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Foster parents at Five Acre Wood School in Maidstone, the Kent Messenger's charity of the year, speaks of how school supports them

Over nearly 17 years, foster parents Naomi Dobbs and husband Andrew Keeping have cared for more than 20 children with learning disabilities and complex needs.

The pair now have two boys at Five Acre Wood (FAW) School in Maidstone, which supports youngsters who have profound, severe and complex learning difficulties.

Andrew Keeping and Naomi Dobbs with their family. From L-R: Charlie, Felix, their youngest foster child and Oscar
Andrew Keeping and Naomi Dobbs with their family. From L-R: Charlie, Felix, their youngest foster child and Oscar

Having spent the past year championing the school’s Friends group, which raises funds on FAW’s behalf, the Kent Messenger will continue its support throughout 2021, due to the challenges faced by the charity amid the coronavirus pandemic.

This means we can go on shining a spotlight on the staff’s tireless work and the positive difference they make to the lives of pupils and families.

Naomi, 50, and Andrew, 51, from Sutton Valence, are one such family.

The pair were known as the ‘young couple’ when they started fostering, after Naomi, who wanted to work with children, spotted an advert.

They have special guardianship of Charlie, a 15-year-old who loves game shows, the feel of Naomi’s glossy and heavy cookbooks, and dressing up.

Foster parents Naomi Dobbs and Andrew Keeping, from Sutton Valence
Foster parents Naomi Dobbs and Andrew Keeping, from Sutton Valence

Charlie, who has been with Naomi and Andrew for five years, is non-verbal, has autism and a small piece of a chromosome missing in each cell.

His foster brother, who also enjoys dressing up, particularly in his favourite Spider-Man costume, is 11 and has ADHD. He is waiting to be assessed for autism and we have been asked not to name him.

Naomi and Andrew, a music teacher, have two biological sons, Oscar, 15 and Felix 10, neither of whom have special needs.

School mornings in their house are busy, with both FAW pupils waiting for the taxi to take them to school, after the youngest has watched some wrestling on TV.

Neither have good coping skills and can get panicky while waiting for their lift. Naomi will then step in with techniques she has learnt, such as distracting them.

From the moment they wake up to going to sleep, Naomi and Andrew are aware of, and reacting to, their children’s needs.

Naomi admits her life can be “absolutely exhausting”, comparing her tiredness level to that of a newborn’s mum.

“When you go to sleep you still sleep with one eye open. With Charlie it’s not uncommon for him to get up in the middle of the night to watch TV,” she admits.

“Charlie is pretty much non-verbal and the other day for some reason I went into his room and there was sick everywhere.”

'You want to try and make a difference to these young people's lives...'

The national lockdowns were hard, with the four boys often in the house, and the family are looking to move to a bigger home.

Raising children with complex needs can be isolating, Naomi says.

“Your bubble gets quite small, nobody else really gets it.”

But, staff at FAW can share the pair’s joy at achievements which may seem insignificant to others.

For instance, the younger foster child took part in an hour-long online call with his teacher, which he at first “absolutely didn’t want to do.”

“Although that might seem a small thing his teachers were praising him and saying how brilliant he was. For me to have a conversation with his teacher about how great he did on his Zoom meeting would bore the pants off anyone else,” Naomi says.

Teachers are also on hand to discuss any medical worries or behavioural therapies that might help.

Naomi was concerned about Charlie’s loose hip joints, but it was difficult to get an appointment with a GP.

However she spoke to the school and they are now completing a referral for physiotherapy.

The pair are full of praise for the staff at the school.

Andrew said: “If you have had the privilege to be taught at FAW, the stuff that goes on there, compared to elsewhere, the experience is second to none.”

The family has attended prize winning days, Christmas fairs and the well known music festival Woodstock, which sadly could not go ahead this year because of the pandemic.

“Our 10-year-old wants to go to FAW,” they remark, referring to Felix who is in mainstream education.

Despite the exhaustion that can accompany fostering, the pair carry on as they “want to make a difference.”

“They just become part of your family. That’s why you carry on doing it, you want to try and make a difference to these young people’s lives,” Naomi says.

Spanning three sites with more than 300 members of staff, FAW looks after around 520 students aged from three to 19.

Although government funding covers the basics, the Boughton Lane school, which has satellite classrooms at Palace Wood School in Allington and the Wolfe Building in Malling Road, Snodland, relies on the generosity of the community to raise cash for other much needed facilities, such as a hydrotherapy pool for its disabled pupils.

The Kent Messenger is backing the school’s campaign to buy a house in Snodland where the older pupils can learn and practice vital life skills, estimated to cost up to £25,000.

Read more: All the latest news from Maidstone

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