Tabby and Rob Shelton found Conway, S.C., in a somewhat unusual way but their move there was a road that has led them to foster more than 60 children, adopt four and start a nonprofit that has provided assistance to thousands of children in foster care.
Tabby shares how finding Conway through a friendship brought them to a town that has forever changed their lives.
“We may be the only people who ever honeymooned in Conway,” said the Lantana, Fla., native. “We had friends who couldn’t come down to our wedding so we came up to Conway,” Tabby said.
They enjoyed going out on the river and found that Conway was home to Coastal Carolina University.
“Rob had not had the opportunity to go to college so he decided to go to Coastal and major in political science before continuing on to law school at the University of South Carolina. Then I went to CCU and majored in interdisciplinary studies,” Tabby said.
By 1999, Tabby had finished college and the Sheltons were ready to expand their family.
Tabby’s father died when she was only three so she grew up an only child. When she and Rob made a decision to add to their family, they decided to adopt and opened their home to twin boys.
From fostering to adoption
The twin boys arrived at the Shelton’s home in April of 2002 . It was an experience that touched their hearts to the core.
“They were placed here with the intention that we would adopt them,” Tabby said. “I have the tendency to look at things with rose colored glasses. I always feel there are not problems, there are just solutions.”
The children had been through a lot and came with their own package of difficulties, she said. They had had so little exposure to good things or different food that when they were first served spaghetti, she said, they thought it was worms.
“It was definitely an uphill battle. They had a background that made it detrimental to moving forward. They will tell you now that they were difficult,” she said of the boys who are now 22 and live successful lives.
Tabby said the story of how the boys’ first formative years were spent is their story to tell. However, she shares that they had little structure or education during those years, which put them behind other children their age. Seven-hour tantrums made it impossible for the family to mix with others so it became a lonely time for the new mother who was seeking counseling for them for their behavioral issues.
Instead of giving up, however, Tabby grew stronger in her determination to help not only her twin sons but also the many other struggling children placed in foster care and foster parents in the area.
Moved by a minister’s sermon
In 2004, a minister’s sermon changed the life of Tabby Shelton forever.
“When the twins moved in, we saw them come up the driveway with their belongings in trash bags and most of the items were things most of us would discard,” Tabby said. “Rob was a new attorney and we said someday when we can do something maybe I could start a little clothing closet in a garage, no big deal.”
That thought had continued to resonate as she dealt with raising the twins while also working a job in Horry County Emergency Management. On that Sunday at St. Paul’s Church, Tabby said the sermon was the spark that initiated the opening of the little closet she could never have dreamed would turn into such a success story.
“The sermon was about how you are supposed to be doing the work you’ve been thinking about but are scared to do,” she said. “I thought, well, I had planned that for later. But all day, it kept resonating. It didn’t seem like the right time in my life. My husband was a new attorney and I had a job but I just kept getting that feeling.”
Unable to shake the feeling that there was a different path for her life, Tabby went into her office and resigned her job. “I called my husband and told him. All I knew was I wanted to help other kids like our boys,” she said.
Developing Fostering Hope
The little closet Tabby had dreamed of was just that in the beginning. Tabby found a 300-square-foot space, ran an ad in the newspaper seeking volunteers and donations, and started what would become Fostering Hope.
“My first donation was four boxes of unmatched socks,” she said. “One couple said they would like to help so for the first few days all we did was match socks.”
That couple, Al and Etta Stein, have remained with the nonprofit as it has grown becoming part of the board of directors and leaders in the volunteer base that Tabby said is vital to the organization.
To get started, Tabby created a board of directors and brainstorming with a friend she came up with the name Fostering Hope; a name she says has now been adopted by other agencies around the country for similar nonprofits.
Serving the first child in December 2004, she and her volunteers worked out of the little room never realizing the need was so great. The support was so profound they would soon outgrow three locations and basically have a 3,000-square-foot closet from which to serve foster children.
