Lily* was 17 months old when she came to live with CareSouth foster carers Carolyn and Ian. The Shellharbour couple became foster carers with a view to adopt and the future they dreamed of for Lily was one of weekend bike rides and friends’ birthday parties. But, as Lily was diagnosed as having a global delay, they first had to help her reach key milestones like walking and talking.

The couple also had to teach Lily how to hug.

“When she came to us she didn’t know how to connect,” said Carolyn. “You could pick her up and she would just leave her arms hanging.”

Carolyn and Ian spent countless hours showing Lily how to wrap her arms around their necks and squeeze tight. The family called it a ‘koala’. Now at eight years old, Lily still asks for a koala each morning.

“I have to sit on a chair now to give her a koala because she’s just too heavy,” laughed Carolyn.

Once Lily had learned how to hug, Carolyn and Ian set out to teach her how to walk and within a month she was off and running.

Once Lily had learned how to hug, Carolyn and Ian set out to teach her how to walk and within a month she was off and running.

“My husband and I used to sit on the kitchen floor at arm’s length from each other and pass her between us so she could get the idea that she could stand up and do this. It was like role modelling.”

Lily has now come full circle and with the help of the couple, has even mastered riding a bike without training wheels. Carolyn acknowledges it has been a long road from those first toddling steps to seeing Lily flying around the footpaths on her bike.

“It’s about giving her the opportunities in her own time, when she’s ready to learn. Because of the experience she came from as a baby she would probably be eight months behind other children her age, and that’s on average with most things,” explained Carolyn.

Carolyn, who has worked in the child protection sector and now has a career in early childhood education, is well aware of the number of children out there who need a loving home.

Ian had raised two children from a previous relationship when he and Carolyn met and married. They had always hoped there would be more children in their lives but “left their run a bit late”. Foster care was a way to fulfil that dream.

“Both of us are community minded and we wanted to make a difference. We started off doing respite care for a couple of sibling groups, it was a way for us to dip our finger in the water and try it out for a weekend. We could see the difference it made to these children’s lives and we wanted to do that long term,” said Carolyn.

“I said to Ian if there is a child who needs us, they will find us. And then the phone call came. The day we met her it was just an amazing, amazing thing. I can’t find a word to describe the feeling. You know when you just know you’re in the right place at the right time,” said Carolyn. “Well she just looked at us and that was it.”

“Somewhere everybody can make a difference. It’s about sitting down with your family and asking ‘what could we do?’ It’s about being willing to give and willing to learn, because it’s sure taught us a lot.”

*Not her real name