COMMUNITY GEMS: Kettering couple who foster children described as ‘selfless and tireless’

Community Gem: Garry and Melanie Abfalter

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Community Gem: Garry and Melanie Abfalter

Average parents can take their kids’ milestones for granted. That’s often not the case with medically fragile children, like many of those whom Garry and Melanie Abfalter foster.

One of the two kids that the Kettering couple are currently fostering is a 2-year-old who is blind, deaf and has cerebral palsy. Seeing him laugh and smile as the pair use basic sign language words is a reward like no other.

“That is like sunshine in the morning,” Melanie said.

The Abfalters first moved to the Dayton area in August 1977, and by the end of the year they had their first foster child placement. They haven’t kept track of the total number of kids they have fostered since then, but they estimate that it is more than 100. They also have four biological daughters and three adopted children.

“One came from a foster home that never held him,” said Melanie, 77.

When they adopted their two older children decades ago, the Abfalters weren’t as well-versed in trauma. Now they know that under today’s standards the two kids both would have been considered medically fragile.

The care the Abfalters provide includes taking the children to numerous medical and therapy appointments, but it is “rewarding to know that you’re helping somebody else to develop and mature,” said Garry, 76, a mechanical engineer who is retired from the U.S. Air Force. The couple will have been married 56 years in April.

In the 1980s, Melanie returned to school to earn a nursing degree, a long-held dream put on hold due to regular moves. With her ambition fulfilled, she was able to put her training to use at home, too.

“Of course, medically fragile kids come with a lot of skilled needs,” she said.

The Abfalters have opened their home to children with a variety of challenges: fetal alcohol syndrome, mental illness, no immune system and more. Throughout the years, some have come to them as young as two days old. Some stay for days, some for months and others for years.

At one point, they had a room in their home set up with two cribs, breathing and suction equipment for each child, and nursing staff to help.

“It was just our own little intensive care unit,” Melanie said.

Their responsibilities include teaching the kids “to bond and trust” as they make their way to a permanent family, she said, but they often also teach the families who will eventually care for them how to do so. That can range from showing them how to switch oxygen tanks and turn them on and off, to explaining diaper sizes to a new parent.

The Abfalters were nominated as Dayton Daily News Community Gems by Dr. Richard D. Smith, a retired pediatrician from Kettering who knows the couple well through his work as a Court Appointed Special Advocate.

He called the couple “selfless and tireless” as they care for kids for whom it can be difficult to find adoptive homes.

“In my book, they’re saints,” Smith said.

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