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Foster families climb aboard the Polar Express

Railroad donates a car each year for La Plata County families who participate in program
The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad donated a car to the La Plata County Department of Human Services for foster families to ride the Polar Express. From left, Phelia Smith, Preston Smith, Lilly, 14, Hannah, Tyler, 4, Blake, Sabrina Delaney, Alfred Romero, Haylee Spurgeon, 17, and Brian Spurgeon, 15, get ready to board the Polar Express on Thursday at the Railroad Depot. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

The puff of steam billowing from the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad only added to the excitement Thursday night as orchestral Christmas music blanketed the platform.

Among the several hundred people gathered for the opening preview of the D&SNG’s Polar Express ride were several of La Plata County’s foster families, all huddled together to stay warm.

Hannah and Blake, who asked that their last names not be used, were there with their three children – one biological (Tyler, 4), one adopted (Lilly, 14), and one in the foster system. Two of Lilly’s siblings, Brian Spurgeon, 15, and Haylee Spurgeon, 17, were also in attendance. Their adoptive mother, Joy Larson, could not attend, although their biological grandmother, Sabrina Delaney and her partner Alfred Romero, did. Hannah’s parents, Phelia and Preston Smith, were there as well.

While everyone there has endured the hardship of the foster system in some way or another, the gaggle of kids huddled around their grandparents, parents and each other appeared anything but downtrodden.

“It’s truly just become one big family,” Preston Smith said of the network of people spread across the platform. “I don’t see differences in blood and non-blood. It’s just family.”

The La Plata County Department of Human Services arranges for the railroad to donate a rail car on the Polar Express each year for families involved with the foster system.

“Just having that chance to do something as a family that’s something fun and can be department related (can change the kids’ opinion) so they aren’t like, ‘The department just sucks,’” Hannah said. “Because for them, Human Services is the bad guys. For them to be like, ‘Oh they gave us free tickets to do something together,’ that’s super exciting for (the kids).”

For its part, the county is happy to facilitate events that allow families, as extensive as they may be, to spend time together.

“I have so much respect for what they do,” said Charmaine Summers, the supervisor of foster care, adoptions and guardianships. “I know that child welfare work is so incredibly hard. And so if we can give back some happy moments and some time where we give positive reinforcement for our families to enjoy, we’re building on positive experiences together.”

Haylee Spurgeon said it was her second year riding the Polar Express through the department.

“It’s fun, it makes memories, we have a great time,” she said as the conductor’s call to board the train rang across the crowd. “We all make the same type of memories and it’s more bonding because we get to spend more one-on-one time with each other.”

She said little events such as this one have changed her opinion of the Human Services department.

“They definitely give us opportunity to do stuff – we would never be able to do this if it wasn’t for them,” Haylee said. “It gives us better experiences.”

Her brother Brian said he’d never been on the train with his entire family before.

“It’s just always a good time with the family, you know? Laughing, eating food ... game days; we go to the park sometimes,” he said. “It’s like an extra sibling visit.”

Delaney, the biological grandmother to Haylee, Brian and Lilly, echoed everything her grand kids had said.

“It feels like a bonus,” Delaney said. “Nobody’s ever been this kind to us before; they went out of their way to make us feel like we can spend time together as a family. Outside of visitation and everything, we actually get to spend time together.”

Preston Smith is also a grandparent to his daughter’s foster children and said it has been a journey to navigate a relationship with the kids’ biological grandmother.

“In the beginning, it was very rough,” he said. “I think she felt like we were wanting to take away her grandchildren and step in her place. I think now there’s a very loving relationship where I’ve been able to thank her for the support she’s giving my daughter and Blake.”

Everyone aboard the foster family car on the Polar Express on Thursday night said the event was one to look forward to.

“Being able to take so many kids, it’s very expensive,” Hannah said. “For our kids, its something they never would’ve gotten to do.”

rschafir@durangoherald.com

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