‘There are so many children who need our help’

Mary Inwards, of rural Parkers Prairie, in front of a wall of photos of some of the foster children she has cared for over the years. Inwards was recently awarded the 2016 Outstanding Child Foster Care award by the Minnesota Social Service Association. She continues to be a foster parent, now in her 80s. Photo by Jan King

Mary Inwards, of rural Parkers Prairie, in front of a wall of photos of some of the foster children she has cared for over the years. Inwards was recently awarded the 2016 Outstanding Child Foster Care award by the Minnesota Social Service Association. She continues to be a foster parent, now in her 80s. Photo by Jan King

Not long ago a young woman in the U.S. military contacted Mary Inwards, of rural Parkers Prairie. She told Mary, who is now in her 80s, that when she has children she hopes that she can take them to the children’s club at church like Mary and her husband Gene did for her.

“She said she enjoyed doing that so much,” Mary said. “It was the nicest thing, that letter. We had that little girl for five years.”

Mary received the 2016 Outstanding Child Foster Care award from the Minnesota Social Service Association (MSSA) recently. Mary has been a licensed foster parent for 37 years. During that time Mary and Gene were foster parents to about 200 youngsters.

“I have had the opportunity to read Mary’s nomination, and she is absolutely amazing and is clearly someone that social workers know they can trust to provide the utmost in care when they are placing a child in her home,” Christina Zeise, executive director for MSSA, said. “Many of our members work with children in the foster care system, and it is of upmost importance that these children have high quality, caring, compassionate and understanding foster providers in order to reduce the amount of trauma they endure. Often this is not an easy feat, many of these children have behavioral and/or emotional issues, some have medical issues which result in additional caretaking. Many social workers run into instances in which they are unable to find an adequate foster care provider, so having someone like Mary. Inwards that they can rely on is important and very, very valuable.”

Mary and Gene started taking in children informally even before they became licensed foster care parents.

“There were two families from the Twin Cities who had their teenagers stay here for the summer,” Mary said. “Those kids thought our two boys were so lucky because they were growing up on a farm. There was a lot of space to run and climb trees and make noise and no neighbors next door to complain. In those days we had animals, and the kids just loved helping with the chores. ”

Mary and Gene really enjoyed having “the city children” around during the summer. They enjoyed the lively and enthusiastic sound of them, they enjoyed seeing them in their big spacious farm yard, and Mary enjoyed cooking for a crowd.

“We ate together as a family,” Mary said. “Those kids were good eaters.”

Those kids eventually grew up, but before they did word got out that the Inwards family enjoyed taking in children.

“Ottertail County asked us if we would do respite care,” Mary said. “Respite care is short-term care  where a foster parent takes a child when another foster parent  needs a break, for example.”

Soon Mary and Gene were taking children for longer stays. They found that many of the things that worked for their own boys and for “the city kids” worked for foster children. Using the old-fashioned parenting techniques that they learned from their parents they spread a wide net of loving support for youngsters who had previously experienced very little of that sort of thing.

They held the children when they needed it and gave them space and privacy when they needed that. They read them bedtime stories, played board games with them, fed them nutritious food at the family table, and they created limits and boundaries that are necessary for all youngsters. Sometimes children responded, and sometimes children were too wounded to respond. Mary remembers a teenage boy who wasn’t responding.

“He was staying here with his sisters one summer,” Mary recalled. “The girls were doing great, but he just wasn’t interested in anything.”

The county told the Inwards they needed a second exit from the basement where some of the children had private bedrooms. Gene decided to build an egress window. That meant a hole had to be dug.

“He asked that boy too help with digging the hole,” Mary recalled. “That hole brought that boy to life. He had something worthwhile to contribute. That meant he was worthwhile.”

Foster parents aren’t on their own when it comes to helping injured youngsters heal. They are part of a team of caring social workers, therapists, and medical professionals. There is often also a support network of other foster parents.

“We’ve been fortunate to meet many people who are doing really great foster care,” Mary said. “We used to do pot luck dinners with other foster parents in the area. The food was really good, and the kids learned they weren’t the only children in foster care. The foster parents were able to talk to each other about similar problems. It took a lot of pressure off of us.”

The pressure can be substantial. So can the rewards. Mary recalled a time when Gene was hospitalized with pneumonia. Mary’s hands were full so it was hard to get to the hospital to be with her sick husband.

“One of our former foster children was living in Fergus Falls with a family of her own,” Mary recalled. “She heard about Gene’s illness and dropped everything and came to sit with him.”

When Gene developed Alzheimer’s there was some concern the Inwards would not be able to continue foster parenting.

“Some people with Alzheimers develop a mean personality, but Gene kept his sweet personality,” Mary recalled. “He was good and gentle with them, and they enjoyed being around him. My husband was a pretty cool guy.”

Gene eventually went to hospice. Even then he was a foster-dad passing on the lessons of life.

“They called me to come and be with him at the nursing home,” Mary said. “Some of the family members couldn’t come, but a boy who was staying with us asked if he could come and sit with us.”

Mary continued foster parenting after Gene died in 2009. That led to Mary receiving the Outstanding Child Foster Care award seven years later.

“I felt excited and honored to receive it,” she said. “But I don’t do it for awards.”

She doesn’t do it for the money  either because there’s not much financial reward in it. She does it because, like the boy digging the hole, she is doing something worthwhile. She likes that, and she encourages other senior citizens to do foster parenting as well.

“Did you know that a lot of foster parents are seniors?” she said. “This is a great opportunity for older people who don’t have a full-time job or a mortgage to pay off. We older people have all this experience, and there are so many children that need our help.”

Since the state of Minnesota is careful about who cares for foster children there are a number of requirements to pass before you can become a licensed foster care parent. However, the best way to learn more about foster parenting is to call your county Social Services office. In Ottertail County you can call Deb Sjostrom at 218-998-8640. In Douglas County call Laura Bonds at 320-762-2302 or email her at laurieb@co.douglas.mn.us. In Pope County you can contact Nicole Names at 320-634-7755 or by email at nicole.names@co.pope.mn.us. In Stearns County call Brenda Mahoney at 800-450-3663, and in Todd County call Jacqueline Och at 320-732-4500 or email her at Jacqueline.Och@co.todd.mn.us.