Travel Raffle

Jimmy Wayne has us in the mood for Nashville Unplugged – one of five incredible trips in our Best of Travel raffle.

Buy tickets ($100 each) for the chance to take a trip of your dreams.


Nashville Unplugged: Tours of Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum and Ryman Auditorium, three-night stay at Renaissance Nashville Hotel, airfare for two


Charleston Luxury Getaway: Private historical photo tour of Charleston, dinner & wine pairings at Charleston Grill, Belmond Charleston Place three-night stay for two


Kentucky Bourbon Trail: Distillery tours & tastings at Stitzel-Weller, Maker’s Mark, and Jim Beam; lunch in Bardstown; private chauffeur; three-night stay; airfare for two


America’s Cup Yacht Sailing in San Diego: Sailing experience on America’s Cup yacht, Estancia La Jolla three-night stay in San Diego, airfare for two


Ultimate Pro Sports Fan Getaway: Lower level tickets to choice of a select regular season MLB, NBA, NFL, NHL, or PGA event, two-night weekend stay, airfare for two

Have Car, Will Travel

Janice Sanders is part of our family preservation team in New Hanover County | Wynona Benson Photography

The first rule in helping families stay together is meeting them where they are.

It was a rash, inexplicable decision.

The 19-year-old single mother had no reliable childcare for her son while she worked. Sometimes she’d get help from the child’s father and his family, but when she showed up at their home one Tuesday morning, expecting to drop him off, no one would answer her calls or knocks on the door. So she placed the 1-year-old boy on the front porch, left a voice message saying he was there, and she drove to her job. A neighbor found the child crying in the yard and, on that day, history repeated itself. The boy was placed into foster care, just as his own mother had been years earlier.

Janice Sanders is part of our family preservation team in New Hanover County, and she talks about working with the mother:

These cases can be hard, but we start with the positives. This mother loves her son, and she wants to be a good parent. She has housing and a steady job in retail. But she struggles with staying calm and making reasoned decisions when she’s upset. She never learned to do that. As a child, she was neglected in a lot of ways. She didn’t get the basic bonding and parenting we take for granted, and she ended up in the social services system, bouncing between foster homes and group homes. In the process she missed out on some basic coping skills, and the only way she knew to respond was to lash out or push back.

Now that she’s a young parent, she can see how this behavior is costing her own child the stability he needs. It’s been difficult for her to learn these lessons now, rather than earlier in life, but I feel like she’s made monumental progress. We’ve practiced and role-played so that she’s able to control her emotions and work through problems with counseling. She counts before she responds to something she doesn’t like. She keeps a journal to track how she’s doing. We’ve also used some simple techniques to help her think through choices, to see the pros and cons before acting.

I’ve worked in this field more than 25 years, and experience has shown me there’s good in all of us and there’s always opportunity to get it right. For some, it takes longer. In this case, I see a young mother who is becoming empowered for the first time in her life. She still has to meet social services’ goals to get her son back, but she is learning to stay in control and take responsibility. With that, I am satisfied.

Since 2004, our family preservation team has helped 981 families and 1,440 children in New Hanover County:

• About 80 percent of cases focused on keeping children in the home, exceeding 90 percent success.
• The remaining 20 percent were more difficult reunification cases, exceeding 70 percent success.

Family preservation services help parents build skills they need to prevent or minimize foster care placements for their children.

Ms. Jeffie is ready

The call comes without warning: A child in crisis needs a safe place to go. “Ms. Jeffie” is ready.

When social workers drive up to Jeffie Abernathy’s house, there’s usually a teen or pre-teen in the backseat who doesn’t want to be there. Some refuse to get out of the car; others threaten to run, like her last one, a 12-year-old girl. “She told me she was not going to stay here,” Jeffie says. “She said, ‘I don’t know this woman. I want to go home.’ ” But that child was about to learn what many others have come to know: It’s hard to resist the grandmotherly warmth of “Ms. Jeffie.” Not only that, sometimes it’s hard to leave when your time is up.

