Over the last 11 years, April Herrera and her family have welcomed more than 100 foster children into their South Lake Tahoe home. It's been challenging, rewarding and life changing, according to the mother of nine, who hopes to open up other families to fostering and adoption in a community that is in dire need of more help.
"I was in foster care for a couple of years during my teenage years and lived in some very intense foster homes," said Herrera. "It was always my heart to do this. I thought I could do a way better job than those people that had me."
Together with her husband Dan, Herrera had five biological children, but at 16 months, her daughter Danielle passed away due to a rare genetic disease called Trisomy 18.
"We had to fight for everything for her. We were her voice," said Herrera. "That planted the seed for us that we wanted to be the voice for other kids. If you talk to a child and they are in a bad situation, they don't come to you and say 'my parents are doing drugs and I can't handle it.'"
Soon after, Herrera began the process of getting certified as a foster family.
"I was literally blindsided when we started doing foster care. We live in our little bubbles. I had no idea how bad the drug problems are in our city," said Herrera. "But what makes my job easy is we belong to an incredible organization, Sierra Child and Family Services. They've got my back, and they are right there ready to step in and help me in any way they can."
Herrera recalls one foster child who came to her family from a home where there were issues of drugs and domestic violence.
"He was so afraid of males, any time my husband would come in the room he would just cower," she said. "It took a long time, but it finally came to the point that he'd go sit next to my husband and lean his arm on his leg. He got healing in our home through our love and our consistency — in living in our stable environment where he didn't have to live in fear. That's my reward."
After another member of his family adopted the foster child, something changed for the Herreras.
"After that little boy left, my children all came to me individually and said, 'We need to adopt.'"
The Herreras went on to adopt four children that came into their home as fosters.
"There are so many kids out there that need to be adopted. It's unbelievable," said Herrera. "And there is always a need for foster homes. There is never enough."
Currently there are 18 foster homes in South Lake Tahoe, according to Megan Neumann, manager at Sierra Child and Family Services. That's up from just six a few years ago.
"We've been recruiting, and we've seen the community step up in an amazing way," said Neumann.
Still, many children taken into child protective services in South Lake Tahoe must travel outside of Tahoe to foster homes in other El Dorado County communities, leaving their school and the familiarity of their hometown behind.
"On any given day, there's usually around 60 or more kids from South Lake Tahoe who have been removed from their homes," said Neumann. "About 30 of those kids are living here in town, but the other 30 have had to be relocated to communities off the hill."
Neumann said the community needs to double the number of foster care homes in South Lake Tahoe to meet the demand. The process of getting certified takes a few months and includes applications, interviews and a background check.
"Our foster parents in town are the most amazing people I've ever met in my life," said Neumann. "I have so much more respect for our foster parents and what they've done for our community than I've ever thought possible. They've changed so many lives and allowed children to reach their potential."
With the older children out of the house, Herrera and her husband Dan now "only," she jokes, have their four adopted children and two foster children at home.
As for her plans for Mother's Day? Cheering the kids on at their baseball games.
"I want all the kids that come into my home to see that is what families do," she said. "We support each other and we do it together."