Mark and Vickie Hickman. Photo by Ned Jilton II.
Out of thousands of foster families around Tennessee, a Kingsport couple took home the award for 2013 Foster Parents of the Year.
Mark and Vickie Hickman didn't know they would go down the path of foster care. That is, until some children in their church went up for adoption.
"The Lord had laid it on our hearts to adopt," Vickie said. "If we were going to adopt, we needed to do it before we got older. We prayed about it, talked about it and cried about it."
Eventually the two siblings moved in with the Hickmans, who now have permanent legal guardianship. Legal guardianship means the brother and sister live with the couple and the Hickmans have some rights as parents.
Neither the Hickmans nor the Department of Children's Services felt it was in anyone's best interest to completely sever the mother from the two children's life.
The guardianship started their journey into being foster parents.
In order to be a foster parent, a person first has to get qualified. The first step is to call 1-877-DCS-KIDS.
The next step is to give some basic information. DCS will then run background checks, talk to the potential parents and do a home inspection, among other things. The reason for this is so DCS can get a snapshot of who the person is and what they have been through.
Once all of that happens, which is a free process that takes about three or four months, the parents are then required to complete at least 21 hours of training.
"We don't have to screen out a whole lot of people," said Vanessa Addington, resource parent support case manager.
Addington said they talk with potential couples about their finances, but don't dig too deep.
Mark is a manager at Arby's and Vickie is secretary at Holy Mountain Baptist Church.
DCS just wants to make sure the parents can pay all of their bills without the stipend the state provides for being a foster parent, Addington said.
There is a huge need in the Northeast Tennessee region for foster parents. There are currently 832 children from this region in state custody, but only 225 DCS resource homes in the area.
Once the Hickmans started foster care, they realized if they wanted more kids, they would need a bigger house. So the couple decided to sell the house they were living in and buy a new one. The old house was bought and paid for, but wasn't big enough, so they moved to a five bedroom home.
About the same time, Addington was looking for placement for three siblings. She was talking with a co-worker and decided to ask the Hickmans if they would be interested.
DCS fights to keep siblings together because the ultimate goal is to reunite the children with their birth parents. She said it was hard because most foster parents have kids themselves. The two hardest groups of children to place are siblings and teenagers, she said.
The Hickmans accepted the three children into their home.
"We thought it was important to take in more siblings," Mark said. "We play baseball with the boys in the backyard. We had to buy a big enough table for everybody to eat at."
Vickie said with six children in the home — the couple also have an 18-year-old daughter who is a senior in high school — things can get challenging at times. But she also said it is a blessing and a joy.
The children have chores to do and work on homework. The family is planning a vacation to Orlando later this year and the chores are helping the kids raise spending money. For every chore the kids do, they get a sticker. Each sticker is worth a quarter, so the more stickers they have, the more spending money will be available to them.
The Hickmans also keep the families of the children involved in their lives. Mark said when one of the children has a sporting event or recital, they will contact the child's family. And when the family comes, they all sit together. He also said he wants to involve the parents because they are important too.
"Our philosophy is the birth parent's soul is just as precious as the kids'," he said.
When forms were sent out for foster parents of the year, the Hickmans were immediately nominated. Any person can nominate any foster family across the state.
Once the nominees were in, a select group of people go over all nominees and determine who goes above and beyond the normal duties and who would be best to represent foster families across Tennessee.
The Hickmans had no idea they had been nominated. They were at a conference for training when they found out they had won, back in September.
"I felt like we didn't deserve it," Vickie said. "We were only in our second year of being foster parents."
Mark said it was gratifying to be recognized, but the biggest thing it did was allow him to spread the word about being a foster parent.
The three siblings the couple took in may get to go home soon because their birth mother is doing well.
Even if the kids get to reunite with their birth mother, the Hickmans still plan to take the three on vacation after asking the mother if it would be OK.
While it will make the couple sad to see them go, they knew what would happen when they signed up to be foster parents.
"You treat them like they are your kids," Mark said. "It helps with their stability. You can make a difference in a child's life just by opening up your home. It is important to invest in kids."