Jeffie is a rapid response foster parent, and she takes children with mental health diagnoses and intense needs. They stay only two weeks, but she piles on the love and prepares them for whatever comes next.

It takes a special kind of foster parent to reach these children. This is how Jeffie does it:

  • The first thing I do is assure them that they’re going to be all right here with me. I say, ‘When you walk through this door, you are mine. You are my grandkids.’
  • Then I ask what they like to do, what they like to eat. It’s all about what I can do to help them. On Saturdays I might take them to the movies or we go grocery shopping. I like them to relax. On Sundays we go to church. Love and structure – that’s what a lot of these kids need.
  • But I have my rules. I ask them to keep their room and bathroom clean. I tell them, ‘Do not take things. You don’t have to. All you have to do is ask, and if I don’t have it here, I will get it.’ Some children still take food and hide it.
  • On the day before they leave, I ask what they want for dinner. I’ve had one child come back to me a couple of times, and he wants a steak with a baked potato and salad. My last one wanted a Subway sandwich.
  • Sometimes they’re not going home. They might be going to a residential treatment facility, and I tell them to be positive: ‘You’re in this place for a reason, and it could help you with your strengths. Go with a positive mind and you will be all right. Accomplish your goals.’
  • I always take their picture so I can look back and think about them. And I tell them: ‘I am here for you. If you need me, call me. If you need somebody to talk to or if you want to hang with me, if I don’t have a child in care, we can hang.’ I want to be that person they can believe in, that grandmother they’ll listen to and know that I won’t tell them something wrong.

Jeffie’s photo album includes a smiling shot of the 12-year-old who’d stood in her driveway and threatened to run away. In their time together, Jeffie learned the girl loved croissants, no cheese; chai tea with cinnamon; yogurt with Oreo crumbles on top. She loved to ride horses. And, when her two weeks were up, she also loved Jeffie. “She told me before she left, ‘Ms. Jeffie, please don’t ever retire. You need to keep on doing this because you have helped me.’ It feels so good when a child says that to me. It’s just a blessing to be able to help.”

About Ms. Jeffie

• Mother of two, grandmother of seven, great-grandmother of two
• Retired from a 23-year career at International Paper in Alabama
• Moved to North Carolina to be near her daughter’s family
• Worked with special-needs adults before fostering children
• Foster parent since 2012
• Rapid response parent since 2015

Rapid response foster homes offer short-term care for children in immediate crisis as they move between foster homes, group homes, or psychiatric residential treatment facilities.

Foster & Adoption Sessions

Wake and Pitt counties | Are you interested in fostering or adopting?

We have information sessions to answer your questions about fostering and adopting through Methodist Home for Children. RSVP is required: Call 888.305.4321, ext.6, or email

On the agenda:
•  What it means to be a foster parent.
•  What the training & licensing process is all about.
•  What types of children are referred to our foster care/adoption program.
•  Dates for our next MAPP training class.

•  MHC Administrative Headquarters, 1041 Washington Street, Raleigh 27605
•  St. James UMC, 2000 E. 6th Street, Library (in building behind playground), Greenville 27858

October 2017
•  Monday, Oct. 2, Greenville; 6:30 to 8 p.m.
•  Wednesday, Oct. 25, Raleigh; 6:30 to 8 p.m.

November 2017
•  Monday, Nov. 20, Greenville; 6:30 to 8 p.m.
•  Wednesday, Nov. 29, Raleigh; 6:30 to 8 p.m.

December 2017
•  Tuesday, Dec. 5, Raleigh; 6:30 to 8 p.m.
•  Monday, Dec. 11, Greenville; 6:30 to 8 p.m.

Remember to RSVP!

Schoonmaker Family

It’s one of the sacrifices we ask of foster families – that they love and protect the children in their home and stand ready to let go.

