MURRAY — Five siblings. One foster family. And decades later, as close as ever.
Monday, a Calloway County family celebrated 25 years of togetherness.
The siblings, comprised of sisters Nyra Whitley, Neka Whitley, Nosha Nichols and Natisha Lemmons, as well as brother Nathia Whitley, were taken in by their foster parents, Harvey and Karen Puckett, of Dexter, on March 1, 1996. Nyra, the youngest, was just 4 years old at the time.
Nosha said they entered the foster system because of a tough childhood with their biological parents. Nosha was just 9.
“In a nutshell, just severe neglect,” Nosha said. “We would move around a lot, sometimes hotels, motels, no real stability. Like I said, sometimes, we would attend school, sometimes, we wouldn’t. So we moved everywhere, from Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, until we wound up in Paducah, which is when they caught our case and the neglect there.”
Originally, the plan was to have the Pucketts foster the siblings on a short-term basis. But the five siblings ended up staying with them long-term, even though they were never officially adopted.
Nosha lived with the Pucketts for about 10 years until she got married, while Nyra lived with the family until she went to college. Neka still lives with the Pucketts.
“Our goal was to keep families together. From the start, that’s what we wanted to do. And there was — at the time, I didn’t know anybody else that would take all of them,” Karen Puckett said.
“When the kids are separated, they grow apart because I’ve seen so many like that. They maybe not get to see each other but once a month, if that. And that’s just not good for them.”
Neka added: “I don’t think I would have made it without my brother and sisters. I mean, they were a big help in my life.”
The Pucketts already had two biological children and two other foster kids at the time. So fostering five more kids wasn’t easy.
“I remember the very first van we had was huge. So if we ever did supper together, it was a convoy,” Nosha recalled.
But the Pucketts were always there for their foster children, from attending graduations to caring for their injuries.
“My obstacles with them kind of went away after one of our visits with our birth parents, and I broke my wrist on that visit. And mom (Karen) drove all the way out to Paducah from Dexter to be there with me,” Nosha recalled. “And that kind of was a changing point for me that she didn’t have to, but she did drive all the way out there to be with me.”
On Monday, four of the five siblings met with Karen at Sirloin Stockade in Murray to celebrate 25 years of being a family. They often get together on holidays and other special occasions as well.
“We try to get together every year for this day,” Nosha said. “But we get together all the time because they kind of become mom and dad.”
The Pucketts have fostered more than 120 children over 31 years. They’ve now transitioned to fostering adults with disabilities. Nyra said she appreciates being a part of the program.
“Without foster care, I wouldn’t be the person that I am,” Nyra said. “I would have never in a million years, have the opportunities that I’ve had.”
Kentucky’s Citizen Foster Care Review Board is seeking volunteers in 53 counties to review cases and ensure that foster children are put in safe, permanent homes.
To sign up, visit the organization’s Facebook page for instructions.
Nearly 9,300 Kentucky youths were in foster care as of December, according KVC Kentucky, a nonprofit specializing in child welfare and behavioral health.