A Wearside couple who have provided a safe haven for scores of vulnerable children in the city have been honoured with the MBE.
Emma and Tommy O’Connor, who have devoted almost five decades to youngsters in need, have been recognised in the Queen’s birthday honours list for their services to children and families.
Not only did the pair adopt two of the hundreds of children they fostered, they have also brought many more of the youngsters up until they were adults.
Among them was Sylvia, severely disabled and unable to do anything for herself, who was just three months old when she went to live with the O’Connors.
She had a life expectancy of just three years, but through their care and devotion she lived until she was 36, dying earlier this year.
Over the years the couple have had children of all ages, from new babies right through to adults, and despite both being 79, they still look after young people with special needs at their Silksworth home.
I would do it all again, exactly the sameEmma O’Connor
Emma said she was stunned when she got the letter saying the MBE was coming their way, after being nominated by her sister and the local GP.
She said: “When we got the letter is was such a surprise, I was shaking. Tommy thought it was just for me, but he has got it as well. I couldn’t have done it without him, we have always been a team.
“We are so thrilled about it. The only sad thing is that I wish Sylvia was still here to see it. Our lives revolved around her care and we loved her.”
The pair got into fostering when their only biological son was six-years-old and Emma saw an advert looking for foster carers.
She said: “Of course I fell in love with the first child and we adopted him and then the same thing happened with the second one. I said we can’t keep adopting them all, so we continued with fostering.
“It has been so rewarding, I would do it all again exactly the same. I love children, well you couldn’t do it if you didn’t, and Tommy has always loved having them here as well.
“The kids have all done well and made us proud. They always come back to see us and we are mam and dad to lots of them. There’s always someone at our door and we are thrilled to see them.
“We renewed our wedding vows last April and the vicar said he had never seen so many people in the church, loads of the foster children were there.”
Although she has no regrets Emma said it wasn’t always the easiest of jobs.
She said: “I have been hurt a few times, I had my head split open and once I was pushed down the stairs, but we never held any grudges. The children sometimes came to us and nasty and threatening, they took their anger out on us, but after a week or so they would realise we wanted to care for them and were fine after that.”
Emma said it has also been heartbreaking at times, when you know what some of the children have suffered or when they have to leave and don’t want to go.
She said: “It really pulls on your heartstrings.”
Coun Louise Farthing, Portfolio Holder for Children’s Services at Sunderland City Council, said: “I’m delighted to see Emma and Thomas recognised in The Queen’s Birthday Honours. They have devoted 47 years of their lives to providing a safe and loving home to more than 100 children and are truly deserving of this honour.
“Foster carers do an amazing job. They dedicate their lives to giving children a better future, and in Emma and Thomas’ case they also adopted some of the children they fostered as babies and still keep in touch with many of the children they cared for. They have made such a difference to so many lives.”