It was an afternoon of standing ovations and heartfelt speeches as SMART child and family services of Windham reflected on a decade of matching needy children with foster families.

“I don’t know where I’d be today if it weren’t for SMART,” said Jenny, a former foster child who was taken in when she was eight years old.

Jenny talked of the comfort and support she got from her foster parents, how they stuck with her through times when she was difficult and rebellious and how they helped her to envision and achieve a life with dreams and goals.

Outside the SMART offices on Route 115 in Windham, a crowd gathered last Friday morning under a tent to listen to stories like Jenny’s from foster children, parents, legislators and founding members, all in celebration of SMART’s ten-year anniversary.

“The people at SMART are dedicated to making a difference in children’s lives,” said Assistant Executive Director Jo Bradeen.

Starting off the celebration, Bradeen gave a brief history of the organization. SMART, former known as Southern Maine Alternative to Residential Treatment, began in Cornish as a group of foster mothers who wanted to create a foster agency that focused on long-term support of foster children and the families that took them in, she said.

They originally set up an office near the Route 302/202 rotary in Windham, said Bradeen. With no electricity and no outside funding, the foster mothers subsisted on crackers, juice and “questionable cheese” in the candlelit office, waiting for their phones to ring.

When the phones did begin to ring and the group began placing children in foster care, SMART soon found support from many foster parents who appreciated its dedication to the “whole family unit.” SMART became an official foster agency shortly thereafter and the foster mothers began to see their dream come to life.

“They had to hang onto that dream though,” Bradeen said, “because they didn’t get any stipend checks for another 6 to 8 weeks.”

SMART later moved its headquarters to its current office on Route 115, said Bradeen, in a house that once served as a hidaway for fugitive slaves as part of the “underground railroad” during the 1800s. Now, that house continues its legacy of helping others by placing foster children in proper care. And though SMART has flourished and grown over the years to include a mental health program for adults and youth, its values remain the same along with the dedication of its foster parents.

“The biggest thing that hasn’t changed is the perseverance, loyalty and devotion of foster parents,” Bradeen said. “I believe they have one of the hardest jobs in the world, but also the most rewarding. How much better can life get than to make a difference in a child’s life.”

Gregia Waldron, a founding foster mother of SMART, told the audience her reasons for becoming a foster parent.

“When I first got into foster care after working in shelters for years, I just wanted to stop the ripple effect for one kid,” Waldron said. “I said to myself ‘If I can just stop that chain reaction, I will feel like I’ve done my part as a human being to make this world a better place.'”

Waldron’s daughter Becky, whom she adopted as a foster parent, now works as a case worker at SMART helping other children through the same struggles she once dealt with.

At Friday’s event, Becky and several former foster children gave speeches about their experiences. Others sang and played music for the SMART celebration.

U.S. Rep. Tom Allen and State Rep. Mark Bryant also spoke before the audience, commending SMART for their decade of success.

“I want to live in a country where every child has a chance and every adult has a role to play,” U.S. Rep. Tom Allen said. “And I think that SMART embodies those goals and those values as well as any organization I know.”

Allen went on to say that he would “do everything in (his) power to stop the trend in Washington of reducing support for domestic programs across the board.”

Lack of support for “domestic programs” has led to recent cuts in pay for foster parents and foster children’s clothing allowance. This has made it difficult for many foster parents to continue to provide care, Allen said.

Sandy and Thomas McPherson, foster parents who have worked with SMART for many years, are planning to call it quits for just this reason.

“It’s impossible to be a foster parent today,” Thomas said. “It’s 24-7 for peanuts.”

Thomas said he and his wife don’t do it for the money. However they are now unfortunately finding they can no longer afford to be foster parents.

Marie Hodgkin, now retired from being a foster parent, said she got involved “for the love of kids.” And though SMART has been extremely supportive over the years, Hodgkin said she also was unable to continue providing for foster children because of the pay cuts.

And though Marie and her husband have stopped providing foster care, she still keeps in close contact with many of the children they have taken in over the years. Her first foster child, now a grown adult, has a baby of his own who calls her Grandma.

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