FORT WALTON BEACH — There are a lot of numbers swirling around in Okaloosa County foster parent Tracey Steele’s head.

Ten-and-a-half: the years she has been a foster parent.

Thirty-eight: the children that have been through her home.

Three: the years her son Julian has been 100 percent hers.

“When they called me about Julian, there were two of them (Julian and his half-brother) and they told me they were both autistic and both non-verbal,” she said. “I told them I would not take autistic kids because I was scared, but they said, ‘Just come see them.’ When I got there Julian was just rolling on the floor having a ball, and I fell in love.”

Steele said she can't remember exactly what prompted her to become a foster parent, she just knew she wanted to work with at-risk youth, and fostering seemed like the best way. But nothing could prepare her, she said, for the emotional roller coaster that came along with fostering children who had been through extreme trauma at a young age.

“I ended up having very difficult toddlers and I was clueless since I had never been a parent,” she said. “I’ve had a couple cases that really got to me because of what the children had been through.”

In addition to taking in challenging cases, Steele chose to do it all as a single parent, and this too came with unexpected hurdles.

“I wanted kids and I’ve just done my life in a different order,” she said. “I’ve never thought twice about being a single parent, but it is a lot harder because you don’t have anyone else there to share the load so you never get a break, especially with a special needs child.”

Julian has come a long way from the 3-1/2-year-old Steele first met. He is now a soft-spoken 12-year-old who loves Legos and pizza, and he helps welcome other foster children into the home. A recent breakthrough for Steele was when Julian really embraced her as a mother.

"On Mother's Day, he asked if he could buy me flowers," she said. "He picked out some and asked me if I would buy them for him."

Despite the emotional ups and downs, Steele said she wouldn’t change a thing because fostering brought her Julian, and her fostering made a difference in 38 children’s lives.

“I love the feeling of making a breakthrough with these children,” she said. “And, there’s no better feeling than helping a family get back together.”

Along the way, there has been plenty of heartbreak, Steele said. Two children that she believed had found their forever home with her were placed elsewhere, and even Julian’s adoption process was a rocky journey.

“I had him (Julian) for two-and-a-half years and we were headed towards adoption when all of the sudden the judge sent him home (to his biological mother),” she said. “I was heartbroken, but I stayed in touch with the mom and saw Julian all the time. When the situation fell apart again, I immediately had Julian moved back in with me and in December of 2015, he became mine.”

After 5 1/2 years of waiting to adopt, Steele said, the moment that she holds closest to her heart is when Julian realized he would never again have to leave her side.

“Before the finalization (ceremony) I told him he would get a piece of paper that said I could never leave him,” she said. “The day of the adoption, the judge asked of he wanted to say anything, and he said, ‘Her never ever leave me.’ ”