Mandy and Doug Schoonmaker, and their daughter, Darian, are new to foster care and all of the rewards and challenges it holds for them. But they’re uniquely practiced as a family in loving hard and letting go. The test of their lives began in 2012 with a cancer diagnosis for Denny, their son and brother. It ultimately taught them to appreciate every moment together, and it opened their hearts to the suffering of foster children in the throes of losing all they know and love.

In her words: Mandy shares their story.

When I try to sum up the critical events of my life, it looks like this:

Aug. 28, 1996: The day I met my future husband, Doug, at a fraternity party in college.
Oct. 17, 2003: The day Doug and I got married.
Aug. 31, 2007: The day we had our first baby, a girl named Darian.
Aug. 31, 2009: The day our second baby was born, a boy named Denny. (Yes, they share a birthday!)
Jan. 9, 2012: The day Denny was diagnosed with liver cancer.
May 17, 2013: The day Denny received a liver transplant.
April 12, 2015: The day our son passed away.

We all have dates like this. The dates that we don’t have to look up. The ones that change our lives so significantly that we feel like a different person – our views, thoughts, and priorities immediately shift.

Let’s go back to our first baby.

Our family story easily could have ended with our daughter. I didn’t love being pregnant and our daughter was a beautiful handful as a baby. But both Doug and I have brothers and sisters we adore – siblings who drive us crazy in the very best way. We wanted our daughter to have that experience.

So, we had our second baby, Denny. Denny was 8 pounds, 6 ounces of perfection. Born on his sister’s birthday, they shared an immediate bond. I had a mini-me, Doug had a mini-him, Darian and Denny had each other – we were good.

In January 2012, we noticed that Denny was walking with a hunch. That prompted us to feel around in his belly – it felt hard. I took him to the doctor, dressed in a suit as I fully intended to head off to work after I had him checked out. Many hours and tests later, the doctor came in to tell us that Denny had cancer.

The conversation went like this:

Doctor: “Your son has liver cancer.”
Me: “I don’t understand what you’re saying. Are you telling me that he’s going to die?”
Doctor: “I don’t know. What I do know is that you’re going to get an opportunity to make more memories together as a family.”

There’s a lot of bad in that short conversation. Our son had cancer and we weren’t getting any assurances of a positive outcome. But there was also something that we could be certain of, and it was wonderful: You are going to have an opportunity to make more memories together as a family. This was something within our control.

The first year of treatment, Denny spent over 125 nights in the hospital, had 14 rounds of chemo and 8 surgeries. We learned quickly that kids are super resilient. It would have been reasonable for Denny to have been completely grumpy having all of that done to his little body. His personality wasn’t fussy at all though. He was happy, silly, sneaky, mischievous, and fun. He could be puking and partying within the same hour.

It also would have been completely reasonable for Darian to be mad or sad that we left her with family often to be in the hospital with Denny. That isn’t her personality either though. Darian is a caregiver, so gentle and kind. She is also happy and fun.

So we followed the kids’ lead. We gave them space to feel whatever they were feeling. If they wanted to relax and watch a movie, we did. If they wanted to play a game, we played. If they wanted to jump on the couch, we let them. We had fun in the hospital room, at our house, at Disney World. Sometimes, we didn’t feel like making memories – we felt like letting the time pass. But when we felt like making beautiful family memories, we seized the opportunity.

The second year post-diagnosis, Denny’s cancer was still there. We flew to Boston to meet with the transplant team. The team agreed to put him on the transplant list under one condition – we had to be willing to keep him in Boston until they said he could leave. Denny stayed in Boston for six months. We kept our family together there when we could.

The third year post-diagnosis, Denny’s cancer came back in full force. We had put his little body through so much. The doctors told us that they had no curative treatment to offer. We spent the next four months living what we called the “Make-a-Wish” lifestyle. Basically, that meant we let the kids pick crazy fun things to do all the time – Great Wolf Lodge, tubing, Disney World again, the beach, shopping sprees. Sometimes they didn’t want to go anywhere; they just wanted to eat Dunkin Donuts munchkins and M&Ms – and that was fine too. Denny said almost every day, “This is the best day ever.”

