Great Britain

I was 22 when I fostered a 15-year-old girl – she was my bridesmaid and now I’ve cared for SIX other children

BRIDE-to-be SallyAnn was just 22 when she welcomed her first foster child into her home, swapping romantic weekends away with her fiancé for motherhood.

Yet instead of taking on a young child or baby, as she'd expected, she suddenly found herself becoming Mum to a 15-year-old girl - who looked more like her pal than her foster daughter.

It was a daunting prospect for SallyAnn and her husband-to-be Ryan, also 22 - who had never parented a child before, never mind a vulnerable teen just seven years their junior.

But, they tell Sun Online, their small age gap actually "worked wonders" - leading them to become so close with their foster child they asked her to be their bridesmaid at their wedding.

'It was really bizarre - but really nice'

"Sometimes, I'd take a step back and think this is really bizarre - but it was really nice," says SallyAnn, now 25. "Having her as our bridesmaid was one of our biggest highs as foster carers."

SallyAnn and Ryan - who have since fostered six other children in three years and have a toddler son of their own - are among a soaring number of young foster carers in the UK.

According to TACT, Britain's largest fostering and adoption charity, three times as many people in their 20s are enquiring about becoming foster carers now than a year ago.

Once approved by the organisation (they must be over 21 and have a spare bedroom, among other criteria), they can then provide a loving and stable home for children in need.

It's a huge - and incredibly selfless - decision to make.

Yet young foster carers tell Sun Online they can still party with pals and go on fun weekends away - while making a huge difference to the lives of the kids they foster.

"Being younger is not a barrier to becoming successful foster carers," says TACT CEO Andy Elvin.

"TACT has long recognised the skills and abilities that younger adults can bring to fostering.

"Having younger foster carers can work well with teenagers because the smaller age gap means that they can relate well to each other better and create a more trusting and open channel of communication."

Here, SallyAnn and another young foster mum, Marie, share their experiences with Sun Online.

'I was 22 when I fostered girl, 15, with my boyfriend'

SallyAnn and her husband Ryan, both 25, live in the West Midlands. They have fostered seven kids in three years and have their own toddler son, Tommy.

SallyAnn says: "Growing up, I'd always wanted to be a mum. I was 11 when I first became aware of fostering - at the time, my sister was in a mother and baby foster placement.

I understood that fostering was similar to adoption - that people offered stable homes and support to young people - but it's not something I thought deeply about back then.

I left home myself aged 16 and, after studying healthcare in college, started working at a private nursery. After I was made redundant, I became a self-employed nanny.

Over the next two years, I worked for several foster families - which really opened my eyes to the highs and lows of fostering, and how much vulnerable children can benefit.

I felt so ready and didn't see the point of waiting until we were 30 or 40

At the time, I was dating Ryan, and I told him it was something I wanted to do.

I'd met Ryan through a friend in 2012 and we'd really hit it off.

We often had friends over, and went on day trips and weekends away together. We'd always spoken about having kids - when the time was right - but we hadn't talked about fostering before.

I didn't think he'd be interested at all, but I felt so ready and didn't see the point of waiting until we were 30 or 40. I also wanted us to foster before having our own children.

I thought it would be easier to bring our birth children into an existing foster family - they'd be used to sharing their Mum and Dad and hopefully be more resilient to change.

I left it with Ryan for a few weeks. Eventually, he came back with, 'Why not?'

We were just 22 when we became foster carers through TACT.

We had originally planned to foster children aged seven and under because of our young age and the fact that, at the time,  I was studying for an early years degree.

However, our first placement, in 2016, was a 15-year-old girl!

There was just over six years between us, so we were a little nervous... would she respect us as carers, would we get the balance between understanding her and parenting right?

But our age gap actually worked wonders. She settled in really well.

Our age gap worked wonders... she'd tell people I was her cousin

The teen's sisters, who were also in care, wouldn't go out with their own  - much older - foster families because they felt embarrassed. Yet with us, there was no stigma.

When I picked her up from school, she'd tell people I was her cousin.

We did everything with her - from shopping and cinema trips to days out with family and friends. She even came on holiday with us to Tenerife and Cornwall.

She wouldn't call us Mum and Dad, just Sally-Ann and Ryan, which felt right. And while she did have a specific 'bed time', we discussed it with her first.

Could you become a foster carer?

FOSTERING a child is a huge, life-changing commitment - but one that is often so rewarding for both the adult and the youngster they are caring for.

"Most of all, fostering brings feelings of accomplishment, pride and joy," says SallyAnn, who currently has a foster son and her own toddler, Tommy.

The application process typically takes around six to eight months, with stages including a home visit, criminal record checks, social worker meetings and extensive training.

According to the UK fostering and adoption charity TACT, applicants must meet the following criteria:

Applicants don't have to be in a relationship to become a foster carer. Their marital status, sexuality, age, and whether or not they own a home, will not impact on their application.

Those approved as foster carers receive a maintenance allowance for the child they're caring for, which covers essentials such as food, clothing, transport and household expenses.

They also get a foster carer fee - which varies depending on circumstances.

Sometimes, I'd take a step back and think this is really bizarre - but it was really nice. Of course, there were a few minor challenges, but nothing that made us think 'right, we can't do this anymore'.

And when Ryan and I got married at a local church in July 2017, we had the pleasure of having her as our bridesmaid - one of our biggest highs as foster carers.

Months later, she proudly accompanied us to scans after we found out we were expecting our own son Tommy, born on September 8, 2018.

Our foster daughter stayed with us until she was 17, when she decided to live independently. We were sad to see her go, but you do what's best for them - and we're still in contact today.

