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Having a police cruiser pull into the driveway at 3 a.m. and hearing the car door slam shut is unexpected, to say the least.
But not for 78-year-old Sarah Kirkland. She’s grown used to it.
As soon as “Ms. Sarah” heard the officer knock on the door of her Cedar Run Road home in the Pleasant Hill community, the kitchen lights were on and the bath water was running.
That’s because there was a special love in her house that could meet a special need.
“It never scared me because I knew why they were coming,” she said.
Life isn’t a piece of cake, but there is always some in Kirkland’s kitchen.
For more than two decades, 122 kids with no other place to go found a temporary place to stay and Ms. Sarah’s special brand of love.
Most call them foster children and call her a foster parent.
But not Kirkland. Although she is retiring from that role, “foster” is a word she refuses to use.
“I never say foster children – I say they are mine while they are here,” said Kirkland, who was honored with a surprise dinner by the Department of Social Services, the S.C. Foster Parent Association (SCFPA) and her family and friends this week.
“Ms. Sarah is truly a unique lady who has matched the calling on her life,” said Janice Chapman, DSS director for Lancaster County. “She has been a mother for a lot of people. Being a foster parent is a calling. You have to be called to do it.”
Carl Brown, SCFPA executive director, said Kirkland’s role in the lives of children cannot be overlooked.
“When we do God’s work, all of God’s people must come together,” he said. “I don’t think there is any greater calling on our lives than raising our children and she has certainly done that. The greatest thing we can do is touch the lives of others.”
Kirkland has never considered her foster parent role as a calling. She sees it as meeting a need.
“You have to be a good person to take in someone’s children and raise ’em up,” she said. “It’s not going to be easy every day, but you do the best that you can.”
Kirkland’s daughter, Sharon Erving, still recalls the phone call from her mom some 26 years ago to explain that she was about to become a “foster sister.”
“I was away in college at Vorhees and Mama called to say that I was about to have a 6 and 7-year-old brother and sister,” Erving said. “You don’t forget phone calls like that.”
What prompted a widow with six children (two were adopted), eight grandchildren and six great-grandchildren to become a foster parent?
Kirkland said it was simply seeing a need God could use her to fill.
“In the beginning I was really scared,” she said. “But most of the children never had the right kind of guidance and love.
“It has to come from the heart,” Kirkland said. “If you don’t have God, you won’t ever treat them right. I’ve just always tried to raise each of them like they were my very own. I especially enjoy it when they start improving in school.”
In South Carolina, children ranging in age from birth to 18 years are placed in foster care for a variety of reasons and must live apart from their families for a period of time.
Sometimes it’s due to neglect or abuse.
Other times it’s due to family situations out of the child’s control and they need a secure, loving place to temporarily stay. Some foster children only stayed with Kirkland for a few days. In other cases, they stayed longer, until it is safe to return to their biological home. The first two children Kirkland took in stayed for five years.
“Whenever they call me, I always accept them,” Kirkland said.
An attitude of service is what separates Kirkland, said Eugene Williams, who is her deacon at Second Calvary Baptist Church.
“I have known her for 58 years and she has done so much for so many children,” Williams said. “They all look up to her as a mother.”
That is the one role Kirkland does cherish. Erving said at least twice a month, a car will pull into mother’s driveway on Sunday afternoon.
And just like those early morning unexpected visits, the car doors will slam.
“It will be one of the foster children coming by to see how Mama is doing,” Erving said.
“They’ll be looking for a piece of cake, too,” Kirkland said, laughing.