Of course, I wish Denny is still with us. But I feel incredibly lucky with the way things happened. I breathed in every bit of his essence. I traced the outline of his transplant scar at least a thousand times. I memorized the features of his face – the dimple in his right cheek that appeared first when he was trying to hide a smile and his super long eyelashes.

What I never would have expected is the way being Denny’s mother changed the way I feel about children. I am a literacy volunteer at Denny’s old school and when those kids read to me, I have such a deep appreciation for each of them. They are unique little creatures – some shy, some confident, some animated. For the few minutes I spend with them each week, I breathe them in. I am proud of them and love to see their progress. It’s like this for me with all children now. Kids that I may have thought were “bad” before Denny – I now think maybe they’re not feeling well or they’ve had a tough day.

Our hearts and our capacity to love grew after parenting through Denny’s cancer treatment. We started looking at adoption right after Denny died. After checking out adoption of older children, we began to consider: Could we foster kids? Would we be OK “losing” another child?

The more this sat with us, the more it felt like exactly what we should do.

Darian started calling our future foster kids “mystery kids.” Maybe we’ll get a boy, maybe a girl, maybe both, maybe a toddler, maybe a middle schooler, maybe tomorrow, maybe in a couple months – it’s a mystery!

Just like with any child, we don’t know how long they’ll be with us.

Just like with any child, they’ll have good days and bad days – or more accurately, good and bad moments within their days.

And just like with any child, we’ll have the opportunity to love them fiercely and make memories with them.

The Game of Life

Thad Hodge “sells” a 2014 Dodge Challenger to Montrell during Methodist Home for Children’s Real World event.

Remember your first paycheck? How shocking it was to see the deductions? How little was left after paying rent? Welcome to MHC Real World – a simulated life experience. Think of it as a crash course in adulting, a daylong adventure designed to give teens a taste of what it’s like to be all grown up. But not just any teens. These are kids who, for the most part, will be leaping into adulthood without the luxury of a family safety net. For them, the day is an eye-opening experience.

step1_2 MHC REAL LIFE – 10 steps
step 1, draw your card

Montrell has a college degree and business management & administration job that earns $32,000 in gross salary with $2,127.67 in monthly take-home pay, plus benefits
step2_learn step 2, learn:
Our volunteer experts lead crash courses on budgeting, banking, and insurance before the decision-making starts. Former foster parent and insurance agent Cleo Blue co-leads a session here.
step3_shop step 3, shop for needs:
Transportation, housing, utilities, insurance, furniture are available. Foster parent Thad Hodge shows Jamie the features on an SUV he’s considering for purchase.
spa_ step 4, shop for wants:
Is there room in the budget for clothing, entertainment, cable, dish network, Wi-Fi, or pets? Manicures and hair style are available here.
childcare_ step 5, major life decisions:
Parenthood is an option only one player considers; she realizes after visiting the childcare booth that she can’t afford a baby. “She asked if she could give her kid back,” says organizer Claudia Wiggins. “So that was truly the intention – to help them realize the high cost of parenthood.”
step4_pay step 6, stroke a check:
Cover your expenses, and remember to record them accurately in your checkbook register.
step5_surprise step 7, visit Surprise:
Foster care specialist Jennifer Garris is Surprise, and she hands out good news and bad. Montrell wins $300 in the lottery and pays $200 of it in taxes. Another player wins a car – good news except that she owes Surprise $524 for insurance and she already owns a car with insurance. She makes it work by going back to the car dealer and negotiating a return and refund.
step6_lifehappens step 8, life happens:
Pay up for physical therapy, which is expensive without insurance ($80 vs. $600 monthly).
step7_regroup step 9, regroup:
How do your decisions affect your bank account and your lifestyle? Montrell and Christian agree to share an apartment to save on housing and utilities. Montrell spends big on a Dodge Challenger with hemi engine; he ends up with about $300 left over. Christian opts for the affordable Honda Civic; he ends up with about $1,000 left over. Both teens want to own a business one day. Christian says: “It makes me think about what I can do if I achieve my goals. I want to go to college and open my own barber shop. I feel like I can do it.”
step8_icecream step 10, reward:
Ice cream for everyone. Thank you, Mister Softee! We are grateful to the partners who volunteered a Saturday to give our kids a sample of Real Life!

