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Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Josh Tibbs holds his daughter Hailey on his shoulders as they attend a march Friday, May 9, 2014, at the Salt Lake City-County Building to honor foster care families as part of National Foster Care Month.

SALT LAKE CITY — Tammi Sumsion freely admits that she was "overwhelmed" when she was selected Salt Lake Valley's Foster Mother of the Year for 2014 by Utah Foster Care.

But she soon realized that the mantle provided an opportunity to raise awareness about children in foster care and to encourage other Utahns to open their hearts to the possibilities.

"It's one of the hardest things I've ever done, but it's one of the most joyful things that I have ever done," said Sumsion, who with her husband has adopted two sons who have special needs, Bryson, 8, and Tyler, 7. The couple became foster parents in 2011.

One of the foster children placed with the Sumsions had been horribly neglected. He was 2 years old but functioned as a 6-month-old.

"I did not know how I could face that mother the next week when we had to do a visit. And I remember praying so hard that day, actually that whole week before I had to meet her. I was afraid I was going to say something or do something that was inappropriate," she said.

But when the boy's mother walked in the door, Sumsion's heart softened, she said.

"It changed me. I knew I was there to be her example and to show her how to be a parent," she said. Eventually, the boy was returned to his mother.

Sumsion said she and her husband felt well prepared to be foster parents thanks to the training provided by Utah Foster Care. To become a foster parent, Utahns must undergo 32 hours of training and pass criminal background checks.

Some 2,600 children are in foster care in Utah and there are about 1,300 licensed foster/adoptive families, according to Utah Foster Care.

Not only has foster care been rewarding for the Sumsions, Tammi Sumsion said her eldest son, who has autism, benefits from his interactions with the 7-month-old girl who was placed in their home when she was 4 days old.

"For our family to watch the transition he's been through has been incredible. He is so loving, so accepting. This little child we have now, he's like, 'I want to hold her. I want to help you change her. I want to dress her.' I mean he was never like that. He was in his own little world, but this has opened him up," she said.

Sumsion said she believes God supports and guides her and her husband as they love and nurture the children in their lives.

"I am so grateful to God for allowing me to be able to be here and to give me the strength to do what I do every day," Sumsion said in accepting the award on the steps of the Salt Lake City-County Building Friday.

Karen Hale, director of community relations for Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker, said Friday's ceremony also highlights that "there are children in need throughout our state. It's amazing to see these wonderful parents step up and make that connection to a young child, and to be that caring adult in a child's life at a time a child may be facing all sorts of different obstacles."

Children in foster care represent every race, ethnicity, culture and age group, Hale said. "We want people to know there is a need for more foster homes in our city and throughout the state. So we ask that people to consider becoming foster parents."

The Sumsions, who live in Cottonwood Heights, were also acknowledged by their mayor, Kelvyn Cullimore.

"In the Bible, in Luke chapter 18, it talks about 'Suffer the little children to come to me, and forbid them not, for such is the kingdom of God.' Folks, if that's what the kingdom of God is all about, our foster parents are truly angels here on Earth."

Sumsion said the recognition she received "isn't just about me. It's about all who are involved in this wonderful caring of children and youth because we have the opportunity to change lives."

For more information about becoming a foster parent, call Utah Foster Care at 877-505-5437 or visit its website at utahfostercare.org.

Utah Foster Care will host a Foster Parent Q-and-A meeting at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 14, at its offices, 5296 S. Commerce Drive, Suite 400, in Murray.

Email: [email protected]