Five years ago, Marsha Reeder and her husband John decided to become foster parents through the Barium Springs Home for Children in Iredell County, which runs a foster program for about 70 kids in a 10-county region.
One potential foster child they met was a first-grader so behind in schooling that he only knew the letters "A" and "I." More worrisome, they said, he had no life in his eyes.
"Maybe we should pass on him," Marsha Reeder recalled telling her husband. She's a 31-year employee at IBM; he owns an auto repair business in Denver. Their children were grown, and they were close to retirement.
Are you going to tell God you turned your back on the child he sent you? she recalled her husband saying. So they took the child in.
He'd been neglected. Nobody helped him with schoolwork. He talked about having to eat grass some days because there was no food in his home. "I don't like grass," he told the Reeders.
Within six months in their care, he was performing at grade level in school. "His eyes - they just sparkle now," Marsha Reeder said. He was even voted happiest kid in his class because he was known for smiling so much.
He was one of four kids the Reeders have fostered in the past five years. On Friday, they brought their current child to the Christmas party for foster children in the chapel at Barium Springs.
The campus is home to a variety of programs for troubled or at-risk youth, including a daycare center, a school, residential group homes and a high-security locked-down psychiatric home that has 23 staffers for its nine residents. Of the residential students on campus, about half are orphaned; the rest have been referred there by the juvenile justice system or social service agencies, doctors or schools.
Some middle-school-aged kids arrive at the group homes never having used a fork or sat at a table to eat a meal - all their food had come out of boxes or bags or was scrounged from wherever they could find it, staffers say.
Barium Springs served over 2,100 children and families from a 17-county region last year - more than double the year before. It is facing about $1 million in state budget cuts this fiscal year, even as staffers expect the need to continue increasing.
When it comes to foster care, the economy contributes to increased demand, said Marc Murphy, foster care director for Barium Springs. Financial stresses can worsen problems such as substance abuse or domestic violence that cause children to be removed from their homes. "We can't license foster parents fast enough to meet the demand," Murphy said. "Families who were already struggling are struggling more."
Among the program's recently licensed foster care parents are Andy and Lisa Foster. They have a 6-year-old son and wanted more kids, but were having trouble having their own. A few months ago, they took in two brothers, ages 11 and 4. They were apprehensive at first, but the 11-year-old was recently named student of the month in his class, and helps them take care of his shy younger brother, who rarely talks.
"There's all these kids out there that need homes, and we have the home so it would be crazy not to do it," Andy Foster said.
James Greene, who spent the recent Barium Springs Christmas party with a 15-month-old sleeping in his lap, has a similar philosophy. "(We're) just giving something back that the Lord has shared with us," he said. "(Crisis) could happen to any of us at any time."
Every child the Reeders has taken in has come to them deeply troubled. The challenges have been daunting, but not insurmountable. "There's just so much wrong, and to see it all melt away and become right - it's so rewarding," Marsha Reeder said.
How much longer do they see themselves taking in foster children?
Reeder shrugged. "I guess we'll keep doing it until they don't send any more kids."