‘I’ve fostered 92 children I get paid 50p an hour but that won’t stop me’

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John Lewis’ Christmas adverts never fail to evoke emotion – and this year’s had a serious message behind it with the retailer partnering with children’s charities. It follows a man’s determination to learn how to skateboard in time for the arrival of Ellie.

The young girl is depicted as one of the 108,000 children in the UK that are in the care system, with the closing scene showing a poignant moment of the couple answering the door to the social worker and welcoming the teenager, whose eyes light up at the sight of the skateboard, into their home.

For foster carer Jo Newby and her husband Christopher, that first knock on the door for the first time they fostered a child was a surreal moment. It was 2004 and the social worker handed over a three-month-old baby in a car seat.

The paperwork was signed and that was it. Jo had been entrusted to look after a tiny human that wasn’t hers – but with each foster child that went on to enter their home, she loved and cared for them as if they were her own.

Jo and Chris, both 52, married when they were 30 and had conversations about having children.

With Jo already having a son, James, now 32, from her first marriage, they discussed fostering instead. They knew a few people who had done it and thought they’d try it for a few years.

But almost 19 years and 92 children later, one of which they adopted, there’s no sign of them slowing down.

Selfless Jo, who fosters children full-time while Chris works from home as a civil servant, always knew she wanted a big family and felt she had a maternal instinct to nurture.

She says fostering is not a job you can be in for the money – and instead, carers must be in it out of the kindness of their hearts – as after breaking down her allowance, has worked out she is paid around 50p per hour.

But Jo, who was recently hailed as the ‘UK’s kindest hero’ in a competition with snack company KIND, says waking up each morning and sharing her love with those that need it most is just something she felt compelled to do.

After leaving school, Jo went on to work in nursery care. She was always babysitting for mums and dads in her area and found that children gravitated towards her.

“I was born to be a mum,” Jo says, speaking on the phone as she simultaneously feeds a cooing baby.

“I thought I wanted a massive family but that’s not realistic.”

Looking back at the first time she fostered, she adds: “I had this immediate feeling of ‘this baby needs me.’ It was an overwhelming and surreal process, you can’t quite believe it. But then it becomes really normal.”

When it came to their second, they actually collected the two-day-old baby from the hospital.

Jo remembers exchanging a glance with the newborn and thinking she felt love instantly.

With each child comes a new journey, as no two children are the same, Jo remarks.

There are a whole host of reasons why a child might end up in care, and she assures it’s not always down to neglect.

Sometimes it can be things like if an accident happened and there is no one else to care for the child or if problems arise that need a parent’s full attention.

Children can stay in the Newby home in East Riding of Yorkshire for anywhere from an afternoon or up to a few years, as the couple offer short-term care.

When they began fostering, they quickly realised they needed a bigger house, and bought a three-bedroom property that they then extended to provide five double bedrooms and three bathrooms.

There is a limit of three foster children at one time under one roof, but sometimes the couple is able to take in families of children that need to stick together, which happened often during the coronavirus pandemic.

“I very quickly realised this was not going to be for five years,” Jo continues on why they had to move house.

“I can’t see me slowing down – I keep saying that when there is a natural break, but I don’t like an empty home.

“By the time I’ve cleaned or gone out for lunch, I’m bored then. It isn’t me to have time to myself.”

It can be difficult to say goodbye though and there are some children she finds particularly hard to stop thinking about.

“You can’t genuinely care for someone and then when they go, for them not take a part of you with them – it’s like a bit of your heart goes with them.

“You’ve invested emotionally; it’s real, and it’s coming from your heart.”

One special child that came into their care is able to stay with them for life.

Kasper, now 14, was an 18-month-baby when they were instructed to look after him.

Following assessments by the local authority, it was decided he could never be rehabilitated back into his birth home, which is always the aim, Jo says.

But officials also determined he wasn’t able to be put up for adoption either, which meant he could have been in and out of foster homes until he was an adult.

When he was five, Jo and Chris fought a legal battle and won, allowing him to be permanently under their care.

