Care Packager

October 2010
Photographs by: 
Paul Mehaffey

Tabby Shelton, executive director of Fostering Hope in
Conway, strives to pay it forward

It’s easy to notice shortcomings in our day-to-day lives, and we encounter them often. But when Conway resident Tabby Shelton sees a void, her first impulse is to fill it. Luckily for the foster children in the area, Shelton has fixed her sights—and her heart—on their world.

Shelton established the nonprofit agency Fostering Hope in 2004 as a means of ensuring that the foster children in Horry, Georgetown, Marion, Dillon, and Williamsburg counties—on average, 500 children per year—have personal items to call their own. The agency’s goal is to provide clothing, shoes, toys, hygiene items, and a duffle bag to every child entering the foster system. Children and their parents are invited to return quarterly to shop at the Fostering Hope “closet” for additional items at no cost, and the organization also sponsors extracurricular activities and special events.

It was when Shelton and her husband, Rob, first became adoptive parents that they recognized the level of need in the area foster system. As foster-to-adopt caregivers, the Sheltons welcomed four-year-old twins Shane and Stewart into their lives in 2002, and when the boys walked up to the front door that first day, Tabby was struck not by their appearance but by their possessions.

“Everything they owned was in garbage bags,” Shelton recalls. “We just said, ‘Wow, these are really castaway kids.’” Once she noticed the void, her vision began. “I wanted to make sure that foster kids have what they need to make a new start in life,” Shelton says. “They’ve already been through so much when they enter the system. We wanted to be able to give them something that’s theirs to keep.”

The Fostering Hope closet, located in Conway, opened in January 2005 and serves an average of 120 to 150 children a month, with the exception of August and December, when back-to-school shopping and Christmas gift-giving bring surges of patrons to the store. This past August, the shop saw more than 250 children. “There were some items we just couldn’t keep on the shelves,” Shelton explains. “The need was so great.”

The Fostering Hope project isn’t the first time Shelton has taken the initiative to forge a new path. She and Rob originally moved to Conway from West Palm Beach, Florida, in 1994, having visited the city only once. “We came to visit, and we just loved the area, so we decided to do something different,” Tabby says. Both Sheltons were impressed with the academic climate and collegiality at Coastal Carolina University, so they enrolled and each matriculated in only two and a half years. But Tabby made a permanent impression on the university. As a student, she served as editor of the Chanticleer newspaper and founded Tempo, CCU’s literary arts magazine; after graduating, she served as second vice-president on the alumni board and was named the 2001 Alumnus of the Year for Continuing Studies.

From CCU, Shelton landed a job working with grants and special projects for the city of Conway, and her contacts there led her down the path of adoption and the foster-care system. “When Hurricane Floyd hit in 1999, one of the individuals that was affected by the hurricane works for the Department of Social Services, and that’s how we really started talking seriously about adoption,” Shelton says. Her focus on community and fondness for new experiences provided the perfect breeding ground for the development of Fostering Hope.

Shelton’s positive energy and optimism permeate the atmosphere at the Fostering Hope closet; with bookshelves lining the walls, clothes hung neatly on racks, and children’s art brightening the rooms, it feels more like a trendy boutique than a charity store. While the shop’s merchandise derives solely through donations, Shelton emphasizes that she offers “only the best” to the children.

“I want the kids to be able to come in here, and anything on the shelf—it should look in very good condition,” Shelton states. “I didn’t want the children looking worn out; they should be able to get clothing so they can go anywhere and fit in perfectly—to school, to church, anywhere.”

This season, Shelton is gearing up for Fostering Hope’s twin holiday events: a Snowflake Carnival in early December to provide the children with a seasonal celebration, and the Angel of Hope program to ensure they receive special gifts on Christmas morning. As executive director of the agency, she spends her days soliciting donations, scheduling volunteers, giving talks to local civic groups, raising local awareness of the agency, and maintaining the building—and that’s when she’s not busy taking a phone call from an anxiety-ridden new foster parent or hearing the heartbreaking story of a child who’s just entering the system. When the going gets tough, she seasons her can-do attitude with equal parts of humility and humor. “I’ve learned that with a nonprofit, there is no job description,” Shelton notes with a laugh as she finds herself taking a phone call in one hand, while fixing a toilet with the other.

Outside the agency, Shelton finds other ways to fill life’s voids for those around her. She and Rob have adopted five-year-old Lorraine, who was originally in the foster system, and they serve as emergency-placement foster-care providers, which means their door is open all hours of the night to provide a temporary home for a child. “Kids of all types come through the house,” Shelton states. “One time we had four children at three in the morning.” On the side, Shelton is also active in the South Carolina Heart Gallery, a national project that focuses on photography as a means for finding permanent families for foster children.

Shelton’s work is without a doubt a whole-life focus. According to volunteer veteran Etta Stein, her combination of energy, enthusiasm, and optimism means, “She doesn’t see anything as being impossible.”