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Michelle Burnette never imagined she’d have seven children — three girls and four boys.

They range from 3 to 18, creating a sense of “organized chaos”and acceptance in her California family, which she describes as “kind of like the United Nations.”

Burnette, a registered nurse for the St. Mary’s County Health Department, has four biological children and has adopted three. And, she said, she’s welcomed about 40 foster children into her home during the past 16 years.

“I wouldn’t change my life for the world,” Burnette said. “There’s a lot of emotions, a lot of love.”

Casey Family Programs awarded Burnette with its national Foster Parent Award this month. The Seattle-based foundation started in 1966 and focuses on foster care and improving the child welfare system. On its website, the group explained why Burnette was chosen for the honor — recognizing her service on the National Foster Parent Association board of directors since 2008, that she started a resource, or foster, parent association locally and at the state level, that she developed the nation’s first parent-teacher association for resource parents, and that she’s represented the National Foster Parent Association in congressional hearings and has spoken on National Public Radio, drawing attention to the need for foster care and adoption.

“This highly distinguished award recognizes Burnette’s hard work, dedication, and exceptional leadership to improve child welfare systems in America,” according to a statement from the health department.

“Here at the health department, we’re thrilled. It’s certainly well deserved,” said Tracy Kubinec, deputy health officer. “It’s just another example of how the health department staff, they go above and beyond their professional duties.

“We want to focus on reducing the need for foster care and care for the vulnerable children and families in our community,” Kubinec said. And those are some of the issues Burnette is addressing through outreach and education, she said.

“It takes a lot of time, but it’s so rewarding,” said Burnette’s husband, Guy.

Children sometimes come into their home afraid, not knowing what’s happening. But his family works to make them feel safe.

“They don’t have to worry about where they’re going to sleep or what they’re going to eat,” he said. “There have been a lot of times where it’s hard. But I think the reward way outweighs all the hard work you have to put in.”

Other Casey Family Programs awardees this year included moms, dads, a judge, a reverend, and directors of human services departments across the country recognized for roles as kinship caregivers, birth parents, and child welfare leaders.

Here in St. Mary’s, Burnette said there are about 100 children in foster care. That number is lower today, she estimated, by about 70 children when compared to recent years. Many cases have been closed as health and social services workers help families reunite and educate parents about alternate ways to care for their children.

Training for potential foster parents usually happens about four times a year, she said, working with participants from St. Mary’s, Calvert and Charles counties. Foster parents can be married or single. They can rent or own a home.

They go through 27 hours of training, Burnette said. And they learn about grief and loss that children experience when removed from their original environment and those same feelings that foster families might experience when those children later leave and return to their own families.

Right now, St. Mary’s has about 30 foster families, and could always use more, Burnette said. “I truly believe that God gives everybody strengths. You just have to have an open heart, be willing to learn, accepting and non-judgmental,” she said. “The biggest thing is to be able to give these children hope for their future.

“Truthfully,” Burnette said, “I would adopt them all.”

To learn more

To learn about foster care opportunities or support in St. Mary’s County, call Donna Brennan, resource homes worker for the Department of Social Services, at 240-895-7051.