When asked what she was planning as a Mother's Day gift, 8-year-old Natallie giggled and explained that she had put together in school a "breakfast bag."
It would hold a muffin, a drawing, a poem she had written and a surprise that she refused to reveal, other than to say this:
"Linda will really like it."
Mother's Day is always a special occasion for Linda Hoins. Cards, letters and phone calls flood into her comfortable home south of Brooksville to remind her of the dozens of young people who have lived here over the past 21 years.
Some of the children stayed just a few days, others much longer. She learned to love them all. To kids who needed a friend, a confidant, a mentor, someone who could offer a hug or a sympathetic ear, Hoins was there.
Hoins says she's not sure why she took the path of becoming a foster mother other than maybe her deep need to look after those too young to look after themselves.
"For some reason, God has chosen me to be a mom, probably for the rest of my life," Hoins, 60, said. "I have a true passion for children and I want to see that they have hope and that it will be a part of them for the rest of their lives."
The five-bedroom house on 5 acres near Powell Road where Hoins lives with her husband, Patrick, and their three adopted children — Scott, 17, Colton, 15, and Bella, 10 — is the picture of stability. It's spacious and immaculately kept, with a menagerie of friendly pets.
And for the couple's current foster children, Natallie and Dru, who just turned 12, it's an atmosphere unlike anything they've experienced. Like most of the children Hoins has cared for, they were removed from their homes by the state Department and Children and Families.
"Whether they stay for months or years, I never want them to feel as though they've been slighted for anything while they're with us," Hoins said. "As long as they're here I want them to know that this is their home and that they're going to be cared for and loved."
Hoins and her husband, a supervisor at the Hernando Correctional Institution in Brooksville, said they decided to become foster parents shortly after moving from New York to Hernando County in 1992. At the time, Linda was a medical billing specialist for the Harbor Behavioral Center, a facility that served foster children with behavioral problems.
"It made me sad to hear some of their stories," she recalled. "Many of those kids had bounced around from family to family for a long time. So I just wanted to do something to help."
Although Hoins and her husband took classes in foster parenting, she admits that the learning curve was steep. Maybe the most difficult part was appreciating the lack of permanence in the role of foster parent.
"One of the toughest things is knowing that there are no guarantees at all, and that these kids have families of their own and they are eventually going to be reunited," Hoins said. "You learn that the best thing you can do is accept that, and hope that you can make some positive imprint on them while they are in your care."
She has shared these challenges with many other people in her position, and offered them support in her role as president of the Foster Parent Association of Hernando County.
The group, which includes 23 other foster families, raises money that helps fill the gap between the amount foster families receive from the state to care for foster children, and the amount it actually costs, she said. Hoins also said she and her husband speak with those who are interested in becoming foster parents.
"I'm known as being something of a fighter when it comes to kids' rights," Hoins said. "It's not fair to me that foster kids are often so looked down upon by school officials. The situation that they're in is not their fault, and they shouldn't be punished for it."
Last year, Kids Central, the nonprofit lead agency that coordinates state child protection services in Citrus, Hernando, Lake, Marion and Sumter counties, gave the couple the Caring Hearts Award for their longtime dedication as foster parents.
As she looks back over the years and the nearly 100 children she has temporarily raised over her two decades as a foster mom, Hoins can reminisce with pride over the many successes. But she also grieves for some who she knows are returning to a negative atmosphere.
"I think my husband has helped me get through a lot by convincing me that I just don't have the power to save the world," Hoins said. "But if I can save just a tiny bit of it, that's good enough for me."
Logan Neill can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1435.