Ashley Brittain felt called to serve as a foster parent, a life she describes as a "roller coaster" of emotions but always a wonderful adventure.

Her family, including her husband Jason and their two sons J.J. and Joey, have served as a foster family in the Aiken County area.

Their journey as a foster family began in October 2019 when they were asked to foster three young girls who were siblings.

"We said yes," Ashley Brittain said. "I thought about how my sister and I were very close, and I could not imagine separating these three girls."

The girls quickly bonded with the family and had their own room in the Brittains' home.

However, the bittersweet day would come when the girls would be able to move in with their grandmother and the Brittains would have to say goodbye.

“My oldest son – who is wise beyond his years – said, ‘Mom, I know it’s going to hurt to lose this one, but that just means God has another little girl who needs us more,'" Brittain said. "We have big hearts, and these kids deserve nothing less than someone who is willing to fall in love knowing they are going to get their heart broke."

Since October, the family has fostered a total of five children, and they continue to stay in touch with their foster children when they leave. 

Brittain believes you can't understand the foster journey unless you're a foster parent, a service she encourages anyone able to take on.

Each year, the month of May marks National Foster Care Awareness Month and provides an opportunity for the South Carolina Department of Social Services to draw attention to the need for foster parents, like Ashely and Jason, across the state.

Children come into foster care when their parents cannot safely care for them and no other alternative for placement exists.

Children in the legal custody of the Department of Social Services are placed in a licensed foster home or group care facility that can best meet their needs while their parents work with DSS to resolve their problems, according to the DSS website.

Some children are able to be placed with family members, called kinship caregivers.

"They get to experience love and joy that maybe they didn’t have or maybe they did have or maybe their parents were sick and weren’t able to give them everything they needed," Ashley said. "For us to be able to stand in the gap and give them normalcy, to give them family that loves them, that’s everything for these kids. They deserve to be loved."

As of Wednesday, the S.C. Department of Social Services reports there are 4,362 individuals in the foster care system, with 126 in Aiken County.

Although the onset of the coronavirus pandemic has brought on new challenges for foster care case management, S.C. Department of Social Services state director Michael Leach says there is still a great need for foster parents across the state.

“These times have presented new challenges to foster care case management, yet we have seen foster parents and licensed providers stepping up in a major way to help make sure children are safe and thriving,” Leach said. “We can’t appreciate everyone enough for their help in promoting the safety and well-being of children across South Carolina.”

If the thought of fostering has ever crossed your mind, Brittain encourages residents to take action.

"I have never regretted it," she said.

Individuals or couples can be licensed as foster parents, according to the S.C. Department of Social Services website. Foster parents receive financial reimbursement to meet the basic needs of the children.

The need is great for foster parents in the Aiken County area, said Sheri Fulghum, president of the Aiken County Foster Parent Association.

As of early May, Aiken County has 80 foster homes to serve its 126 children in the foster care system.

"You don’t have to be a perfect parent to be a foster parent," Fulghum said. "You just have to be willing."

If residents are unable to be a foster parent, Brittain suggests finding ways to help a foster family in their local area.

"If you don’t think that you yourself could be a foster parent, there’s always a role anyone can play in foster care," Brittain said. "Support a foster family that has children. Call them, check on them. Bring them food."

To become a foster parent or to learn more about ways to support foster parents in the community, visit www.scfamilies.org or call 888-828-3555.

Matthew Enfinger is the crime and courts reporter with the Aiken Standard. Follow him on Twitter: @matt_enfinger