My daughter married a man who grew up with 63 brothers and sisters.
His parents, Elsie and Kevin Sullivan, had 3 children but were foster parents to 60 babies.
They made a career out of loving other people’s children. They were emergency foster parents for babies who were taken from parents because of abuse, neglect, or medical emergencies. I can’t even begin to imagine all the diapers and feedings and fevers they soothed. My son-in-law got a PhD in love in that house.
They were 13 to 17 years old, and they talked about the Good Life, back when they had dads and moms, brothers and sisters, bedrooms and backyards that never changed.
They talked about when they got the bad news. A parent died or got arrested and wasn’t coming back. They talked of how they reacted to the news. Some screamed. One threw up. Another couldn’t speak. One confided, “I still can’t believe it.”
They talked about the anger of leaving behind younger siblings and friends; about not being told a sister was adopted until a year later; about being watched constantly in foster homes; about cousins, aunts, uncles who never called or came for them.
They shared the bargaining they tried: If I get straight As, if I behave, if I’m quiet, maybe then I can go back home. Each one shared how they didn’t feel good enough for anyone to love them. The camp volunteer had each one light a candle to remind them they could still choose hope and that no one else could make that light go out. She wanted them to reach a place of acceptance that they might never return to the Good Life, but they could create a new one.
If only there were more people like Jean and Chuck Harrell, who offer children a new life. They’ve been married for nearly 60 years and have taken in 300 children. Loving other people’s children became their mission in life. They call it their ministry. It was her idea.
“We had to pray a lot,” she said.
They had three of their own children, then decided to become foster parents. Any resistance Chuck might have had, Jean prayed it away.
One day he said, “Okay, let’s do it,” and they’ve never stopped.
When I last spoke to them, he was 81, she was 78.
What a journey it has been.
They’ve had nine children living in their home in tiny Rootstown, Ohio, a town with two traffic lights. Their home became an oasis for children who had been abused and neglected. One time they took in an entire family at a moment’s notice. The family was driving through from another state when they were in a car accident. The parents ended up in the hospital; the children ended up at Jean and Chuck’s. The day the children were to leave, one of the boys went exploring at the park down the road. He discovered an outhouse, took a look inside, and fell in. He came back a stinking mess. Jean had to hurry to clean him up before his aunt arrived.
“We just laughed,” Jean said.
And sometimes they cried.
“They come in with problems. Some are medical, some are physical, some are behavioral,” Jean said.
All the children have touched them, but a little guy named Isaac left the deepest mark. One day the county children services called and asked them to take a baby. He had been shaken and his brain was badly damaged. Jean and Chuck went to the hospital to see the baby to decide whether they could care for him. They were told the baby probably wouldn’t live. They decided to take the baby anyway.
“The only instruction they gave us was who to call when the baby died,” Jean said.
They just poured love all over him, every moment they could.
“We prayed and prayed and worked as hard as we could with the baby,” she said.
Isaac had lost part of his vision. He couldn’t talk or sit. He had endless doctor appointments. They had to feed him through a tube, take him to physical therapy, give him medicine all day. His immune system was so weak, they gave up going to church so they wouldn’t expose him to harm.
“That baby was God’s special child and God didn’t mind us missing church,” she said. “We were doing what the Lord wanted us to do.”
“All he could do is lay on his back, but he had the most beautiful smile you ever saw,” Jean said. “He’d wave his arms and legs and coo. He was the happiest baby.”
He could still feel love. That’s what saved him. Their love.
They had him for almost three years. He left when another family adopted him.
“He was just pure joy,” Jean said.
And now he is someone else’s joy.
From the book God is Always Hiring by Regina Brett. Copyright © 2015 by Regina Brett. Reprinted by permission of Grand Central Publishing, New York, NY. All rights reserved.