Pegg Smith, the youngest of four children and the mother of two sons, always wanted a lot of children.

“I grew up watching ‘The Waltons’ and wanted a big family,” said Smith, laughing.

So in 1986, after an ad in the newspaper about the desperate need for foster parents caught her eye, Smith and her husband, Doug, decided to open their hearts and their home in Prosperity to foster children.

Thirty-four years later, that home, situated on 158 acres, is still a temporary safe haven for children.

The couple has fostered 48 youngsters during that time.

Right now, the Smiths are caring for three boys, including John, 17, and Drake, 18, for whom they have guardianship, and another 17-year-old who they have fostered since April 17.

Foster families provide temporary care for children who cannot stay in their homes due to serious family issues, including drug or alcohol addiction, abuse or neglect.

“The kids come to us with a lot of issues going on in their lives, and we work through them,” said Smith, 62. “My philosophy is just to be there and listen, and don’t make a judgment call.”

The Smiths have had children of all ages in their home. But they are especially passionate about fostering older children, who often have trouble finding placement.

“That’s the age group they’re the most passionate about and committed to,” said Rachel Duvall, program director at Pressley Ridge, a Pittsburgh-based organization that offers foster care and adoption services. “Pegg’s warmth, friendliness and openness, and her ability to engage kids in conversation and build relationships is huge. That’s the foundation of it all. Without relationships we can’t form trust, and without trust we can’t change lives. That really has been the key for them to have such a positive impact on so many kids, that ability to form trusting, therapeutic relationships.”

Smith said her goal with older foster children is to help them graduate from high school and prepare a plan for the future.

For years, she happily drove foster children to college campus visits in an old Chevrolet Suburban that ended up with 300,000 miles on it.

The Smiths have kept in touch with many of their foster children over the years.

Smith gets a phone call every holiday from a former foster child who she accompanied in the delivery room when the girl delivered a baby in 1996. Her foster child went on to earn a degree in culinary art, Smith said proudly.

Some children stayed for six months, others for years. The longest stay was a boy who moved in with them when he was 5 and remained until he was 19.

The Smiths aim to provide a stable and nurturing environment, so the kids have chores to complete, and they are given an allowance.

Over the years, they’ve packed kids (and their five Jack Russell terriers) into the car and spent weekends at their campsite and vacationed at Doug’s parents’ home in Massachusetts, where they would take the kids whale watching and sailing, and tour sites like the Salem Witch Museum.

The couple also care for their foster kids’ day-to-day needs, handle any emotional and behavioral issues, and work with the birth parents.

“You form a connection with the families, too. A lot of times the biological families have drug and alcohol issues, you kind of have to be there for the families, too. We’ve been there to help them get straightened out,” said Smith.

The ultimate goal of foster care is to reunite foster children with their birth family, to be placed with a relative or guardian, to be adopted, or to live independently, so the Smiths know letting them go is a part of the deal.

It’s not always easy, though.

The Smiths are preparing themselves for a bittersweet occasion on June 5, when John graduates from McGuffey High School and leaves for basic training in the U.S. Marine Corps. They have fostered John since he was 11, and watched him grow up.

“He has grown by leaps and bounds. He was so quiet and very guarded,” said Smith. “I remember when he came here he said, ‘I don’t want to be adopted.’”

A year later, John said he wanted to continue to live there and asked the Smiths to pursue guardianship, so they did.

John, who enjoys shooting rifles, riding dirt bikes and caring for his Norwegian elkhound, Daisy Duke, still remains in touch with his sister and extended family.

“I was almost in tears at the recruiter’s office,” said Smith. “But I’ve loved watching him grow into the young man he is today.”

The Smiths never imagined they would be foster parents during a global pandemic, but they welcomed their most recent foster child last month. They first met the teen on March 11, as shelter-in-place orders were starting to be implemented, and talked with him daily until he moved in.

Duvall said there is a critical need for foster parents, and COVID-19 has impacted Pressley Ridge’s ability to recruit and train them. The ongoing health crisis also is isolating children from their biological families and services.

“You have kids who haven’t seen their biological parents for nearly two months,” Duvall said.

Child advocates worry, too, that the pandemic will increase child abuse among children not yet in the system, and they say it is heightening the risk of homelessness and joblessness for young adults who are close to aging out of foster care.

Smith said fostering has been a rewarding experience.

“Fostering is my calling, to show these kiddos a different way of life and help them be successful,” said Smith. “It’s in my blood, to help get them through the tough times in their life.”

If you or anyone you know is interested in becoming a foster parent, please contact Pressley Ridge at 724-562-0571 or 877-703-KIDS.

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