Every year Keri Vellis hangs a small, gold wreath on her Christmas tree, and says a prayer for the child that started her journey as a foster mom.
In December 2007, Vellis’s husband Ted, a Sonoma County Sheriff’s deputy, came home from work shaken after a baby boy drowned in a bath tub while his mother did drugs in another room.
“He was just so broken from that call — I remember saying, ‘God, we have to do something,’” Vellis, 46, tells PEOPLE in this week's issue. “I just felt a huge pull on my heart wanting to help.”
At the time, Vellis had daughters who were 4 and 6 years old, and a newborn son. Five years later, when her youngest was in kindergarten, Vellis quit her job as a dental office manager, and became a licensed foster mom.
When siblings Katie, then 4, and Michael, then 2, arrived at Vellis’s Santa Rosa, California home in 2013, they couldn’t talk, hid under the table growling at Vellis and ate off the floor.
“They didn’t know how to be kids,” Vellis says, adding that the youngest screamed non-stop for the first two years.
She devoted her life to taking them to therapy appointments and making the children feel safe and loved. She adopted them both.
“We were their safe space,” she says. “They were home.”
Since then, Vellis has taken in more than 20 foster kids, and adopted a newborn girl she fostered.
“We had the space,” she says. “We had the love.”
Vellis searched for a children’s book to help explain to her foster kids that they can’t live with their parents right now, but everything is going to be okay. When she couldn’t find one, she Googled, "How do you write a book?”
She spent two years saving, and with the money she earned from foster care, she self-published her first book, Sometimes, in 2017.
To help make the book a reality, Vellis teamed with ilustrator Jin Lehr, who wishes she had a copy of the book during the six years she spent in foster care.
“That would have made me feel really safe, says Lehr, 27.
In January 2018, Vellis was honored on The Ellen DeGeneres Show in an episode highlighting One Million Acts of Good.
With the money she received, Vellis launched the nonprofit Keri’s Kids to help distribute her books, including her second title, When I Was Little… A Child’s Journey in Overcoming Abuse & Trauma.
“I want the kids to feel hopeful," she says. "And I want them to feel safe."
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Social Worker Shannen Fraley keeps copies of both of Vellis’s books in her car, to give to children and teachers.
“Kids automatically relate,” Fraley says. "[The books make] them feel that they’re not alone.”
Vellis travels up and down the California coast reading her books to school children, and hopes to distribute copies to all 450,000 children in the nation's foster care system.
“It’s more than just a bedtime story,” says mom Sarah Bradford, 38, who adopted the boy and the girl she fostered in Petaluma, California. “It opens up a lot of conversations that would be complicated and hard to explain to a child.”
A 9-year-old foster child arrived at Vellis’s home with a copy of Sometimes in her bag.
The girl kept it under her pillow, and read it every night.
“It’s her story,” Vellis says.