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On Island Profile: Wencesles Smith

May 27, 2007 — It takes a lot of living to make a house a home, and it takes a whole lot more when your home harbors a changing community of disadvantaged youngsters.
Basic requirements for becoming a foster parent are explicit, but the most important quality cannot be regulated.
"I don't have a big home," says Wencesles Smith, "but I have a big heart. I love the kids and they know that." Smith and her husband, Winston Smith, have been selected as the 2007 Foster Parents of the Year. They have provided a loving environment for more than 20 youngsters over almost as many years.
It's easy to imagine Smith surrounded by children. She looks like your ideal grandmother pictured on an old-fashioned cookie advertisement. She has a gentle smile. She laughs a lot as she talks. You feel right away that you could easily talk to her.
There is another side to the caring however; Smith worked for 31 years as a manager in the V.I. Housing Authority, a post from which she retired in 2002. She knows something about management.
Looking out for others comes as naturally to Smith as breathing. Growing up on St. Martin, Smith says, "We always had family around — our parents, grandparents, even great-grandparents and the neighbors. All of us would look out for one another. If my mother would go off to work, there was always somebody there, and we never got in trouble."
The Smiths have opened their home to children less fortunate than their own for the past 17 years or so. They have three biological children: Kwame, 29, Terique, 26 and Chanique, 24. "When I was still working, my mother would babysit during the day," Smith says.
Early on in her days as a foster-care parent there was a two-year-old boy who grabbed her heart, Smith says. "I fell in love with him," she says, "and we decided to adopt him.”
Today Dariuis Smith attends Charlotte Amalie High School. "He is an honor-roll student," Smith says with obvious pride. "He wrote an essay about me in a contest in the Daily News — Best Mom of the Week — and he won a prize."
Raising other people's children is not for the weak of heart. It is a demanding job, one that runs 24 hours a day. "You have to love them," Smith says, "and you have to show them boundaries, too."
She continues, "There is so much abuse today, and I want to make a difference."
Elisa Niles, Human Services Licensing Specialist, says Smith brings something extra to her work with children.
"Every year, she goes above and beyond,” Niles says. “They take in the teenagers, which can be the most difficult age group, and they have done wonders. It's not an easy job. It takes a special dedication and a passion. Raising someone else's kids comes from the heart."
Many of the children who wind up in the foster-care system come from broken homes and/or homes where the children have suffered abuse or neglect, Niles says. "Foster care wants to provide these children with a nurturing atmosphere," she says. "You have to have probable cause to remove a child from his or her home."
Smith and Niles are seated in a room at the Human Services complex filled with toys, a little table and chairs and a bright red carpet. The room is colorful, a place where children can feel at home when waiting there for appointments.
Niles lauds Smith's work with teenage children. "Right now I have three, aged 14, 15 and 16," Smith says. "We never give out their names. All of them are doing well in school and at home."
There's a reason for that.
"When I take a new child," Smith says, "I first make them my friend. I ask if they would like something to eat. I show them where they are going to live, and I sit down with them to see if they want to talk, to share some feelings."
And, she says, "I let them know the rules. I take in the teenagers, those that are hard to place. Worship is an important part of our life. Some of the children have no religious background. I've had children who didn't know who Jesus was."
The children who leave the Smiths' home early each morning for school know who Jesus is.
"We have devotion every morning before school, or they don't leave the house,” says Smith, a Seventh Day Adventist. “Obedience is the key." Winston Smith contributes in that regard: "My husband is very quiet, but when he needs to, he gives them the eye. They know what that means."
Meal times are important. "You have to set guidelines,” Smith says. “In our home, we all sit down for dinner each night like a family.” She adds with a smile, "And then they do the dishes."
Smith leans forward. She is very serious. Pointing a finger like a schoolmarm, she says, "You have to be patient. You must figure out what it's like to walk in their shoes. If you don't, you won't keep them. They ask questions: 'Why doesn't my mom love me?' You have to have the answers."
Doing normal things outside the home is a big part of life, Smith says. "We always have a beach day each week, we eat outside, we have barbecues." She and her husband have taken care of upward of 20 children in the past 17 years. "They come and they go," she says. "After time, most of them go back with their families."
The foster-care program takes children from birth to 18 years old. "I've never had anyone reach 18," Smith says.
There are a few more youngsters in the Smith household these days. "Our grandbabies are here," she says, giving a huge smile. "Their mothers and daddies leave them off for us during the day — we have three now."
May is Foster Care month, and Niles and Smith make a plea for help from the community. "They need so much," Niles says. "A simple thing like an overnight bag would be so good. The children come to us with their belongings in plastic grocery bags. That's not good for their self-esteem. We always need toiletries, food and more foster parents."
The requirements for foster parents include being over 21 years old, owning or renting a home, being able to provide for one's own financial needs and the time to stay at home with the children.
To donate to the program or for more information, call 774-0930 or visit VIFosterCare.org.
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