Mark Gordon thought his misspent youth and the fact he was single would rule him out of fostering but, he tells Stephanie Bell, he couldn’t have been more wrong — and he’s delighted to be helping young people
When Bangor man Mark Gordon applied to be a foster parent he was convinced that because of his troubled youth he didn't stand a chance.
With a background of drug addiction and years spent in and out of prison and psychiatric units and also now as a single man, he was sure his application to Action for Children would be binned.
"I actually laughed to myself as I filled it out thinking on paper it looked like I wasn't fit to do it," he says.
Yet today, at 54 years old, Mark is one of Northern Ireland's top foster parents and Action for Children hopes his story goes some way towards helping to shatter the myths about who can foster.
The charity's services manager Avery Bowser says: "I spend a lot of my time trying to bust the myths about who can foster.
"People ask 'Can you foster if you are gay?' and 'What about single people?' or they say 'But I don't own my own home' and 'We probably won't be able to foster as we are in a same-sex relationship'.
"For a long time there has been a picture of the ideal foster carer - white, middle class, married, home-owning and heterosexual. The reality couldn't be further from this stereotype, but it is really frustrating that this myth is still so pervasive."
Mark's story does indeed shatter that myth. Today he is a pastor in Bangor and has devoted most of his adult life to helping young people battle drug addiction.
People who worked with him over the years urged him to become a foster parent but for a long time he believed that because of his troubled youth and criminal record he wouldn't qualify.
Mark was a punk rocker in his teens. He became addicted to drugs and got involved in theft and other criminal activity, spending time in and out of jail.
In a dramatic conversion when he was 21, he literally saw the light and became a Christian, turning his back on his life of drugs and crime.
He says: "From I was about 15 I hung around with a gang in Bangor called the Barmey Army and did what punks did, which was take drugs, drinking and sniffing glue.
"I was in Borstal for arson in my teens after setting fire to a garage and I also put a hoax bomb outside a policeman's house, not as a terrorist act but it was about going against authority.
"I was one of the last five boys in Borstal before they closed them all and I was transferred to the Young Offenders Centre in Hydebank.
"I was also in and out of Crumlin Road jail for theft offences connected to drug-taking in my late teens. The drugs at that time were LSD and grass. We couldn't afford cocaine - that was for people who worked.
"I was a real punk rocker with the Mohican; I had bright orange spikes and leopard print hair. I had about 38 different colours in my hair over the years. I was also in a local psychiatric unit twice because of drugs."
He was 21 when he had an experience which completely transformed his life.
He recalls it in vivid detail: "It was July 4, 1984, and I had gone with a friend to sniff glue in among trees where Bloomfield Shopping centre is now.
"There was a den in the middle of the trees which the kids had made with a sheet of plastic attached to the trees as a roof.
"My friend left me on my own and as I started to get high and trip my body went into real pain and it was so intense I just knew I was going to die.
"Just as I was going unconscious something caught my eye and where the plastic sheeting was on the left side of me there was what I can only describe as this glorious white light and I saw the profile of a face and heard a voice saying 'hush, hush'.
"I reached out to what I thought was Jesus and asked that He have mercy on me. I must have passed out because I woke about four hours later and I felt as if there was a hand on the back of my head that brought my head up.
"I could clearly see the face of Jesus as if it had been painted on the inside of my eyes and his eyes were closed but when he opened them, in that moment such a weight dropped off my shoulders.
"I knew instantly that my life had changed, and from that day I knew I would follow Jesus and I have been a Christian ever since."
Mark worked as community development manager in Kilcooley in Bangor for 18 years until 2015.
As a volunteer in his spare time over the past 30 years he has travelled widely to help young men with drug addiction.
He brought many young men into his home and gave them shelter and support while they went through cold turkey withdrawal from drug addiction.
He is also a pastor with Shiloh Christian Fellowship church in Bangor.
While working in Kilcooley those who knew him urged him to consider fostering but while he was comfortable helping adults he wasn't sure if he could offer support to children - or that he would get through the rigorous application process.
He says: "I had always worked with young people aged 18 and above and through my work I had trained in child protection issues and I wasn't sure I wanted to go down that road of being a single man taking children into my home.
"I prayed about it and then one day an ad came up on Facebook from Action for Children asking for foster parents.
"I thought I would fill in the form and that would be an end to it. I even laughed as I filled it in and put down the details of my criminal record and my drug addiction, not believing for one minute I would be approved, and, to my surprise, I got an interview."
Mark went through the application process, which he found intense and intrusive.
After some training days designed to give him an insight into what he could expect as a foster parent he went through the assessment and then another interview in front of a 12 person panel.
He says: "Half an hour after I was approved I had the first young lad come to me, who was 14 years old.
"Since then I have had 10 young people, four short-term for between one and three weeks, and six who were with me for up to two years."
Many of the young people he has fostered had problems with drug and alcohol abuse. He says: "I have been able to help some kids with drug problems. One guy I fostered ended up in prison and he wrote me a letter to say that he was only alive because of me.
"I absolutely love fostering. Each of these guys comes to my home with their own personalities and issues; it is about building trust and establishing a relationship and because I have been there and done that I understand what a lot of them are going through.
"For me it is about making them feel loved and cared for and appreciated and helping them to see the value in themselves."
Action for Children still urgently needs foster parents. Avery Bowser says: "At Action for Children we celebrate diversity in our carers and our staff, because we know that our children are all so different.
"Outside the care system there are lots of different families, as varied as the children in them, so why should our foster carers and their homes be any different?
"When I'm considering a potential foster carer their gender, marital status, sexuality, race, ethnicity, religion and community background are all important parts of what that person can bring to fostering and, most importantly, to the child who will be part of their home. "
He adds: "For me the most important bit of fostering is getting the right match between child and carer because that's when the magic can happen - lives of children and foster carers transformed.
We need carers who can do all kinds of things - provide a home on a short or long-term basis; provide part-time care to support our other foster carers; look after children with disabilities; even provide parent and child placements.
"We know that being a foster carer is complex so we pay a fee to reflect this. We also provide allowances to cover care and leisure costs. We provide training and 24-hour support.
"So please look beyond the myths and think about becoming a foster carer or encourage someone you know to step forward."
Mark also urged people to consider fostering.
He said: "I get great satisfaction from knowing that I can make even the slightest little difference in a child's life.
"What was important for me is that Action for Children are there to support you 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
"You are not on your own and for me I wouldn't be as confident as a foster carer if I didn't have that support. I would say to people, don't rule yourself out, at the very least get in touch and see if you are suitable."
If you are interested in becoming a foster carer or would like to find out more, you can contact Action for Children's fostering team, tel: 028 9046 0500 or email fostercareni@action forchildren.org.uk