'It’s all about the kids': Family has opened home to more than 20 foster children
MIDDLETOWN -- Natalie Price-Starks and Van Starks have been foster parents for more than a decade. In September, they faced a new challenge when they were placed with their first teenagers: two girls ages 14 and 16.
Both attended a gymnastics training camp, so Natalie and Van enrolled them in classes to help them feel more comfortable in their new home. Once the pandemic hit, they couldn’t continue the classes.
This didn’t stop Natalie from making sure they still did gymnastics. She bought them mats and parallel bars.
“That was my way of giving them something they like, since they can't go to training,” Natalie said. “I bought stuff so they could do it at home. So they could still enjoy something they like to do.”
Natalie and Van’s goal is to make every child who enters their home to feel safe and comfortable no matter what their background is.
During their time as foster parents, the Middletown family has opened their home to 27 children, adopting three of her grandchildren and a 9-year-old girl along the way.
Becoming foster parents
Natalie has always had a passion for kids for her whole life. She worked at two children’s hospitals in Philadelphia for nearly 30 years. While she worked there, she said she was surrounded by kids who came from troubled homes and whose families were struggling.
So when she became a foster parent, she said she viewed it as a way to help those families who have fallen on hard times and need some help.
“It's all about the kids. They don't ask to be here,” she said. “Sometimes a situation happens, and it is no fault of theirs. I am just wanting to be able to give a child a chance.”
Natalie became a foster parent nearly 19 years ago when she took in her now-18-year-old granddaughter, and has since been raising her two brothers who are 15 and 16 years old.
She had been fostering for many years before she met her husband Van. Right after they married, she adopted her now-9-year-old daughter.
Prior to meeting Natalie, Van wasn’t a foster parent. He had considered it, but he was a single dad and did not think he could manage it.
“When she asked me if I’d be interested, I was like, ‘Absolutely. If we are doing it together, we can do anything together,’” he said. “I can't imagine what my life would be like without having the children. It's become that normal.”
Natalie and Van lived on a fairly safe block in Philly, but the rest of the neighborhood was not. She wanted her grandchildren and daughter to be free to play without fear, so they moved to Middletown eight years ago.
“I didn’t adopt to have a child where they couldn’t grow up and be a kid,” Natalie said. “They should be able to go outside and ride a bike, skate, jump rope. All of those things I did when I was a kid. I wanted that for my children.”
Cha-Tanya Lankford, Pressley Ridge — a Pittsburgh-based foster care agency — program director, said when the Starks became foster parents with them in 2018, they have always been open to any child who needs a place to stay.
“I talked with several staff and they said from day one, they jumped in full force,” she said. “They have never turned down a placement that we handed to them … They rise and meet the needs of any child put in their home.”
Lankford said Natalie and Van work hard to connect their foster children with their birth families, and Natalie’s compassionate personality makes it even easier.
“She is very easy to talk to. She is a natural,” the foster care director said. “She is very open to working with birth families. We want kids to have a safe placement and remain connected with the birth families and return home.”
Natalie said she is passionate about keeping families together, so she likes to reconnect children with their birth families if possible.
“Some of the children that have been in my care don't have that and probably won't have that. If I can give them just a little bit of love and let somebody know that somebody cares about them, that makes my day,” she said. “The teenagers [who live with me], they know their mom. I am not trying to replace mama. I am just trying to help where she can't, and they respect that.”
Lankford said Natalie sets strong boundaries in the home, and Van is more laid back.
“They just balance each other out,” she said. “Kids thrive in that home because they feel comfortable.”
Natalie said the girls had been through some tough circumstances that caused them to have to take care of themselves. She said they already were acting like grown-ups as teenagers, but she tries to help them understand they don’t have to act like that in her home.
“It was very challenging in the beginning because they worried so much about where they were going to go next. I tried to let them focus on themselves for a chance and not have them worry if they are going to move again,” she said.
Van said they try to make the children feel comfortable in their home immediately, but it’s always challenging no matter their age or background because they are being taken away from a familiar situation and getting placed in a new one. He understands it takes time, which is hard when they just want to show the children to feel loved and secure.
“These girls will probably age out with me, but they are my daughters. I don't call them my foster children,” Natalie said.
This has been the way she has treated all of the children who come through the door: she treats them like one of her own.
About a month ago, Natalie and Van were placed with the teenage girls’ newborn brother. The girls also have two other brothers, but because their house was full, they could not take them even though they wanted to.
Van said as long as the kids are happy, he knows they are doing their job right.
“Just like any other household, biological or not, it's never perfect, but it’s always rewarding,” he said. “It takes a lot of work on both parts, but the end result you have a child who has a better future that may not have been possible. That's all you can hope.”