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Late one night in 2014, unable to sleep, Ajda Turkay did what any typical 23-year-old might do – she pulled out her computer. But what she did next is far from typical.
She Googled the phrase “foster care”.
“I think the second link was Wesley Mission, so I clicked on to it and asked for an information pack. At that stage I didn’t know what to expect, I thought I was going to get a letter in the mail or something. But within 24 hours I had a phone call,” she told Mamamia.
Just seven months later, with no children of her own, no experience even looking after a child full-time, Ajda became a foster carer.
“I was obviously really nervous before my first child came,” she said. “I thought that it would be really difficult and that I wouldn’t be good at it. But the moment the child came that changed. She was just, you know, a normal child. She just wanted to play.”
Now 26, Ajda has provided emergency care for dozens of children, answering late-night phone calls seeing if she can provide a bed for a young person who’s been stripped from their own. It’s usually babies and toddlers, and usually just for the night or two, but sometimes they’ll be with her for longer if it’s a desperate situation. She currently has a nine-year-old who’s been with her for three months.
Ajda’s the first to admit that it can be difficult to manage – she works six days a week running her Melbourne hair salon and travel company. But she draws on help and support from her partner and mother to make it happen.
“The thing that keeps me going is the turnaround,” said Ajda. “The children come to your house and they’re so traumatised, so scared and they don’t know you. Most of them have just been ripped away from their parents, from their home, and within that first 24-48 hours there’s a change that you see in these children. They start to become so positive and so happy, because for once in their life they have a safe place.”
Ajda and her partner Shane. Image: supplied.
When you hear Ajda's story, it's tempting to think about it in terms of her age, to think 'What an impressive young woman'. But she doesn't see it that way at all.
“I mean, if I don’t do it, who’s going to do it? That’s the way I look at it," she said.
Adja is one of at least 290 Wesley Mission foster carers, who between them are proving temporary homes for more than 580 vulnerable children. Of course, there are thousands more placed through other organisations. In fact, according to government statistics from 2014, there were at least 43,009 Australian children living in some form of out-of-home care.
“I can average two children a night sometimes. There’s that much need," said Ajda.
While most of the child's details remain confidential, Adja is usually given some indication of what's brought them into foster care, and overwhelmingly, she says, it's related to domestic violence.
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“These children are subjected to and confronted with things that any little child shouldn’t be seeing," she said.
“Most of the children come quite traumatised and have a pretty dark background, but I think that’s what motivates you more to look after them, to do as much as you can for them."
It's about making them comfortable, about building trust with them, about showing them the kindness and attention that may have been missing from their lives.
“I had a little girl who’d been staying with me for a couple of weeks, so I changed her bed sheets," said Ajda. "She just seemed shocked, so I said to her, ‘What’s wrong?’ And she said, ‘I’ve never done this before.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ And she said, ‘My sheets have never been changed.’ She was 10. Ten years old and she has never, ever, had a clean set of sheets. It’s the small things like that.”
Ajda's own upbringing couldn't be further from that of these young children, and that's part of what motivates her as a foster carer.
"My mum is amazing, she’s a single mother and she looked after my sister and I. We’re both really happy and healthy and have a solid foundation. When you see children that don’t have that, it just makes you feel for them, and that’s why you try and give them a better future," she said.
It would be easy to think that a young woman from such a sheltered background might not be up to the task of dealing with vulnerable children, but with the training and resources provided to foster carers, she says she feels perfectly equipped to handle it.
"You know, before I got into foster care people said, ‘Aww, maybe you shouldn’t do it, maybe it will really wear you down emotionally’ and things like that. And they almost made me doubt myself," she said. "But that’s the most important thing, not to doubt yourself, because now I’ve being doing this two-and-a-half years and I can’t imagine ever not doing it."
Image: Rise Films
Over the past couple of years, Ajda's had a revolving door of young people of various ages and backgrounds, from a newborn baby to a 14-year-old, all of whom have left their mark on her in one way or another.
“Every child is special, but there are those few that you have a really strong bond with. I can’t really explain it, it just happens," she said. "I think I’ve had 34-40 children, or something like that, and they’re all amazing and I love them all dearly, but there are a few that I’ve just had a really, really special connection with."
But whether they're in her home for a night or a month, inevitably, these children will leave. Where they end up, Ajda never knows - all that remains confidential. They're simply there, part of her life, part of her home, then gone, leaving a space for another child in need.
That not knowing is something the Ajda's had to come to terms with over the years.
“I’m not going to lie, it’s not easy. Especially when you have a bond," she said. "But you’ve just got to remember that you’ve done everything that you can while they’re there. That’s the aim. That's the important thing."
She's got a life of her own - an upcoming wedding to her partner, Shane, and a house under construction. But Adja is determined to continue building a better one for young people who need her.
"I can’t see myself ever stopping being a foster carer. It’s not only the rewards that you see for the children, but the personal rewards, because you know you’re really helping," she said.
"Some of us give to charity, some of us volunteer, some of us give to World Vision, for example, and I think that this is my calling, to help children. I think if you’re able to help somebody you should, and that goes for everybody."
You can find out more about becoming a Wesley Mission foster carer here.
Mamamia's Infertility Week shines a light on the joy, the pain and everything in between when it comes to creating families. To read more from Infertility Week, click here.