Build a Bigger Table

By Julie Williams Dixon | You learn to share when there are nine family members living together. You share bedrooms. You split chores. You divide minutes on the phone plan. You stake out time to watch television or play the gaming system. You divide portions around the dinner table and you wait your turn for someone to pass the salsa.

But these are just the ordinary things that happen in every family. This is the story of an ordinary family; the remarkable bit is how they came to be.

Michael and Sylvia met and married almost 33 years ago. Soon, they were the proud parents of a daughter, Sarah. When Sarah was barely 2, Michael and Sylvia adopted their 3-year-old niece, Candace. Six years later, they had another girl, Rachael, and two years after that, a son, Josh.

Then it got interesting.

Candace and Sarah grew up and left home; grandparents moved in. Sarah gave birth to a son, Caleb. The grandparents moved out. Michael and Sylvia became foster parents to Jessica and Allie. Sarah and Caleb moved back home. Hugo moved in, reuniting with Jessica and Allie, his sisters; then Michael and Sylvia adopted all three of them. There are pets, too, chickens and dogs. It’s a full house with high energy and plenty of love.

We joined the family recently for a meal and an intimate look at how they embraced the chaos and change to become just another ordinary family.

See more photos


Sylvia — age 55: Our life was pretty easy; we were almost done. Two of our children had moved out and the other two were in their teens. We were practically empty-nesters. But that isn’t what we were called to do. It was almost like God said with the house, ‘Fill it up or sell it. It’s too big for just the few of you.’ And at this point in our marriage we had so much experience and wisdom, we didn’t want that to go to waste. So we started thinking about adopting.

Meeting the three kids for the first time was exciting, but it was tempered by knowing that none of us would have been there if not for some tragic circumstances. After about a year, almost all the interactions evolved into what you would consider to be normal sibling interactions or parent-child interactions.

Michael — age 54: This was Sylvia’s idea and I struggled at first with the thought of adding to the family. But we started talking about it as a way to share the joy and relationships we have with others. When I read the adoption profiles [for Jessica, Hugo, and Allie], I knew without a doubt these were my kids. From that day forward, I’ve made decisions based on their well-being — things like taking a new job so I didn’t have to travel as much.

Meeting them was kind of fun but they were nervous as can be. Sylvia and I had the advantage that we’d read the reports and knew a little about them. But all they really had was a letter and some pictures from us.


Allie — age 12: It’s hard when you first move in but after one or two weeks, you start getting comfortable. The emotions of your foster kid depend on how you are treating them. I felt happy most of the time. Sometimes I could get annoyed because of my siblings. I would get frustrated in school or if I didn’t understand something. When it came closer to the day of our adoption, I got more and more excited. Every day I would feel loved even if I was mad, annoyed, frustrated, or sad. But that’s because I know that God loves me and I’m loved by my family and friends.

Hugo — age 15: At times, I felt sad and happy. Also mad.


Jessica — age 15: My mom loves to see all of her kids having fun with sports and family time. She shows her love to us every day no matter the situation. She always knows how to make us happy.


Josh — age 15: I had often asked [Mom and Dad] to adopt a brother for me but this has turned my world upside down. I was the youngest and the only boy. Now I’m a middle child with a brother. Over the last two years I’ve noticed my mother has developed a shorter fuse. Nothing too crazy but enough to be noticed. She’s stricter now and has a lower tolerance for tomfoolery.


Rachael — age 19: I didn’t expect to feel jealous, but at first it almost felt like betrayal. I didn’t like it when my parents would show them a lot of affection or say things to them like they’d said to me. Those feelings only lasted a few months, though. Now I’d describe my feelings as loving and joyful; the adjustment, I’d describe as difficult, fun, and rewarding.


