May is National Foster Care Month. It is a time to raise awareness of foster care issues and motivate people to help children in the state’s care.

At any given time, there are more than 400,000 children in foster care in the United States. Of those, at least 20,000 will age out of the system without finding a forever family. In this edition of CBS 19’s Children are a Gift, an east Texas couple is stepping up and making a difference.

Jessica and Billy Allen of Tyler are passionate about helping children. Before they even got married in 2004, they discussed how they could change a young life through foster care or adoption.

In 2008, they became licensed foster parents and say the impact on their lives and the children has been mutually rewarding.

“We both started working at the Azleway Boys Ranch [in Tyler] and the need was just right in front of our face and it was magnified,” said Jessica.

Billy added, “We quickly found out that you don’t have to have the answers. You don’t have to fix everything… and you will learn and grow.”

They learned even more about children first-hand in 2011 when they had a biological daughter named Moriah, now 6 years old. Just like her parents, she makes any child in their home feel welcome.

While leaning on their faith, the Allen’s have discovered unconditional love is the one quality all children need.

“There are things that have happened in the lives of these foster children, sometimes for years, prior to coming to your house. You have to lower your expectations of what we think we want their behavior to look like and let go of some things and just be in the moment,” explained Jessica.

Over the years, Jessica and Billy have had nine different children in their home, but one turned out to be extra special.

Billy remembers, “We got Jaidyn when she was 7 months old in December, 2013.”

“She had lots of health issues at the time that manifested from being a preemie and her immune system being so low. She had respiratory issues and had multiple hospital stays and ER trips,” recalls Jessica.

They did not know at the time if this baby would be reunited with her biological parents or need a permanent home.

“We always keep an open mind and heart and just be available for what’s best for the children whether that be reunification or adoption.”

After a year, the Allen’s had developed a relationship with Jaidyn’s birth father. They said he was doing a wonderful job meeting all the requirements for reunification with Jaidyn. However, in an unselfish act, he decided his little girl needed to stay with them.

“He saw how much she had grown and developed and was loved by our family and what a stable environment she had and how attached she was with us,” shared Jessica. “It’s a situation where we worked out legally that we are her forever parents, but he is also a part of her life and gets visits.”

Now 3 years old, Jaidyn is beginning to understand just how special she truly is.

Billy noted, “She was coming back from a visit [with her biological dad] and she said, ‘Daddy, I love you so much and I’m so excited!’ I asked her, ‘Why are you so excited?’ She quickly answered, ‘Because I’ve got two daddies; Daddy Ramey and Daddy Billy.”

These loving parents say they know there are risks and adjustments when you bring foster children into your family, but believe it is also a learning opportunity for Moriah.

Jessica stated, “We want her to grow up knowing that our home is open to others and that’s part of our family, kind of our mission.”

The Allen’s say the children who have stayed with them become like family, even after they leave and begin the next chapter of their lives.

“We stay in touch with most of the kids that we fostered. In fact, our daughter was a flower girl in one of their weddings,” acknowledged Jessica.

Almost a year ago, Jessica and Billy took in two brothers from Azleway. If they will end up staying forever remains to be seen but, just like all the others, they too come with a unique and endearing story.

“They are all so special and truly the bravest that we have ever met and they just leave an impression on your heart forever and you love them forever, even if it was just for a season.”

Just a few months ago, Azleway Boys Ranch named Jessica and Billy Allen “Foster Parents of the Year.” While humbly accepting the award, they say they hope their story encourages others to help foster children.

They realize not everyone is called to foster or adopt, but say everyone can do something whether that be through prayer, offering a meal to a foster family or helping out on the weekend through respite care.

To learn more about foster care or adoption call 903-533-4242 or email gsheridan@cbs19.tv.