobs with their foster duties, "and they don't want to be up all night with a baby, but I stay at home, (so) I'm with them 24/7," she said. "I don't feel alone when I have a baby, and I know God will take care of us."
It's easy for Campbell to reassure parents who have temporarily lost custody of their children when those children are with Kincaid, because she is "the gold standard for foster care caregivers, and if I needed help with my children or grandchildren, she would the first person I would entrust with taking care of them," Campbell said. Kincaid is the "baby whisperer, and babies who may have had difficulty previously will often thrive when placed in her home, (as) they know they are safe and secure in her arms."
Kincaid has been called to the hospital "to cuddle with and rock newborn babies who have been born addicted to drugs and must remain in the hospital to detox or because they are too small to go home," Campbell said. "When a baby shows signs of failure to thrive, I have watched her nurture and 'fatten the baby up' to get the child back on the normal developmental track."
"I sit with them (in the hospital), feed them and talk with them until they're up to four pounds and I can bring them home," Kincaid said. "They just thrive with me."
Kincaid "goes above and beyond for our foster children and always has," Reed said. "She works closely with the agency, and she is always willing to help us and work with us."
In one case, Kincaid was given a young boy who'd been severely beaten by his mother, as had his twin brother, and his survival was in serious doubt, Kincaid recalled. "They said he'd never crawl, walk or talk, but we went to the doctor every week," and Kincaid and her husband spent countless hours on the floor with the child encouraging him to crawl.
He did, then, eventually, he walked and talked and was adopted by a family in Walker County, she said. "I had him two years, and I loved that baby."
"I never had one in that bad of shape," but his progress demonstrates the value of "giving kids a chance," she said. "A lot of them need help."
"I just don't want to see anyone mistreat a child," she added. "I just can't go for that."
Kincaid "has always been a huge asset to our agency and our children, (as) she loves and cares for them unconditionally," Reed said. In many cases, when children return home to their families, Kincaid keeps in touch with them, continuing "to offer support to those children and their families."
"It makes you feel good" to maintain a relationship with children even after they leave her care, and "this is a wonderful thing to get into if you love kids," Kincaid said. The most challenging aspect of foster parenting is often letting go of children when they return to their parents or are adopted.
"I get attached if they're here a week," she said. "It really hurts when they leave, but you have to tell yourself they'll be gone one day, and keep that (thought) in the back of your head."
Kincaid had five children of her own, including one with special needs, and she started a daycare in 1991 before shifting to foster parenting in 1995.
"I like this better than the daycare, because I'm with them all the time, so I know what to expect day to day," Kincaid said. "In daycare, they might be here today and gone tomorrow."
Kincaid once would juggle as many as six children at a time, but in recent years, she's focused on one or two.
She's had children as long as two-and-a-half years years, and she's had several sets of twins, as well as one set of triplets (all three of whom were eventually adopted by her son).
Perhaps because of her own experiences with a special-needs daughter, Kincaid is an ideal foster parent for children with special needs.
"God sends us all kinds of children," Kincaid said. "I've seen so many not treated right by their families, and I just don't like it."
After raising her own family, Kincaid "has continued to provide a safe lifeline for children in foster care," Campbell said. "It is often said that 'it takes a village to raise our children,' (and Kincaid) is an intricate part of our village."
"Her kind, loving and generous heart to foster care children in our community is something that all of us should aspire to emulate," Campbell added. If and when a child she's cared for goes up for adoption, prospective parents can be assured "that child has been been loved, nurtured, and cared for with very special hands."