Sarah, left — age 27: For a long time, I had been asking Mom and Dad to adopt again. I was really excited because it’s something I ultimately want to do myself. It’s been interesting to watch how everyone in our family is intertwining. It’s a slow process and each of us handles it a different way. We all have very different ways of expressing ourselves.

Candace, right — age 29: When you bring in a child who’s been hurt, they live in that hurt. They don’t know how to accept the kind of love you’re giving them. At first, there was a lot of crying or yelling with Mom and Dad, or between siblings. I could see the love the kids had right in front of them, but they were still acting that way. This brought up some strong emotions for me. It reminded me of the way I treated [our parents] when I was a teenager. Now, whenever I see my mom biting her tongue and I see the sadness in her eyes I know it’s the same reaction she had when I used to get mad and yell at her. I can see the same frustration in my dad that he had when I was rude to him. But there’s progress and I can see my parents becoming happier. Being a third party in this situation, it seems like a super-slow progression and I can feel my parents getting tired and worn out. I tried ‘watching’ the kids to give them a couple of date nights and even that was hard. My mom and dad have been amazing and now, two years later, there is such a difference. I’m relieved and happy for them and I’m proud of the kids for keeping up with it. I’m honored to call Sylvia and Michael my parents.


Sylvia homeschools the kids and leads them each day in a devotional, turning to Psalms for lessons in loving God and to Proverbs for lessons in loving one another. A family favorite is Proverbs 27, verse 17:

As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.

“Iron sharpening iron sounds like a harsh process,” Sylvia says. “But the application for our family is one borne out of love.”

When applied with love, the verse inspires trust. It requires honesty and openness. It reminds them all to keep one another’s best interests at heart. It allows a family, forged together from different life experiences — with all of the conflicting expectations, hopes, and fears — to be ordinary.

The Manley boys

Manley_Boys_2016At home with the Manley boys: 5-year-old James, 4-year-old Jeffrey, and 4-year-old Amari

Manley Famiy

Jackie and Jeff with boys, from left: Jeffrey, Amari and James

Ask them their names and they reply in unison: We’re the Manley boys! And, indeed, they are.

This preschool trio lives in Northampton County with Jeff and Jackie Manley, who became foster parents with Methodist Home for Children in 2010.

The Manleys had talked about adopting a boy, maybe a newborn, after they finished raising their two daughters, now 31 and 25. They fostered for five years, waiting for the right child, then MHC sent them profiles on brothers James and Jeffrey.

One look at the photos and it was all over. They had found their boys. After two months of visiting, James and Jeffrey moved in with the Manleys in December 2015; their adoption was completed on June 20. Jackie and Jeff are also in the process of adopting their godson, Amari.

adoption party

With gift bags from Wilson Temple UMC, celebrating the adoption of Jeffrey and James

The expanded family lives on a 5.5-acre lot along with their collection of goats, hens and hogs, and their pet dogs. The boys like to garden and swim in their pool, and they’re involved in T-ball, baseball, and church.

“They have adapted so well,” says Wake County social worker Chevar Williams. “It’s like they never lived anywhere else.”

The Stephensons

[easingsliderpro id=”13″]Carolyn and James Stephenson share their values and their sense of adventure with foster children in their home

When instinct might tell other people to lock their doors, James and Carolyn Stephenson open theirs.

They’re therapeutic foster parents with Methodist Home for Children, caring for runaways, gang-affiliated teens or whoever else comes to them through the juvenile justice system. They teach big life lessons like right vs. wrong, pick your friends wisely, value yourself — as well as basics like take a shower, ask permission, knock before entering, hold your fork properly.

They do it all with grace, humor and a toughness that’s served them in their own lifetimes, growing up in rural farming communities in the 1950s.

Their Back Story

“I tell the kids, ‘You’re just as good as that person over there,’ ” Carolyn says. “ ‘We’re all created equal. You can get the same thing that someone else has got.’ ”

These words no doubt have been spoken before by other adults, but James and Carolyn speak from experience.