Since then, we've cared for six other children - mostly, short-term 'respite' placements. The kids have ranged in age from six to 16, even though we're still just 25 ourselves.

I gave up most of my nanny work to foster, but Ryan and I only get paid when we've got a placement. When we're waiting for a new referral, there's no income coming in.

However, Ryan does work, and his wage covers the bills.

It's really hard when a child leaves, but unfortunately that's the way fostering is.

At the moment, we have a six-year-old boy who has been with us since last July. At first he was anxious and had quite a few breakdowns, but now he fits in great.

He does tag rugby and swimming, and wants to start karate. We hope to have him long-term, maybe until he's 18. I've always said I'd like to adopt.

He and Tommy absolutely adore each other. Their faces light up when the other enters the room.

At Christmas, both the boys had Christmas Eve boxes left by 'Elfie' - Elf on the Shelf - packed with new pyjamas, festive stories, and treats.

You can still have a social life and go away with pals - it just takes more planning

We visited our close family, enjoyed a three-course meal at our local carvery, went to the Christmas panto, and spent the evening playing games.

Our foster son was so worn out by the excitement we had to actually wake him on Christmas Day! We're now looking ahead to more family time and holidays in 2020.

I also want to continue fostering - I absolutely love it.

I'm not majorly bothered about 'missing out' on things like partying. You can still have a social life and go away for the weekend with friends - it just takes more planning.

Don't get me wrong, it's really challenging at times. But when you see the difference you're making to a child and their life, that makes it worth it."

'We've fostered 6 kids - including a five-month-old baby'

Marie, 28, and her husband Brayden, 30, live in West Yorkshire. They have fostered six kids in two years, including a five-month-old baby girl.

Marie says: "I had a perfect childhood and didn't see myself fostering.

I originally wanted to be an air hostess, and even studied travel and tourism at college for a year. I later changed my mind and worked as a carer for the elderly for a while.

I soon realised caring is definitely my thing.

When I was 18, I met Brayden through mutual friends and three years later, on my 21st birthday, we got married. We did discuss having children, but just said: 'Some day'.

As a couple, we used to socialise with friends a lot and go on yearly holidays.

But other than that, we were pretty boring.

Brayden's parents, Michelle and Christopher, were foster carers and, after watching them make such a difference to children's lives, I ended up deciding I wanted to do the same.

'We could just do what your mum does and help other children', I told Brayden.

And fortunately, he agreed.

Applying to become foster parents took about nine months.

While TACT went through our backgrounds in detail - from our upbringings and parents to past employers - we swapped our rented two-bedroom home for a four-bedroom house.

Eventually, in April 2018, we were approved by the charity.

Our first placement was a 12-year-old girl, who came to us straight from home.

She hadn't had a good upbringing really. She wasn't doing well in school and was often in detention. Her little sister had been placed elsewhere.

She did start her periods with us, but she was aware of it all

I was wary to begin with because there wasn't that much difference in age between us - I was only 26 and Brayden was 28. But our new foster daughter was a dream.

She had her own room, which she decorated, and used to have her friend sleep over quite a bit. We took her out for meals, trampolining and on her first ever holiday, to Cornwall.

She did start her periods when she was with us, but she was aware of it all. She had previously had a 'stop gap' at her auntie's - who had prepared her for things like that.

We had a really good relationship with the girl - possibly because we were so young ourselves - but if she wanted a phone in her room and the answer was, 'No', she'd kick off a bit.

Three weeks after she arrived, she asked us if we would mind her calling us 'Mum' and 'Dad'.

We replied, 'Whatever you're comfortable with' - though I must admit when she first started calling me 'Mum' I didn't answer because I didn't know who she was speaking to!

Before long, our foster daughter was doing brilliantly at school, with no detentions. She even became a mentor for younger students, which was so rewarding to see.

Having a baby in the house was a big shock... I didn't have nine months to learn how to do things like feed or bathe her

About four months into her placement, Brayden and I took on another two children - a five-year-old boy, who was quiet and reserved, and his five-month-old baby sister.

They were an emergency placement - I got the call at 10am and they arrived just after 6pm.

Having a baby in the house was a big shock to the system. They are very dependent on you - and I didn't have nine months to learn how to do things like feed or bathe her.

Our older foster daughter was a bit jealous to begin with, but she soon helped them to settle in. We made a lot of happy memories - and shared a lot of laughs - as a family of five.

The youngest loved men - Brayden was definitely her favourite!

The 12-year-old later moved out to live with her auntie, which was the right move at the time. And when the siblings were six and one, they also went to live with a relative.

By this point, the little girl could crawl, lift her head up and had her teeth. I was so proud. I can't lie, it's hard to let go, but we've seen the younger ones since they've left.

And just a day after they left last year, three other siblings moved in!

They're seven, six and four, and as mad as a box of frogs.

They keep us on our toes, but are all lovely. We've put up reward charts on their walls for good behaviour, which work a treat, and take them to school every day.

Brayden and I both work - I do healthcare training and he's a groundworker.

We don't work at the same time, but we think it's really important the children see both of us working. They need to know it's something you do to get money.

Although we're the only ones with children in our friendship group, our pals are brilliant - they'll come to us, and Michelle looks after the kids if we're out for a birthday.

Fostering doesn't ruin your life - you can still party, just not all the time.

Brayden and I were never party-goers anyway. I get more pleasure out of buying the children things rather than myself... they're better dressed than me!

I'm a maternal person - but we don't want our own kids.

We've got enough on our hands, and I feel like fostering is more rewarding anyway.

I hope we can keep doing it into old age."

Lydia Bright's mum reveals she has fostered 250 children over 23 years