Couple takes in 100th foster child

March 13, 2009 12:00:00 AM PDT
At a time when there is a critical shortage of foster parents all over the Bay Area, one remarkable East Bay couple is now caring for their 100th foster child. Along the way, they have also adopted quite a few. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie move over, here is a couple who can show you how it's done.

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Paulette Gilkerson has been taking care of babies for almost 40 years -- first her own, then a lot of other people's. Her husband, Al, works for the Alameda County sheriff. Al often finds himself on baby duty, too.

It all started in 1965 when an eager sailor married his true love. They had a couple of boys and then decided to adopt a girl. They chose a child from Korea because they had been touched by orphans they saw while Al was in Asia with the Navy.

By the time their three kids were teenagers, the couple decided to become foster parents.

"We went to our kids and asked them how they felt about it, and would they mind if they were pushed aside a little bit or the house got a little big fuller, and they all agreed to it," said Al.

Tammeil Gilkerson is now the dean of counseling at Evergreen Valley College in San Jose. She was the little girl adopted from Korea, and she remembers when the string of foster children began coming.

"I really learned a lot about generosity of spirit from my parents," said Tammeil. "I think there's a sense that here are these children who have this need, and there is this real openness about the heart."

A wall of photos shows many of the children the Gilkersons helped raise over the years. Most of them were just there temporarily, but Al and Paulette eventually adopted four of the foster babies -- children of various races, some with special needs.

"We like to say God is colorblind," said Al. "And for us, it's truly that."

The Gilkersons say the adoptions just kind of snuck up on them.

"One at a time," said Paulette. "One... finished... no more. OK, well maybe just one more."

"It's very caring, loving. They help you out a lot with your needs and everything," said their son Davion who is now 18 years old.

For three of the kids, that "everything" includes dance lessons for 18-year-old Eleisha, 16-year-old Nathaniel, and 12-year-old Janee.

Even with all those teenagers to raise, the Gilkersons are still taking foster babies, and recently took in their 100th child. They now specialize in medically fragile infants, mostly born to drug-addicted mothers.

"The children that we have, that come to us, are in pain because they are going through withdrawal, and so they have a lot of pain," said Al. "Some of them really have no desire to live. The reward is that after three, four, five weeks to see that child finally smile, it just makes it all worthwhile."

"I just love the babies and I love doing whatever it takes," said Paulette. "It's not that we have a perfect family -- don't get that idea at all."

The Gilkersons believe one key to their success is community support. They get it from friends, doctors, teachers, even the dance studio where incredibly, Paulette volunteers to help out with costumes.

"She's always thinking about the children -- always. I think she puts herself way down the line," said dance teacher Sharon Kitchen.

Paulette is there almost every day, watching her children dance with her latest foster baby snuggled in her arms.

"We give up a lot of things to be able to support this family. But we are so wealthy, and our relationships are just so deep and loving," said Al. "It's almost like people are out there searching for that thing that's goint to make them happy, and we found it."

ABC7 salutes Paulette and Al Gilkerson, who are quick to point out you don't have to be perfect to take a foster child. You just have to have a big heart.

If you want to find out more about becoming a foster parent, visit www.pathwaytohome.org

We found out about the Gilkerson family in an e-mail from an ABC7 viewer. If you have someone you think we should salute, contact us here.

Written and produced by Jennifer Olney.

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