James was the oldest of seven, living in a place and time when water fountains were segregated, front doors were for white people only and job prospects were mostly about working tobacco. He was “different,” curious about the world and unwilling to settle, and he told his mother he had to get out of rural Pitt County. He joined every high school activity he could, including a singing group that took him on tour out of state. He entered the Army at age 18 and left North Carolina in 1969, working as a pharmacy technician and seeing the world (Korea, Thailand, Japan, Hawaii and 30 other U.S. states). He spent 12 years in the military and raised three children with his former wife before coming back to North Carolina after his mother’s death in 2000. His work with juvenile offenders began when he was certified in 2002 to work in a group home and mentor troubled teens.

When James met Carolyn in 2004, she also was working with kids in trouble — middle-schoolers serving in-school suspension in Pitt County. She was their daytime mother, therapist, seamstress or whatever else they needed, and she had a huge heart for them, knowing many went home to struggling families. It was a theme from Carolyn’s own childhood, growing up the youngest of five kids who lost their father not long after she was born. Her mother worked harvesting and processing tobacco, so her older siblings took care of her and did chores on their grandfather’s farm. When she was in first grade, her teacher approached her mother and asked to keep Carolyn over the summer break. Her mother must have been relieved, she says, because she said OK. Carolyn remembers riding a tricycle up and down the sidewalks of Greenville that happy summer with her teacher. “She carried me to church, fixed my hair, put ribbons in my hair.” Afterward, she returned to the farm and “country life” without seeing the inside of a supermarket until she was 13. As an adult, she found herself struggling as her own mother had — a single mother of four, living in subsidized housing, surrounded by people who didn’t work. She wanted to do better, so she asked social services to help her go back to school. She did, and she went on to earn honor roll grades and a degree in human services.

James and Carolyn both knew they’d found a kindred spirit 12 years ago when they were introduced through church, and they were married on Aug. 27, 2005. In 2010, they became licensed as therapeutic foster parents and opened their home to kids in the juvenile justice system.

Therapeutic Foster Care

Their first foster child was 15 years old, just one day into her stay with the Stephensons, when they caught her heading out the back door with two kitchen knives stashed in her pants. “She was in a terrible place when we got her,” Carolyn says, and she had a history of running away.

James made the girl a deal in that moment, speaking just above a whisper: “OK. Nobody is going to hurt you. Here’s what we’re going to do. You’re going to give me something, and I’m going to give you something. What I’m going to give you is your freedom. We’re not going to call the cops. And you’re going to give me those knives.”

The persuading took more than an hour, but the girl finally laid the knives on the counter, and James put them away. The police never came, and trust sprouted in the heart of a suspicious child.

A few months later, the same girl was grinning in the Stephenson’s Christmas portrait, all of them wearing matching red sweaters, and the following summer, she vacationed with them at Virginia Beach for the first time. She lived with them for two years, and she never ran away from their home or approached the knife drawer without permission.

Since then, James and Carolyn have gone on foster about 20 court-involved children, getting to know each person’s likes and dislikes, showing them a wider world. They go to church, to restaurants, to ECU football games or Carolina Panthers games, and Carolyn makes their favorite comfort foods.

Generally, it takes six months to a year to build a bond with a child in foster care, says Erica Burgess, director of foster care & adoption, but the Stephensons can do it in three months. They don’t take it personally when someone messes up, and they have a gift for connecting with teens and their families, even years after they’ve left. “I tell them, you’re not done with us when you go home,” James says. “We’re going to be there. If I have to drive there to see you, I’m going to be there.”

The Stephensons will always take that 2 a.m. phone call when a teen is in trouble and doesn’t know what to do. They’ll also know which kid likes Chinese food and make sure he gets it on his birthday.

And that girl with the kitchen knives? She’s married now and the mother of two children. They talk every few days, and last weekend, they joined her at a surprise party for her mother-in-law.

“We are so proud of that one,” James says. “I tell you that.”