LANCASTER — It all started over two decades ago with a newspaper ad that Marlene Mackey just couldn't get out of her head. “It just kind of stuck with me,” said Mackey, 56, Lancaster.
The ad Mackey saw was for SC MENTOR, a for-profit, statewide organization that is contracted with the state's Department of Social Services to place children up to age 18 with special needs or behavioral problems in the foster care system.
The organization trains and coordinates “mentors,” or specialized caregivers, to provide foster homes for children that require added attention. Parents receive supplemental funding to care for the children and are trained in mediation, first aid, therapeutic care, and anti-drug and alcohol education.
When Mackey saw the ad about the program, she and her husband of 34 years, Menzell, had recently become empty-nesters with two grown children of their own. In the years since they became mentors in the early 1990s, they estimate they've fostered over 25 children of varying ages—three of which were pregnant or had their own children at the time.
“People have actually said, 'Why would you do this?'” Mackey said of the couple's choice to take in children that might have been “tougher” than most. “It's not for everybody.”
The couple also adopted three children from the program—a 17-year-old named Tevin, a 13-year-old named Teressa, and most recently this past June, a 2-year-old named Jamarcus. All three children require special care for medical conditions.
Tevin, who attends Lancaster High School and recently received his driver's license, is fairly independent now, but had open heart surgery at age 8 and suffers from a blood platelet disorder.
His younger sister, Teressa, has cerebral palsy and other conditions that require lifelong 24/7 care. The youngest, Jamarcus, has chronic lung disease and developmental delays.
The primary requirement for being a “mentor,” the couple agreed, has been patience.
“Every now and then they get crazy,” Mackey said of her children, whose schedules include early morning medications, doctor appointments, daily catheterization and feeding tubes. “You learn ways to manage.”
Programs like SC Mentor, which are based on fostering children in household environments, are an alternative to institutional facilities for troubled or disabled youth.
James Stewart, a Program Recruiter for SC MENTOR, said the program tries to provide a stable home environment for the kids that need it the most. “We have folks that have cared for children since birth,” he said of the program, adding that the long-term placements “give these children a chance at being successful in life.”
The Mackeys have taken care of Tevin since he was 8, Teressa since she was 10, and Jamarcus from 9 months old.
But the Mackeys also admit that not every child, or client, has been a home run.
“They had their own set mind, they were used to that freedom, and angry,” Menzell said of some of the teens the couple has fostered throughout the years. The program includes children with special needs, but also juvenile offenders and children with behavioral issues.
Stewart said that getting parents who are willing to put in the extra effort to go through training and provide specialized care on a daily basis can be an added hurdle.
And like any family, the Mackeys must continue to provide care for their children amid financial troubles. Both Marlene and Menzell are former mill workers and have struggled in the years since to secure permanent employment as the industry collapsed.
Each of the couple’s adopted children have biological parents in the state, but all have waived their parental rights. The Mackeys said they try to keep in touch with the children’s biological parents and that their home is “always open.”
Mackey said she and her husband decided to adopt the children because she simply couldn’t see anyone else take care of them the way they had. “It's part of our calling.”
Jie Jenny Zou• 803-329-4062