The sign poking out of the flower bed pulls no punches: “A lovely lady and a grumpy old man live here”.
It says a lot about the atmosphere in Karen and Mark Stewart’s home in Lydney. She’s lovely and he’s definitely not grumpy. But they don’t take themselves too seriously.
What they do take seriously is being foster carers for Community Foster Care.
The couple met when they both worked in the insurance business and now have two children, aged 18 and 20 - as well as two rabbits, three guinea pigs, two dogs, four fish, and a bearded dragon in the hallway called Alfie.
They first became foster carers in 2010.
“One of our daughter’s friends was here and told us she’d been in care. Her story really affected us – she seemed to have been pushed from pillar to post,” said Karen.
“It was a light bulb moment. I thought she’d have been better off with us – we could have looked after her. We could be foster carers.
“I’d left my job in insurance and worked at a kennels for a while. I was then a support worker for elderly people in their own homes. I loved the job, but there was so much travelling – it was madness.
“We knew we could give a child a caring home that they’d never had. It would mean stability and a safe place to be – it would be a win-win for all of us.”
Karen and Mark spoke to their children before they went ahead with the training.
“We knew that inviting someone new into our home would change the whole dynamic. If they’d been against it, we wouldn’t have gone ahead,” said Karen.
“They’re both very easy-going and were all for it. They’ve taken everything in their stride. It’s good for them to see that they’ve had a stable upbringing and there are others out there who aren’t in the same boat. What some of them have been through is heart-breaking.”
Mark became a full-time foster carer in 2016, whilst Karen works part-time for Royal Mail.
“I was made redundant in 2014 and, after pushing numbers around for 20 years, I decided to do something completely different,” he said.
“I got a care worker’s job in Tewkesbury and worked for two years with autistic teenagers. That was quite an experience.
“Then I thought about being a foster carer full-time. I was one of five children myself and love being in a busy household. I knew that Karen and me could do it.
“We liked Community Foster Care because it’s got charitable status and seemed like a big family. There’s a lot of support and training and everyone made us feel at home.”
His advice to others who might be thinking of becoming carers is to go for it.
“You need patience and resilience – it’s a 24-hr job like no other. You’re dealing with a young person who has a history that you haven’t been part of, who is vulnerable and often lost.
“But the rewards are huge. Children bring life to a house and you get a huge sense of achievement, especially when you see a smile on their faces and hear laughter, when they’re happy, safe and part of the family.”
For Karen, the challenge is to discover new ways of understanding. “Looking after someone else’s child is a huge responsibility and, even though you’re doing your absolute best, you still worry.
“It’s worth it though. When a child who has arrived with no light in their eyes and a totally blank face sits next to you on the settee and gives you a cuddle, that’s when you know you’re doing something worthwhile.”