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Newton, Rockdale foster parent authors book on experiences

CONYERS -- Monticello resident John DeGarmo has held a host of interesting jobs in his life.

He presently works in the Jasper County School District as a media specialist and has also taught high-school English and drama, hosted his own radio show, toured with the group Up With People, and has even toiled as a manager of professional wrestlers.

But the toughest job he's ever loved involves the lost children of Georgia.

DeGarmo -- who earned his Ph.D in educational leadership from Walden University last December -- and his wife Kelly have for the last 11 years served as foster parents and have welcomed more than 30 children into their home during that time. DeGarmo said he felt called into foster parenting during his days as a teacher.

"When I was teaching, I'd come across many students who I learned had been neglected and abused," he said. "And when I'd meet their parents, it made me think that perhaps I could make a difference. After a lot of prayer, my wife and I took an extensive amount of training and underwent police checks, background checks and numerous house inspections. This is something you've really got to want to do."

After completing his doctoral dissertation on the challenges foster children face in public schools, DeGarmo decided to commit his story to print, writing, "Fostering Love: One Foster Parent's Journey," which was published in early August by CrossBooks, a division of LifeWay Christian Bookstore.

"When I finished my dissertation for my doctorate, I found that I really enjoyed the writing process," said DeGarmo, who writes for several foster parenting publications and also pens a gardening column for a number of newspapers. "I wanted to share my story with other foster parents, and as the story unraveled, I found it was story for anybody who has a heart for children or anybody who likes a good dramatic, inspirational story."

Not surprisingly, "Fostering Love" is inspirational, but few of the examples cited in the book conclude happily.

With three children of their own and an adopted child, the DeGarmos now take care of two foster children, ages 2 and 6. DeGarmo said they've had children in their home for as long as 18 months and as briefly as one day. He added that in all their years as foster parents, they've only been able to keep up with one of their former charges.

"Of the 30 children we've had in our home, sadly, we've only been able to keep up with one of them and she's now 21 years old and in college, and she calls us Mom and Dad," he said. "That was a very rough foster case, rough situation. I'd love to find the other ones but many of the children go back to their birth parents, who usually make it pretty clear that the foster parents are the enemy, so we generally lose all contact. So you just pray and hope that you've planted a positive seed.

"You never know if the story has a happy ending. At first, it's hard to deal with the challenges of a new foster child, who may be a meth baby or an abused teenager. And then you become attached and grow to love that child, which makes it really hard when they have to go away. There are always a lot of prayers involved."

DeGarmo, who through the years has had a number of foster children from Newton and Rockdale counties reside in his home, will speak to the Newton County Foster Parents Association in October on a subject that has just recently reared its head in the realm of foster children.

"I'll be speaking on foster children and social networking," he said. "A lot of foster children are getting on Facebook and getting in touch with their birth parents and in a lot of cases, the birth parents are stalking them. Publishing a photograph of a foster child is not allowed, but foster children are putting their photos on Facebook and having communications with their birth parents, which is also not allowed.

"It's such a new phenomenon that foster agencies don't have a handle on it yet, so I talk to groups about monitoring internet access and use and applying internet safety locks. We've had some experience with this and it was a very disturbing experience for us."

And while serving as a foster parent can be a grueling, heartbreaking existence, DeGarmo said there's no way he wouldn't consider continuing in this most critical of societal roles.

"It's a lifelong commitment," he said. "We feel called to do it it's how we serve."

For more information on John DeGarmo's foster parent experiences and on "Fostering Love," visit http://www.drejohndegarmo.com/ or his Facebook page (Dr. John DeGarmo).