She explains: “We made a commitment to Kasper and we haven’t come across another child yet where we felt we could make that difference.

“Kasper has a lot of additional needs and deserved permanence – a right to be part of the family legally, a right to inheritance, and a feeling of belonging.”

Having always lived with them, the teenager is used to seeing children come and go.

Jo says he’s happy to share his home with them and is a great role model for the foster kids.

But despite it always being a full house, Jo says it’s never chaotic.

While there’s plenty of fun going on – citing sunny days in the garden as an example of when they’ll get the paddling pool out with children running around laughing – she creates a calming atmosphere.

“I’m very organised,” she says.

“It’s a very calm and quiet household. The children don’t have to be quiet, there is fun and hilarity, but there isn’t charging around or slamming of doors.

“There is fun but there isn’t arguing or shouting or disorganisation.”

Getting just a few hours of sleep a night, she doesn’t go to bed until lunches are made and the slow cooker is prepped for the next day.

Everyone living there chips in, with chores dependent on their age and capabilities.

The mum-of-two expects a 15-year-old to be able to strip the bed and take the bedding downstairs for laundry, while she will teach a two-year-old to put socks in the drawer.

It’s then about making sure everyone’s needs are met and making time for them.

“Everybody mucks in – it takes a family to run a house, it takes a family to make a mess and a family to clear it up,” she asserts.

“It’s then about making time each day for each person and their needs – making everyone feel special.

“You can do that in group situations as well. We had beauty nights with teenagers – with someone on the foot spa, someone doing facials.”

Jo says she is always learning as different people come to stay with her with different needs, bringing different challenges.

She undergoes training each year and has annual inspections.

Every three years, her references and medical and DBS checks are also renewed.

It’s a constant process of reevaluating and checking the level of care she performs, she says.

While the stringent checks and rigorous training prove the job is a profession, it’s more of a lifestyle for Jo, as she says the foster care allowance she receives from the agency she works at amounts to pennies.

“People joke saying ‘you’re well paid’ and when actually, we aren’t paid in any instance,” Jo begins.

“If you break it down, 24-hours a day seven days a week, we get something like 50p an hour. That isn’t even our 50p because that money we get is to feed, clothe, travel expenses, and pocket money – all things you’d provide for your birth children.

“The allowance from fostering helps you to provide those things for them. There is no real wage. If you did take that money and break it down, we’re very poorly paid.

“You definitely don’t do it for financial gain.”

The Newby’s survive off Chris’ wage and Jo argues that people considering fostering must be self-sufficient.

But while it’s tough, she wouldn’t have it any other way.

Her devotion to the children prompted her husband to secretly nominate her for a recognition award after seeing a competition on Facebook with KIND snacks.

She won, which saw her hailed as the UK’s kindest hero by the company, and last month, Jo was honoured with a commemorative 4m tall statue on London’s iconic Southbank.

The foster carer, who also founded and co-ordinates three separate football teams for children in Hull within the Barton Inclusive Football Club, is still in disbelief, considering herself an ‘average Joe’.

“It was all really surreal,” she explains.

“When Christopher told me that he’d entered me, I was dismissive of him. I thought, ‘no, no, there would be someone much more deserving than average Joe doing her average day.

“Then when I saw the unveiling of the statue, seeing this four-metre version of yourself, even then the reality didn’t kick in. I did a giggle and couldn’t believe it was me.”

When asked if she believes she can be an inspiration to others, modest Jo says she would never use that terminology to describe herself.

But she hopes her story encourages people to realise that small things can make a big difference.

Living by Heather Smalls’ hit Proud – which asks: ‘What have you done today to make you feel proud?’ – Jo adds: “Everyone should have that song in their head.

“Every day do something that makes you feel proud; be nice to someone you wouldn’t normally.

“Be kind to the next person you meet.

“I was in a hospital the other day in the queue at the cafe and the cleaner was behind me, and I said ‘what are you having?’ and she ordered, and I paid for her. She looked at me like I was an absolute crackpot.

“It doesn’t have to involve money but something nice. Just smile at someone who looks glum – tiny things make a big difference.”