heart for kids

Carolyn Rivera of North Charleston, who has cared for more than 80 children and adopted three during her nearly three decades as a foster parent, was named the South Carolina Foster Parent of the Year.

When Carolyn Rivera first laid eyes on Maurice, he was new to the world, a premature baby weighing just a few pounds and wearing a heart monitor, and he was arriving at her house for foster care.

Caring for any child can be a challenge, but imagine caring for someone else's premature baby. Twice, baby Maurice had to be resucitated after he stopped breathing, Rivera said.

Maurice not only survived, but thrived, and is now 13-year-old Maurice Rivera. He's one of three foster children Rivera has adopted, and one of more than 80 she's cared for during nearly three decades as a foster parent.

Rivera didn't set out to become one of South Carolina's most prolific foster parents, but simply decided to give foster parenting a try back in the mid-1980s, after being encouraged by an aunt and a friend.

"They said 'Carolyn, you love kids so much, why don't you become a foster parent?'" Rivera recalled. "My husband, who was living at the time, said 'Well, we'll give it a try.'"

Rivera at the time was married, working, and living in West Ashley with two young children of her own.

"We took a few hours of training, and then the kids started coming," she said. "And they kept on coming."

Now 64 years old, widowed and living in North Charleston, Rivera has an easy smile that belies the ongoing challenges of caring for foster children, many from troubling circumstances. She was honored last month as the 2014 Foster Parent of the Year by the South Carolina Foster Parent Association.

From babies to pregnant teenagers, Rivera cared for them all.

She kept on serving as a foster parent after her husband's death 20 years ago. She didn't slow down when the Navy Base shut down in North Charleston two years after that, eliminating Rivera's data-processing job there.

After the base closing, Rivera worked in a series of jobs, including being a housekeeper, that allowed her to work during hours her foster children were at school.

When she became a foster parent in 1986, there was no easy transition into the work.

Rivera said the first child to arrive at her home was a 9-year-old girl who had been molested by her stepfather. And then there were the babies, some born addicted to drugs or damaged by maternal alcohol use.

But what Rivera most remembers about the babies is how sad it made her family when they had to leave.

"When they had to go, to their family or to be adopted, my whole family would cry like somebody had died," Rivera said.

Rivera, a Charleston native, grew up with no siblings - her brother wasn't born until she was 21 - so there's no obvious source for her knack of managing a house full of children or teens.

"God," said Rivera. "I give him all the glory for making this happen."

Her oldest biological son, Raymond, 41, said the steady flow of foster children made his an interesting home in which to grow up.

"It was crazy," he said. "I'd come home from school and it would be like; 'What? There's more?' "

As Raymond and his younger sister Shayla, now 32, got older, Rivera fostered older kids.

"I got brave, and decided to do teenagers," she said.

Rivera ended up adopting two of them, brother and sister Natalia and Elijah Cales.

"They were here a long time, and had bonded with me," said Rivera. "It was just something on my heart."

Rivera credits Natalia with encouraging her biological daughter, Shayla, to follow Natalia's path and go to college.

Natalia studied health care at Norfolk State University, where she also won the Miss Norfolk State pageant, and went on to a career in health care advocacy and public policy.

Not all of Rivera's foster children were success stories, however.

"A lot of these kids, they had a hard life," she said. "There were a couple, some of the young men, who (later) got into drugs."

Rivera has been a foster parent for so long that some of the older kids she fostered early on are now adults with teenage children of their own.

"They still call me 'moms,' especially the boys," she said. "They still call me for advice, and some of them are in their 40s."

Rivera now lives in her late mother's modest home near Spruill Avenue in North Charleston, the house where Rivera was raised. There are bunk beds for the boys she is fostering, and countless photos on the wall of her biological children, adopted children and foster children.

One of the latest additions to the collection is a framed clipping of the Foster Parent of the Year announcement. Among those who nominated Rivera was her former foster child and adopted daughter, Natalia.

Reach David Slade at 937-5552.