Betty Walker runs to meet the school bus when it pulls up outside her door. But the wide-eyed 7-year-old who comes into the house and asks for his Mickey Mouse doll is not Walker's son or grandson. Alimasi is one of Walker's two foster children.
"This is a seven day job, 24 hours a day," Walker said. "People sometimes think I stay home all day doing nothing, but it's rare to have one or two days a week when you don't have a meeting or something you need to do. You can keep yourself really busy."
Walker's day begins early in the morning, when she wakes 15-year-old Jonathan, and helps Alimasi get up, wash, dress and get ready for school.
"They both have goals that I help with," she said. "We are always trying to upgrade their skills. At breakfast it would be things like learning how to hold a spoon properly, how to eat properly, to chew their food and not just gulp it."
After the boys leave for school, Walker cleans up and does the laundry before heading off to meetings with school staff, therapists and caseworkers.
Walker is a special needs foster parent with Albertina Kerr Centers. Celebrating its centennial this year, the nonprofit started out as a shelter for homeless men and later served as an adoption and foster care agency. Today it specializes in two areas: providing care for adults with developmental disabilities and supporting children with mental health and developmental challenges.
Through Kerr, Walker receives training, a salary, one weekend off each month and support from a team of professionals. Earlier this year she had five days vacation when she drove the boys to attend camp in Gig Harbor, Wash. She takes about 20 credits a year in classes that support her work.
Both boys need plenty of consistent attention, Walker said. Alimasi has autism and is just starting to speak. He could amuse himself for hours with one of his 20 Mickey Mouse dolls, but he can throw tantrums and be destructive. Jonathan has developmental disabilities and doesn't speak, but he loves to go to the mall and look at other teenagers.
"I take him out and have fun with him," she said. "We have a rapport and a give and take relationship."
Gina Bremner, Kerr's vice president for youth and family services oversees the foster care program.
"It is very difficult work," she said. "There is a lot of joy in it, and there can be a lot of grief and pain and struggle.
"When I think about why someone would want to do this work, I think, well, you just have to want to do this work."
Bremner said the agency serves a very diverse group of clients including African Americans, Latinos, Russian speakers, and immigrants and refugees from many different ethnic and cultural backgrounds.
So how diverse is Kerr's staff?
People of color are represented among Kerr's entry-level care staff, and its foster families come from many different communities, Bremner said. But the management team is "pretty mainstream White."
"I would say we have a long way to go," she said. "We don't have enough diversity in our higher levels so we have developed a cultural competency commitment. We're trying to identify what are the barriers?"
Kerr's management team is bringing in a Spanish speaking consultant to improve its work with Spanish speaking families and staff are working on a plan to reach out to other communities.
The agency is always looking for foster families of color, from a variety of cultural backgrounds and with many different life experiences, Bremner said.
"We try to match families based on a number of factors and certainly racial identity issues matter, but so do other things like, how is this family going to respond to this kid? What kind of training have they had? And what kind of experience do they have?"
Betty Walker worked as a CNA and in an office before deciding to give foster parenting a try in 1996. She first went through the state of Oregon foster care program and began taking in teen girls.
"Big mistake," she says. "The bottom line was I didn't do well. You go through the training, but you think you know what to do and you don't."
Raising her own son had not prepared Walker for dealing with troubled teens who talked back, swore at her and whose behavior she did not understand.
"I felt like my home became a revolving door — I kept thinking there was a better kid," she said. "After a while you realize the kids are all the same and it's you that has to change."
Walker fostered children through the state of Oregon's human services department for three years, long enough to see one boy return home and to support another through his adoption. The she moved on to a job as manager of an adult foster home in Lake Oswego, concluding that working with children wasn't her strongest suit.
Walker found she enjoyed caring for older adults. In fact, she was planning to open her own adult foster home when a developmental disability worker persuaded her to try fostering children with special needs. Immediately, Walker knew she had found her niche.
"I like helping the kids," she said. "And with these children who have developmental problems it really made sense to me. I like problem solving. I like observing what is at the root of a behavior and trying out different ways to change that, and to help them adapt."