In Madam K. Sartha's family, there are two generations of foster parents - and both are taking care of children with special needs.
Madam Sartha, 78, has fostered more than 10 children in the past 42 years. Like the first child she fostered, the 20-year-old youth she is caring for now has special needs. Peter (not his real name), who has learning difficulties, has been fostered by the widowed housewife and great-grandmother for almost all his life.
One of her four children, Mr Ramasamy Chellvan Balasubramaniam, 60, was a teenager when his mother became a foster parent. The defence executive officer in the Republic of Singapore Air Force says: "Initially, we were not used to it. Then slowly, we started gelling together. We got the hang of it. It's in my blood."
He and his wife, Madam Ramarani S.K. Renganathan, 54, have also been foster parents for the past 11 years. The couple, who have two daughters and a granddaughter, have been caring for Vanessa (not her real name) for 10 years. They have fostered two other children for shorter periods of time.
Vanessa, 13, has learning difficulties and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Madam Ramarani, an administrative executive, says: "I was inspired by my mother-in-law to become a foster parent and she was inspired by her daughter."
When Madam Sartha was 26, her daughter, Vijayaletchumi, learnt of a baby who needed fostering and encouraged her mother to take the child in. Madam Sartha, whose late husband worked at the then Port of Singapore Authority, wanted to have a baby in her home again.
She took in an infant whom she cared for for more than 25 years. The girl, who has intellectual disabilities, had fits and had to be helped with eating and bathing.
Tragically, Vijayaletchumi died in an accident when she was 19.
Madam Sartha does not find it a burden to foster children, not even those with special needs. "There's no challenge. I live alone and foster children are good company."
Madam Ramarani quips that her mother-in-law treats Peter better than she does her own children. Madam Sartha would give half her share of chicken rice to Peter and she still sometimes checks that he is breathing when he sleeps.
When it comes to caring for Vanessa, Madam Ramarani goes to Madam Sartha for advice. "My mother-in-law advises me to be patient with Vanessa. She'll say, they're children, don't scold them or you'll discourage them."
She says caring for the girl has been challenging as no one knew she had special needs. Vanessa was three years old when she came to the couple, whose daughters, now 30 and 25, were in their teens then.
"I had difficulties adapting. I was initially comparing her with my kids when I was toilet-training her and teaching her to read," says Madam Ramarani. She realised Vanessa was taking far longer to learn the alphabet than other kids her age. She also had behavioural quirks, such as talking to herself.
It was hard for her to accept that Vanessa needed to be in a special needs school, so she attended a mainstream one until Primary 3.
She is now in a special needs school and seems to enjoy it more, says Madam Ramarani. "There were many times I wanted to give up. The thing that kept me going was, what will happen to her if I give up? I told myself, I'll take care of this child. The only people I would want her to go back to are her parents."
She says it has been rewarding caring for Vanessa because there is a bond between them now. "She's become part of the family."
Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.