Vicki Houska raised 12 foster kids. Now she helps other families do it.

Vicki HouskaVicki Houska is a woman of many gifts. But one of the first things that her friends and colleagues will tell you about her is that she is a hugger.

“No one leaves her without a hug and a smile,” says Michelle Barron, a work crew supervisor for the St. Charles County Juvenile Justice Center. “She might not even remember who you are, but there’s one thing for sure – she’s going to hug you.”

On this busy Saturday, though, Ms. Houska is getting ready to dispense more than just hugs. She’s moving briskly through the jampacked rented rooms that house the operation she runs for FAST (Foster Adoption Support Team), a support organization for foster and foster adoptive families caring for children who are wards of the state of Missouri.

Houska’s making sure that packages of frozen pork chops, fresh loaves of bread, and tiny snowsuits are all properly shelved and stacked, ready for the families who are about to arrive and lay claim to them.

“You’ll see them soon,” Houska says. “They start lining up at about noon.”

“They” are foster parents living and working in St. Charles County in Missouri. But for Houska these caregivers are much more than that. “They’re my family,” she says, flashing one of her trademark smiles.

Certainly, few people are more deeply plugged into the local foster family network than is Houska. A foster parent herself since 1998, she has fostered 12 children over the years and, of those 12, adopted three. “It’s the hardest thing you’ll ever do,” she says of foster parenting. The emotional challenges “will bring you to your knees.”

But one thing that doesn’t have to be so hard on foster parents, she decided some years ago, is the financial burden.

Foster parents are paid a monthly stipend to take in a child in need of a home. In most states the stipend is slender, but Missouri ranks among the lowest in the country. (A base figure for a family taking in a single foster child would be about $230 per month.)

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