“I thought we might serve 50 children a year and it turned into 50 a month,” Tabby said.
On June 20, 2016, the day Coastal Carolina University won the College World Series in baseball and just as they watched on TV the last pitch thrown; Tabby said she closed on the purchase of a building at 308 Elm Street to house the growing Fostering Hope.
A closet that boosts self-confidence
Community driven, Fostering Hope grew from boxes of umatched socks to a building full of good used clothing, shoes and other items. Underwear, socks and sneakers are purchased new, unless new ones are donated by local community groups or through agencies like Samaritan’s Purse.
Offering a place for foster parents to clothe their new charges allows them to help the children feel more normal.
“We expect these kids to come into a foster home and be with someone they have never seen before and the next day go to school and act like they are fine,” Tabby said. “They have just been removed from their home and their possessions and they don’t know if they are ever going home again. These complete strangers expect them to get along. Even if your family is not in a good situation, they are still your family.”
Tabby said many are behind in school because they go home worrying about food or abuse. “They are not thinking about homework,” she said.
At Fostering Hope, each child is assigned a volunteer who helps them find the clothing and items they need.
“One little 6-year-old girl found a pair of little Princess shoes but she was throwing a temper tantrum because she was afraid to go to school. Tabby made a deal with her that if she went to school, she could come back once school was over and get some summer toys.
“She was so excited she could wear the shoes to school,” Tabby said.
Today, Fostering Hope not only serves children residing in Horry County foster care, but children referred by local agencies experiencing other crisis situations in a five county area. It provides clothing, personal hygiene items, school supplies, toys and books to help the children in their transition from home to foster care. There is never a cost to the families or other agencies, like the American Red Cross, which refers families who have lost their homes and possessions to fire or other disasters. Costs are paid solely through financial and in-kind donations.
Fostering Hope also has a resale store where everything from antiques to wedding dresses are sold with proceeds helping with operational expenses. Anyone interested can find more information at www.fosteringhopeinc.com.
Continuing their own foster parenting
Tabby and Rob’s first experience with fostering children had been with the twin boys who had been placed in seven foster homes by age 4 because of their behavioral issues.
“Fostering is not a piece of cake. It is definitely a calling,” Tabby said.
From 2005, the Shelton’s did emergency placements taking calls sometimes at 3 a.m. to shelter children from as young as four days old to teens. They did short and long-term placement with one ending within minutes.
“You have to remember you do what you can do but you have to protect your own family and know your limitations,” she said. “People don’t realize what foster parents go through. Most are wonderful children who have been through difficult times. It is one of the most rewarding feelings you can have when you see a child feel more comfortable.”
Children placed in foster care, she said, come from all kinds of different situations. Some have been left in motel rooms, others exposed to cocaine or other drugs. “These kids have watched horrible things happen in front of them,” she said.
They also come from all walks of life.
“Hurricane Katrina created refugees with nowhere to go. We have served children from very wealthy areas to some living in homes with dirt floors. Abuse and neglect can be in all forms. An abused kid can be right next door and especially in affluent areas, there may be no one watching or expecting it,” she said.
One morning Rob woke up to find four non-English speaking children in their home. Due to one girl placed with them when she was 13, the couple now has a daughter who has given them grandchildren. When their youngest adopted daughter was 7, the couple stopped fostering so Tabby could spend more time as director of Fostering Hope and raising her family.
She also fosters baby kittens as a volunteer for animal shelters, serves on the board of Coastal Carolina University Honors College and the board for St. Christopher Camp and Conference Center. She also home schools her youngest daughter.
“There is a season for all things,” she said.
Whether the children were at the Shelton home short or long-term, Tabby said they all have a place in their hearts.
“Because when they leave, you don’t always know where they are going,” she said. “We don’t always have contact because with some, it is a time in their past they don’t want to remember. Fostering is temporary and if you can make that child feel loved and safe, you have done your job. A lot of people say they couldn’t do that and send them back but I say you can make a difference.”