Utahn is honored as Mother of the Year as officials stress need for more families to open hearts and homes.
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They marched in the street with children perched on their shoulders, an early summer sun beating on their backs.
At the head of the roughly 80-strong crowd, Jennifer Larkin walked with a gaggle of young children. At every State Street intersection between 1300 South and downtown Salt Lake City, a column of motorcycle cops blocked traffic. In their fists, the marchers clutched bouquets of tiny purple flags, each one representing a single foster child.
The march the first of its kind aimed to raise awareness about foster care. Organized by Utah Foster Care, it began about noon and finished 40 minutes later on the west steps of the City-County Building, where Larkin received the Foster Mother of the Year award.
During the ceremony, Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker praised the foster-care system, saying there are about 1,300 foster families in Utah serving 2,600 children. Eight of those kids ranging in age from 12 to 1 live in Larkin's home in Tooele.
Years ago, Larkin was a preschool teacher in the Granite School District, she said after the ceremony. She and her husband, Courtney, wanted children but, after discovering they were infertile, decided to become foster parents. They took the plunge in 2006.
"We thought it would be a great way to build our family," Larkin said. "And it worked. We have eight."
Though only eight remain, a total of 12 foster children have passed through the Larkin's home. The couple have permanently adopted three of those kids and are preparing to adopt five more who already live with them.
The rapid expansion of the family hasn't happened without sacrifices. In October, the Larkins finally moved out of their three-bedroom townhouse into a four-bedroom home in the same neighborhood. All of the boys share one large room. The family still doesn't have a car large enough for everyone. Larkin takes care of the kids full time, while Courtney supports the family with a warehouse job.
Still, Larkin said, her family has been blessed by becoming foster parents. Among other things, she has a good relationship with her children's biological families. And she has learned that people whose kids end up in foster care "aren't bad people, they're people who have had a hard time."
She added: "I also wouldn't have been a mother without being a foster mother."
During Friday's ceremony, Larkin received a plaque and tote bag. As soon as she stepped away from the podium her children swarmed around her legs, wanting to see inside the bag.
Utah Foster Care area representative Dan Webster said that the march and ceremony have been in the works since January. As he made the roughly 1.4-mile walk, he said he hoped passers-by saw what they were doing and took an interest in foster care. The organization always needs more foster families, Webster said, adding that in Salt Lake and Tooele counties there are 750 foster kids but only 340 foster families.
As Webster surveyed the turnout Friday he said he anticipates organizing future marches.
"So far this has been a success," he added.
Foster mother Natalie Brush spent much of the walk carrying her young son on her shoulders. As she walked with a group of other parents and children, the summer scent of sunscreen swirled in the wake of passing traffic.
Brush, who has two biological sons and a foster daughter and described her family as "at capacity," said the message of the march was that there is a great need for more foster families.
"Regular families can be foster families," she added.
James and Randi Gardiner also attended the march. The young couple are friends with Larkin and, when James finishes school next year, plan to become foster parents themselves. Just as the march began, James praised the event as a way to raise awareness.
"It lets people know there are kids who need families," he said.